Crowdfunding Your Research: The Process

Securing funding is one of the main responsibilities of being a scientist. Grant funding is competitive and has been made all the more so as budgets stagnate but the number of applicants rises. Some scientists have turned towards crowdfunding to help fund their work. And why not, if some guy can raise $55k to make potato salad for himself, why shouldn’t we utilize crowdfunding for the generation of new knowledge!

There are many websites that host crowdfunding projects, some specific for researchers; a few options include: Kickstarter, Experiment, Indigogo, Petridish, RocketHub, and Consano. I interviewed two colleagues, Karen DeMatteo and Keala Cummings, who both successfully obtained crowdfunding for their research. Below I summarize their experience with the process.

The first thing to know is that while each woman was successful with her campaign DeMatteo and Cummings had vastly different crowdfunding experiences. For starters they used different platforms with DeMatteo using Kickstarter and Cummings using Experiment. Another difference was why each researcher turned to crowdfunding. DeMatteo describes crowdfunding as, “a last ditch effort” to fund her research. Specifically, the annual grant cycle had ended and she still needed money to process samples; without the crowdfunding campaign she would have to wait another year to reapply for grants, clearly delaying research progress. Cummings tried crowdfunding more as an experiment within itself.

Getting Started
It should come as no surprise that the place to start a crowdfunding campaign of your own is with research! As business journals are interested in the topic, a quick internet search can put strategies and success rates at your fingertips. Additionally, interesting research papers about crowdfunding are beginning to be published (see here for great stats [open], results of the SciFund experiment [open and a must read], and a research specific perspective [sub]).

The first big decision is deciding on a platform. While Kickstarter has a strong presence in the US, other platforms have more international traffic, which may be a consideration depending on where your project will take place. A second platform consideration is if they have a Science section or not. DeMatteo struggled finding a way to categorize her field conservation project within Kickstarter’s categories and ultimately ended up in non-fiction since she would publish the research in peer reviewed journals. Whereas Cummings was excited to use Experiment because of the science focus and an understanding that donors know their donation contributes to scientific progress. Third, you will want to decide if you will give incentives or not. Some platforms require incentives while others make them optional. However, the decision on incentives will lead to more decisions including what incentives to give at what funding levels, how to produce your incentives (ie- more work for you), and how to budget for the incentives. Finally, you will want to choose between flex-funding and fixed-funding. In fixed-funding, you must reach your total goal to receive the money from your backers; while in flex-funding, you receive the donations even if you do not meet your goal. Some sites are fixed-funding only. Experiment argues if you really need the amount you say you do to do your research, then only raising a portion of those funds is insufficient to do high quality research so they only support fixed-funding.

Similarly to a grant, the next step is to define your budget. Not only do you need to understand how much you need for your science, but also how much money should be budgeted for incentives, postage to mail incentives, and platform fees (3-9% of funds raised).

Each platform has its own application process. Similarly to a grant, you must make an argument why this project has the potential to result in a successful campaign. You will put together text that will appear on the campaign site if the application is granted and submit a compelling video of your project. Experiment also has a phone interview with the researcher to ensure the integrity of the process. If your application is accepted the platform’s staff are available to answer questions about setting up the site. Some platforms give additional support to identify potential donor groups to help you target your social media campaigns.

You may expect to spend one or more weeks in the application process. Cummings said that making and editing the video was the longest part of the application process (~1 week), then she spent an afternoon setting up her website.

The Campaign
The next step is another round of research! Both scientists noted that they needed to do donor identification research before officially launching their campaigns. The creative identification of potential donors may be critical to success. Following identification of interest groups, contact them to let them know of your impending campaign. DeMatteo and her scat sniffing dog Train did demonstrations for local dog training groups. Cummings reached out to bonsai enthusiasts via social media. Both women also joined social media platforms to connect with wider audiences. They noted that Facebook and Twitter were great for getting pictures and/or video of their science to potential backers.

Finally, you’re ready to launch your campaign! After launching it’s time to let your network of friends, family, and contacts made in the pre-campaign know that your crowdfunding campaign is ready to accept donations. This can be a challenging part of the process depending on your personality and comfort level with asking people for money. Both Cummings and DeMatteo had a typical experience with the distribution of funds over time where big bursts came at the beginning and end of their campaigns.

To keep the excitement high, avoid long campaigns; DeMatteo campaigned 45 days and Cummings 32 days. Another reason to avoid long campaigns is because you have to actively manage the campaign through the duration. This includes updating the campaign site, posting updates to your social network, sending email blasts to direct friends/family/colleagues to the campaign site, following up with people who have promised to donate to see if they have actually donated, interviews with bloggers who can promote your campaign, and doing live personal appearances with potential donors.

Success Rates
Most platforms do not publish their success rates; however, Kickstarter says they have a success rate of 45%.  Entrepreneur estimates that the average successful campaign (general not science specific) raises about $7,000 where the average donation is $75. Cummings and DeMatteo saw similar results in their campaigns where Cummings raised $3,100 and DeMatteo $11,800. Cummings had 32 donors with an average donation of $99 and DeMatteo had 96 donors with an average donation of $126. DeMatteo said she knew 69% of her donors and there was a mix between family, friends, and colleagues; Cummings knew 53% of her donors. If you expect low support from your own network, you may need to plan to do additional outreach to interest groups.

Update– I’ve learned that Experiment uses their blog to give updates on success rate (41%) and average amount raised ($4300).

Post-Campaign Responsibilities
You will have obligations to fulfill after the completion of a successful campaign. If you agreed to provide incentives to your donors, you will have to produce and mail those incentives. But furthermore, you will either need to voluntarily or be required to post project updates. Experiment requires an online lab notebook with progress updates until publication of the research. These updates help maintain relationships with your donors as well as function as science outreach since your campaign page and/or social media pages remain active after the campaign ends. Given the time research takes to get published, this may be a long term commitment on your part.

See this piece regarding Pros and Cons of Crowdfunding


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