‘Common Cause’ and Crowdfunding Art
posted on February 16th, 2015

I just learnt about some cutting-edge new research data from the charity industry that I think is highly translatable to arts crowdfunding (and activism too). I think it’s worth sharing, despite (or because of) my skepticism about crowdfunding platforms.

The other day I went to a Skype round-table at local sustainability branding and comms agency NEO, hosted by my friend Charlie Peverett. The interview was with Tom Crompton, pioneering writer on “values and change” in the charity business. Working inside WWF for the past five years (though not for much longer), Tom has been one of the main drivers behind Common Cause ideas. We watched his TEDx talk, then got Tom on the line to discuss his recent data work on fundraising appeals, published as No Cause Is An Island.

This report is a big eye-opener with (I think) implications far beyond charity appeals.

I want to summarise the results, transposing them from charity fundraising to arts crowdfunding. I think that’s fair, given the close similarities between the two. But to be clear: the conclusions themselves aren’t my opinions; they’re drawn from this academically rigorous research data in Tom’s report and his own summary during the Skype chat:

(1) If you fundraise based on giving people rewards for supporting you (“Donate to my album and I’ll send you a free MP3 and bake you a cake” or “Support this touring theatre show because it will benefit the economy in your area”) you make your donors less likely to donate, in the long-term. Not just to your project – but to projects generally. That’s regardless of whether your project’s specific targets are met or not.

(2) But if you fundraise based on the intrinsic social value of your project (“Donate to my new album and you’re supporting the composition of beautiful music”, or “Support this touring theatre project so people all over the place can see this important play”) your donors become more likely to donate more, in the long-term. AND they become more likely to support other projects in the future.

Now almost all arts fundraising (as modern charity appeals) combine both of these approaches. We appeal on the basis of “support the arts” social value AND at the same time offer a t-shirt. So here’s where the data gets very inconvenient:

(3) If you mix options (1) and (2) you get as poor results as if you only used option (1). In order to score the benefits of option (2) you have to use it alone.

Wow. So, the moment I start promising rewards, it’s proven by data that I start squishing the value of asking for support in the first place. Or put upside down; if we all had the nerve to just ask for donations because we’re worth it and our art is beautiful, the world would donate more, forever. Made me think of Roger McGough’s poem about everyone making love on the bus because the world is about to end – so it never does.

(4) By the way, that’s not on a project-by-project (or even really an artist-by-artist) basis, it’s all of us, all the time! We ALL need to roll back on offering reward and roll forward the notions of the intrinsic good we do with our art making and the result would be an exponential explosion of giving.

It’s apparently proving very tough to translate these results into action within the charity sector. To an overwhelming degree fundraising is now powered by a conventional (and highly structured) set of corporate-styled marketing models, which require (and can deliver) immediate, fast, very targeted results. The very idea of rolling back a load of tools that are deemed immediately effective, for some nebulous long-term goal (even when it’s backed up by such convincing, important data) is simply too much for most organisations locked into established tropes.

I loved this research. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll know I’m already a music crowdfunding skeptic and particularly ambivalent about the third-party platforms “helping” artists raise money from their friends and fans for a percentage. But throughout this roundtable, this shift of focus from extrinsic reward to intrinsic worth, from fiscal gain to human value contribution, kept chiming with me. Weird analogy warning. It’s like how evil is big, bangy and loud, where goodness is quiet and unostentatious and continuing.

Anyway, optimistically, I wonder if such a shift isn’t already happening organically within at least the music industry crowdfunding world: what started as every artist offering as many gimmicky rewards as possible on Pledge and Kickstarter (that I reacted strongly against) has moved osmotically towards a more stable “pre-order and support my work” model.

Which also highlights how subtle a thing it is: it’s not just in what you offer, it’s in the language you use to offer stuff. The implication of the report is that the ‘rewards’ should be low key and mentioned as a bi-product, while the intrinsic worth of the donation is the core ‘sell’.

Don’t ask people to give you cash because they’ll get stuff. Ask people to give you cash because it’s the right thing to do. And again. And again.

The way Crompton portrayed this potential shift was almost as if we could move towards a tipping point of critical mass: if enough of us approached our fundraising in this way, then more and more people would become willing to donate more and more, until a fixed point where suddenly we all live happily ever after. If only.


  1. Dean
    3:12 pm on 2/16/15

    It’s potentially more sustainable too, I do like the Patreon model, or what Richard Herring is doing – the whole “give me a quid a month and I’ll give you whatever I put out” approach. Some of it might be exclusive to donors, some might not, but it’s rarely that well defined.

    The flip side of course, is that you’re more conscious of a cap – I can afford to support so many creators that way but after a while they build up to the point I have to think about dropping some. On the other hand, finding £15 to back a new album every now is easier…

    Also in the fields I’m most active in on Kickstarter (video games and board games), the reward culture is so very, very entrenched that not doing it will either kill your campaign, or end up leaving money on the table – the recent Conan board game campaign bought in $3.3 million with an average backer pledge of $207 (lowest reward level for just the game itself was $90). It’d be interesting to see how the effects scale – the study talks of the chance of making a future donation… I wonder if rewards increase the chance of that future donation being higher, despite the number being lower.

    Interesting stuff regardless.

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