Playing to the Crowd

“Crowd funding” is one of the new buzz words to emerge from the creative chaos of Web 2.0. So new in fact, that Webster’s dictionary does not yet have a definition for the term. With websites such as Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and GoFundMe moving to fill this niche, and Asheville residents and nonprofits trying out these platforms, it is important to understand what exactly crowd funding entails.

As a social technology, crowd funding is nothing new. In fact, it’s probably as old as money itself. In the church pew it’s called “taking up offering”, in other places it’s known as “passing the hat”. Crowd funding basically draws upon community and social networks to help finance efforts that otherwise would not have been accomplished without these pooled resources.

But like most things, the internet has completely changed the game. Crowd funding takes a traditional method of fundraising and supercharges it through the internet. It utilizes web based platforms that include a video message and links to social media tools like Facebook and Twitter along with rewards for contributing. In this way it expands the reach of a donation ask as far as the project’s sponsors are able to push it. This method allows fundraising campaigns to go viral and gather resources from anyone on the web that resonates with the pitch.   

The recent Venture Local conference featured a keynote presentation by Erin Erenberg, the head of business development for the crowd funding site IndieGoGo.com. Her talk highlighted how in the midst of the recent credit crunch entrepreneurs have turned to this mechanism as a creative way of generating start-up capital. These platforms are also a way to test market a new product by offering pre-sales to gauge potential consumer demand. As Erenberg mentioned, “the platform is a unique way to curry serendipity for a project”. 

IndieGoGo is one of the three major platforms mentioned above. Each has its own unique merits for generating support for a person, project, or product. GoFundMe is the most basic and accessible. It serves mainly as a way for individuals to solicit personal donations for things like a medical procedure. It does not contain a video component or reward offers. Kickstarter is probably the most widely known of the three and the most exclusive. Kickstarter curates their site and only allows projects that meet strict standards to be featured. One major standard is that a campaign has to produce a tangible outcome, like an album, play, or a comic book, for instance. As such, they do not host open ended efforts like nonprofit initiatives or entrepreneurial start-ups.

Of the three, IndieGoGo’s platform seems to offer the greatest balance between credibility and flexibility. They have standards, but do not curate, and their site features personal appeals alongside projects. More specifically, they support small business start-ups and have a fiscal sponsorship arrangement allowing 501c3 nonprofits to host campaigns while donors receive tax write-offs for contributing. As such, this site was the recent choice for three very uniquely Asheville project’s efforts to raise funds. Namely the Bob Moog Foundation, HandMade in America, and the Asheville Fountain Project. 

Dr. Robert Moog was the inventor of the synthesizer, the musical instrument that bridged the analog and digital divide. The Bob Moog Foundation was formed after his passing as way to honor this legacy and ignite the innovator in us all through exposure to interactive educational experiences drawing from his groundbreaking work at the intersection of music, science, and innovation. Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool is their hallmark educational outreach program that has been offered in Asheville city schools, providing an exciting full curriculum that teaches the physics of sound through the magic of music.

It is no wonder then that a cutting edge 21 Century nonprofit like BMF saw potential in a site that moves traditional analog fundraising into the digital age. In the words of their Executive Director, Michelle Moog-Koussa “Our IndieGoGo campaign allows us to reach beyond our donor base and extend to a new worldwide community of contributors interested not only in our innovative educational project, but also in the phenomenal perks offered as part of our unique campaign.” These generous perks include the chance to win a Moog Voyager synthesizer signed by several of the famous artist who participated at the recent Moogfest, including Moby, Brian Eno, and Wayne Coyne. There is also an opportunity to win an elite package to next year’s Moogfest featuring a three night stay at the Grove Park Inn and a pair of VIP passes to the festival. Michelle goes on to say that, “Dr. Bob's SoundSchool needs the support of the Asheville community and the international community if we are to expand its reach to future generations.”

Another Asheville nonprofit organization hoping to spread word of its important work to a larger audience is HandMade in America. Their mission is to grow handmade economies through craft, cultural heritage, and community assets with the purpose of stimulating economic growth. HandMade offers career development opportunities for individual artists that tackle practical topics like “how to market yourself as an artist”.  They are engaged in what is known as “Creative Placemaking” which as their Executive Director Gwynne Rukenbrod explains “is how arts, culture, and the creative sector make a community a great place to live work and play”. This is certainly true of our community here in Asheville. This spirit was on display at the recent Big Crafty holiday show where HandMade handed out literature about their IndieGoGo campaign. The perks for helping support this integral community organization include some incredible handmade craft items from a who’s who list of local artisans. 

The Asheville Fountain Project is an idea born of Justin Blowers, recently named 2011WNC artisan craftsman of the year. It is to be a large scale work of public art donated and installed in our community. The project features a unique perk that will stand the test of time: Contributing citizens will have the opportunity to have their names engraved in stone upon the monument.

On why he went the route of crowd funding, Blowers had this to say, “I chose crowd funding on Indiegogo for efficiency, and because of the sound free market principle: The people who really want to see it will help make it. It will be wonderful if we can accomplish this goal without putting any extra burden on the average tax payer or the city.” A noble goal funded in a high tech meets grassroots manner fitting for Asheville.

Crowd funding is an exciting new tool for causes and organizations to harness the internet and web 2.0 to support their efforts. Asheville is a community of early adopters.  It is a testament to our prevalence of cutting edge innovators that we have several diverse projects currently up on crowd funding sites like IndieGoGo. With the holidays here, the rewards offered by these campaigns would make truly one-of-a-kind gifts helping to support the amazing work being done in Asheville.

— Jonathan Robert ETC…

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