With the right encouragement and reminders to supporters, alternative media outlets such as The Real News Network, SpinWatch, TruthOut, WikiLeaks and others continue to fund their operations via direct donations from supporters, avoiding any commercial ties or editorial restriction. For one-off projects – or even ongoing concerns – which activists might like to run, however, schemes inspired by KickStarter have sprung up to cover every fund-raising agenda imaginable – and there are many success stories. This is a viable means of funding journalism or blogging beyond static commentary on the mass of data and anecdote churned out by corporate and government PR agencies at a rate that even the NSA must struggle to keep up with. A great deal of commentary is the result of polling and output from ‘think-tanks’ with the budget to conduct these things frequently and to a specific agenda. Sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander though – you just need the funding.
StartSomeGood is one of these crowd-funding alternatives, discovered with a simple Google search. The shoe fit, so I opened an account…
Here I will discuss the process of starting and running the fund, in case it may be of value to others who could also view this funding route as both viable and readily available for their own independent journalism and activism. It’s the first time I have ever set up and run a crowd-funded project, and it worked out pretty well, so maybe I can offer a few “do’s-and-don’ts” from my experience of the process. This was, in fact, one of the ‘rewards’ I pledged to if the fund should succeed – so here we are. Grab some free tips, but don’t just take my word for it, go ahead and start your own.
START SOME GOOD
One of the keys to the success of this project – it ran for just 30 days between March 22nd – April 23rd, 2013 – was undoubtedly the community that makes up the Media Lens Message Board (MLMB). As well as generous contributions from the editors, David Cromwell and David Edwards, the community forum was invaluable in terms of support and spreading of the news of the fund. The entire idea was conceived and the shape of the questions broadly crowd-sourced among the community members there, and then it was mostly a question of keeping the board regularly updated in order to nudge more donations or just update donors on progress.
Opening an account at Start Some Good was straightforward, and with the account created it was merely a matter of setting up a ‘campaign’ using the very basic HTML GUI provided – a simple ‘wizard’ interface, which subsequently sets up your campaign page. You just write your text, add you images, and fill in the blanks with regard to funding goals and your ‘tipping-point‘ – the threshold of the total fund at which the project is deemed a success and everybody who pledged is billed and money changes hands.
HOW MANY? : THE MEDIA, THE PUBLIC & THE HUMAN COST OF WAR
The campaign was called ‘How Many?‘, and I cobbled together the prose for the campaign and some imagery in little more than 45 minutes one afternoon. I had Googled ‘UK Polling Agencies’ and selected ComRes from the results as I recognized the name. I called them straight-away and enquired how much it would cost to ask 2 questions in a nationally representative poll. It was under £1000, so I knew the project had a good chance of success for such an achievable target.
Here is our completed page, after the fund ended and had ‘tipped’ – note that there is a video at the top of the campaign page:
One of the tenets of the Start Some Good site is that you have a video to accompany your campaign. They insist that campaigns with videos far outperform those without, and so to even be in with a fighting chance, you should have one.
Fortunately, I have plenty of experience using Adobe Creative Suite, and so turned to Adobe Premiere to make a simple collage of stills and titles along with some suitably engaging music. Not even any need for a camera! Freeware and shareware exists that can achieve the same results without having to invest in professional Adobe editors and such. Depending on your project and your budget, this part of the campaign can be as basic and straightforward or as high-production value and impressive as you like. Don’t waste loads of time and money on it though – just think simple, especially for a short duration one-off project.
Here is the video that introduced the campaign:
All very basic, but hopefully enough to encourage donors. With more time, and some found footage and a narrative to structure a short film on, constructing a hard-hitting, effective and compelling couple of minutes here could make a huge difference to the impact of any campaign. For the purposes of this fund, it was mainly a hoop to jump through, but the opportunity to persuade that video affords is limited only by your clarity and creativity with the medium. It doesn’t have to cost very much.
PAYPAL AND RECEIVING FUNDS
The best piece of advice I can give before you even start thinking about getting started with videos, web pages and responding to flak from your detractors, is make sure you check the financial side of the agreement with the crowd-fund platform and how funds are transferred.
Start Some Good require that you have a PayPal account – but not just that. It needs to be a verified merchant account. Getting a merchant account can be a little fussy and takes some time to set up. Getting your account verified should be straightforward and simple, but in my case, became a tortuous and teeth-grindingly tedious tour through PayPal ‘customer service’. I really don’t recommend this if you are (as we were, and most of life typically seems to be) working to a deadline. So, first things first: find out if you need PayPal or other electronic banking intermediaries (BitCoin crowdfunding is already a thing). PayPal was very fussy and time-consuming, and that was just verification. I already went through some rigmarole getting a reasonable-limits for transactions merchant account a few years ago when I set it up, so PayPal for me was by far the most stress and tedium intensive part of the entire process. Have it sorted before you begin.
As regards the BitCoin funding above, it might seem current and attractive, but most people don’t have BitCoins. You will want everyone who would like to, to be able to donate, and for many people, PayPal and electronic banking are still new and not in as widespread use as ‘WIRED’ magazine or the ‘Gadgets’ section of the Mail on Sunday might typically suggest. In the end I actually set up a Yahoo email address ‘SSGDonor’ to allow people who wanted to donate anonymously and without having to sign up to newsletters and so on at Start Some Good, to be able to donate through this proxy ‘no set-up no comeback’ account. I think if people have to change a £5 donation into a fraction of a BitCoin, you’ll lose that donation – until the uptake is much wider. This would all depend on your project, of course. It may make sense to use a BitCoin crowd-funding platform, for many reasons – but, ‘in general’, for now go with the greatest variety and possibility of receiving donations. This should include BitCoin for sure, but not exclusive of more ’20th Century’ options like bank cards and PayPal.
MAJOR TIP : PayPal can take a month or so to establish a merchant account with suitable limits and then get verified and have your actual bank account verified. The customer service is a Kafka-esque nightmare which I really hope you never have to undertake.
HAVE YOUR ACCOUNTS SORTED BEFORE YOU BEGIN your crowd-fund project, or at least have no deadline to work to if you are setting up PayPal in the meantime.
Did I mention making sure PayPal is sorted before you get started? OK.
HAVE A PLAN
The vast majority of projects that are crowd-funded successfully make massive gains as soon as they go live, and then have to work very hard to maintain momentum once the initial influx of donations has abated. This was made clear by the campaign liaison at Start Some Good (SSG) at the outset, and turned out to be accurate in my experience, this time. So the people who are going to give significant sums and support the project (especially where it is an activism project) will tend to know ahead of time about the background and the launch, and be primed to get things off to a good start. After that, you have to badger and bait, which could be more difficult depending on what you are doing and where you can find supporters, plus keep those who have already donated abreast of developments and how it is going – some will come back and give again, if they really want to see it work.
This was certainly the case with this project – the MLMB was actively discussing the project, including input on the exact form (internet or telephone) of the poll, and exact wording of the questions to be asked. This level of input and crowd-sourcing before crowd-funding undoubtedly helps create a joint vision and feeling of engagement and participation which is exactly what is required for donations to flow. Making it open-source, and inviting participation helps the cause.
The site operates in US$, so I set the campaign goal at $1500 – exchanged, this would work out at about £975, though the pound was (and still is) crashing, so it was clearly going to change. SSG take a small percentage of every donation, as do PayPal, so by the time the fund tipped, there was just under £100 left to pay.
So there’s another thing – in terms of investment, the time you will spend on it is….much more than you think. I thought it would be a quick-set-up-and-leave-it-be sort of thing, and of course it isn’t. Once it went live, I wanted it to succeed, so had to pay attention everyday to mail-outs, follow ups and so on. In the end it garnered $1425 of the $1500 total, which by the time all deductions and commissions were taken off worked out at £740 exchanged. I probably spent about 50-60 hours on it all in the end, not including this blog.
The poll – 2 questions in the online omnibus – cost £828 (£690+VAT), so on top of time I had to top-up the fund to the tune of £88 to get the poll set-up. This was OK – I was prepared for more – but bear in mind that if your project tips and your tipping point was far from your total, you may have to spend from your own pocket to make up missing funds! Alternatively, set your tipping point higher, and add a bit to cover your costs and time, depending on what exactly you are doing. I had pledged to make up the last $300 of the fund if need be, but a *very* generous reader of the MLMB made a number of last minute donations that pushed the fund to within $75 of its overall total. I miscalculated how much SSG *and* PayPal would be taking from the donations (I had, in fact, completely misunderstood and thought that PayPal would not take commission as the payments would be ‘sent’ rather than treated as ‘sales’ – but this was not the case. SSG transfer as a sale which PayPal take commission on – so factor this in when doing your sums for how much money you need to actually raise, and how how much the funding and payments platforms you use will take from your total before you get your hands on it.)
MAJOR TIP: Get this right! Find out the commissions your funding and payment platforms will be taking, and what exchange rates they are using if they collect in a currency that is not your national currency.
The campaign manager at SSG was very helpful – they judge from your campaign submission the likely success and give input on the time you want to run for, what they think is optimal, and send lots of helpful hints and preparatory notes to get you ready for a social campaign using facebook, twitter, google+ and email shots and so on. It’s pretty straightforward leafleting, when all is said and done, albeit virtual. Maybe you will run a campaign that’s bigger and involves actual leafleting, with real paper and everything! But for this, it was a relatively simple matter of contacting and maintaining conversation (or at least monologue!) with a list of likely supporters and new leads as they occurred or were suggested.
Joe emailed many sympathetic editors and journalists and mainstream newspapers and television broadcasters in the UK. Not one donated, it should be noted, unless they did so anonymously via the SSGDonor proxy account for some reason. Twitter was used to contact the many activist, anti-war, Stop the War and human rights groups, outspoken and popular sympathetic MP accounts, and of course media activist accounts. These were repeated every week or so. Every local branch of Stop the War was contacted by email after using simple search engine results to obtain all the details (surprisingly up to date, though very little response, interestingly). There was no shortage of possible supporters, even with re-tweets and shared messages to get the project visible, if not actual donations.
This is the plan you need – have emails and a facebook/twitter/pinterest/whatever calendar set out for the duration of the campaign. New leads will occur to you or pop up as you go along, but you really do need to keep up the needling, and it’s never easy to judge how annoying you might be with your begging cap held out amidst all the other earnest petitions, fund-raisers and appeals for help.
YOU’D BE AMAZED HOW MANY OTHER NOBLE CAUSES ARE JOSTLING FOR THE ATTENTION OF YOUR TARGET SUPPORTERS…
It is remarkably difficult to get a re-tweet or any basic sharing going on at all outside your closest networks, your key supporters are there, but fringe and less involved groups who you’d think might at least help publicize what’s going on probably won’t, at least at first. You need to get the balance between hounding people for more exposure or more money and getting right up their noses with a deluge of earnest appeals just right, and it’s not so easy to judge. A lot depends on your content and how engaged your followers are with what you are trying to achieve.
In the first few days, the fund got off to a great start, with support reaching around the half-way mark. This then continued over the following days, tapering off, but with notable contributions from the likes of Noam Chomsky, for which thanks goes to Joe (who emailed Professor Chomsky the details of the poll and helped him get a donation in without having to sign up for PayPal…). Regular updates were posted on the MLMB, and more of the regular contributors there helped propagate the links and spread awareness. Smaller donations began to trickle in, and I soon came to understand those endless updates you get if you’ve ever signed Avaaz, or ThinkProgress or RootsAction or Change petitions, and then been encouraged to post to facebook, tweet, email your address book etc. You really need that – you need people passing it on across networks you have no particular reach in, and want as many people to come across the campaign as possible.
The cost of the survey was certainly not huge, but it would have been great to have been able to ask a more extensive range of questions of our representative national sample.
CROWD-SOURCING THE QUESTIONS AND CHOOSING THE AGENCY
Although Joe had a good idea of the AP Poll that had run in the US in 2007, the questions were still fine-tuned in the public domain using the MLMB to get input from contributors there.
We were all interested in a telephone poll more than an online survey – reasoning that there is much less likelihood of people using a search engine to peek at some Wiki entries or similar and draw their answers from a source rather than their own knowledge. However, after raising these queries with ComRes, they convinced us that this is typically easily avoided by phrasing the question in a certain way and that it is not a statistically significant factor in online surveys etc. After some discussion, we decided that the figure is so variable anyway according to the different studies cited on the Wiki page, that it would not be much help if a respondent were hoping to know the ‘right’ answer.
After discovering that the telephone poll sampled a smaller population, and was more expensive, we went ahead with the online omnibus poll which runs twice weekly with ComRes, bundled in with a number of other, unconnected, polls for other clients. This also, we reasoned, assuaged the likelihood of ‘checking answers’, as the questions would all be de-contextualized and clearly unrelated – so the object of the exercise would obviously not be to get ‘right answers’, but rather offer opinion about a range of subjects and issues.
As linked above, our fund attracted some flak from a Twitter account calling itself ‘Media Lens Wipe’. All jolly amusing, though it is noted that Media Lens is very publicly David Edwards and David Cromwell, while nobody really knows who ‘Media Lens Wipe’ is, except his (for surely, it is a he) mum perhaps. Anyway, I deliberated before responding, as the comment put forward really didn’t actually merit a response, but after a day or so decided to refute the argument put forward (after somebody accidentally pledged £5,000 instead of £50 – my heart certainly leaped when I received the automatic email informing me of the donation, but an explanatory email from the donor followed soon after and we, of course, corrected the mistake with SSG. It took about 24 hours to reset the donation bar, though, so I commented myself to keep people aware that we had NOT tipped, and to keep donating. At this time I decided to reply to ‘Media Lens Wipe’. Our correspondence is copied below, for posterity, and as an indication of what you can expect to crawl out from under certain rocks if you go lifting them up even a little bit:
The answers people could give as to how many died was completely open – they could put a range, they could write anything they wanted, or they could just choose a figure. As we will see in the Commentary & Analysis, the vast majority just went and did exactly that – and in fact, under-estimated even the mainstream-hallowed Iraq Body Count figure by a factor of between 6 – 24 times (65% of all respondents) …a fairly grotesque under-estimation of the impact of the Western invasion and occupation of Iraq, even if the IBC figure was to be given credence as a ‘realistic’ number of fatalities.
I hope this has given some insight into the crowd-funding process and how these funds were raised, plus alerted anybody inspired to do the same to some potential head-aches that can easily be avoided, plus unavoidable ones, and ways to go about dealing with them.
Comments and questions welcome.