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Crowdfunding: Research and Academic Fundraising’s New Era
Volume 40, Number 5 - September/October 2016

Today Everything Is Local

In the 1960s, the idea of six degrees of separation asserted that there are six or less links between any two human beings on Earth; in recent years, the number of degrees has been reduced to less than four. A study at the University of Milan looking at more than 720 million active Facebook users found nearly 70 billion friendship links, leading them to guesstimate that, today, the number of intermediaries is about 3.74 (arXiv:1111.4570). The world is, indeed, getting smaller! Smaller, yet connected and highly interactive.

Writing in School Planning & Management, Deborah P. Moore points out that even K–12 is benefiting from crowdfunding:

By tapping into the power of social networks, alumni and community have been engaged, and new donors have been won. Schools are finding funding for creative projects. Teams are seeking funds for everything from band instruments, to new uniforms and needed sports equipment. Individuals are seeking dollars to help pay for their college tuition and fees. Granted, crowdfunding is not likely to fill the gap left by budget cuts, but it may save a program or two.         —

In order to better understand the process of crowdfund ing, Ethan Mollick is leading the Wharton Crowdfunding Study (, which is being described as “the largest academic effort seeking to understand how crowdfunding works, how effective the Kickstarter community is at bringing new creative projects to life, and what the economic and social impact of those projects are on culture.” So far, the study’s results have led to four key findings:

Crowdfunding democratizes access to funding by increasing “the chances of success in raising funds for groups that have traditionally been at a disadvantage in gaining access to money through more established channels, such as women in technology” (

Successful projects show indications that t he crowd looks for signals of quality in projects that “demonstrate plans on how to deliver, show prototypes, indicate outside support by including quotes from journalists, and reference other successful work that the proposers have done
in the past ” (

Proposals show little indication of fraud, but from the very fact that a crowd or community surrounds the project, the “ result is that project creators almost always try to deliver, often at great cost to themselves” (

When crowdfunding projects are assessed by both the crowd and by experts, both groups are generally in agreement on the value of the projects, although “the crowd seems to often select more daring projects” (

Big News on Campuses Across the World

Laura Pittmann, manager of University of Maryland–College Park’s crowdfunding platform, has written about UM’s experience recently (, providing some observations on what succeeds today:

The bigger the team, the more peer-to-peer out reach can be done, which is a pillar for a successful project. …

Successful projects have a community that ex ists around the project’s subject matter and team members. …

Student-focused projects that are conceptualized, proposed and executed by students themselves have had a much higher success rate than proj ects proposed by faculty and staff through Launch UMD. …

Projects that plan out and execute their communications, including their email and social media strategy, are much more likely to meet their goals. ...

[I]t’s important for teams to understand that the amount they raise isn’t based on their goal; rather, it’s based on the amount of work they put into their project and the amount of interest that exists outside of their group. …

She continues:

In almost every instance, unsuccessful projects share one thing: they’re being run by one or two enthusiastic members while the rest of the group is passively waiting for the donations to roll in. …

Successful crowdfunding requires sustained effort from the time the project is approved up until the last hour of the campaign....

At its core, crowdfunding is a grassroots activity, even when it happens within the context of a highly bureaucratic university. Projects that focus too much on looking polished and whose message is controlled by higher ups suffer from inauthenticity. …

It’s better to cancel or significantly delay until the project is ready than to let it go live and then spend the duration of the campaign chasing the team leaders down. …

Team members have to be willing to go outside their comfort zones and solicit their networks for donation. …

In took less than 3 days for the Massachusetts-based College of the Holy Cross to raise nearly $2 million. “During the College’s 43-hour campaign—a nod to the College’s founding in 1843—6,226 donors participated in the online challenge, 122 of whom were new donors,” the college’s PR notes ( And perhaps even more important for the ongoing support of the school, 75% of the new donors had graduated from the school in the past 10 years, and more than half of all donations came from alumni who graduated after 1990, which adds impressively to their pool of potential future donors.

According to an article in The Christian Science Monitor, even individual students are launching Kickstarter campaigns to pay for their college educations ( At a time when higher education is facing major issues of declining support from traditional sources, crowdfunding may be opening a new avenue to fund programs, support research, and even support the physical plants. Crowdfunding over the web is showing that even small contributions can add up to major support for future innovation, research, and social change.

How You or Your Organization Can Participate

Although Kickstarter and Indiegogo ( are two of the top platforms, there are many others popping up on the web. Selecting the best one for your project is key to your success—as either a campaign or as a potential donor.

Different sites may have very different policies—including types of projects supported and fees for their services. Spend some time on the website, looking at the types of projects the site seems to favor and the success rates that each platform is able to attract. Many fundraising site have forums or Q&A types of features that allow you to connect with others or to see the types of issues/concerns/advan tages others report. You should check out which types of fundraising projects seem to work best on each site as a way to potentially compare your options. Also, feel free to contact libraries or groups with similar goals or projects to get their assessments on what worked—or didn’t—for them. As a potential donor, the same advice holds true: Contact the organization to make your own assessment of the value and viability of its project.

Crowdsourcing is still in its infancy as a fundraising sys tem. Regulators are certainly watching as these develop for needed oversight. One key issue for any project is getting noticed via the web. There is no single index or guide to crowdfunding projects or web platforms. Local news outlets and other social media are good sources to help get your project off the ground.

Since crowdfunding campaigns are not easy to find on the web, linking your campaign to your website and using blog postings to other sites or endorsements from key supporters will help to get your message into Google search results for greater visibility. However, today nothing is guaranteed. I recently gave a workshop on crowdfunding to a local ethnic community organization and these community leaders were surprised to learn that one of their own local charter schools had a successful crowdfunding project underway!

A Revolution in Higher Education

Madhuri Sharma, geography professor at the University of Tennessee, worked with Habitat for Humanity researchers recently to study the potential role of crowdfunding to support urban development in places such as Detroit or India ( He believes that higher education is also a natural area for this type of funding. “If you look at universities/schools, most of them currently run on business models and hence many disciplines are getting chopped off; nevertheless, those disciplines do a larger good/service to the society, and such approaches can at least sustain some basic level of activities for those disciplines.”

Peter Skvare, founder and CEO of crowdplatform developer Skvare LLC (, describes the academic market as “only starting to take shape. It’s a combination of several proven models, such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo that is being applied to the traditional model of fundraising.” He believes the crowdfunding approach is particularly well developed at reaching donors/supporters who have not been engaged in the past. For Millennial donors, “the concept of group engagement in a socially impactful way is greatly more appealing than just writing a check. … They want to be not only involved, they seek out opportunities for group engagement—sharing with friends, engaging others in real life and online.” He also sees alumni and existing supporters as being the best ambassadors for an academic brand. He explains, “By the nature of crowdfunding, the existing promoters are now engaging their network, reaching beyond the first level of connection and bringing awareness to their friends, family, and associates who are less likely to have been within the direct contact of the academic institution.”

Crowdsourcing consultant Miriam Kagan notes, “As it comes to the sciences, crowdfunding is actually being used to fill funding gaps where the government or private funders may not be interested or have the resources to fund a specific project. A great example of this is a recent startup called Experiment [], where scientists can directly crowdfund for their ideas.”

“UCLA has successfully tried a variety of projects on the ScaleFunder platform,” Nancy M. Katano, the school’s executive director of corporate, foundation, and research relations, states. “Everything from research-adjacent to student group projects to emergency response (flood on campus) and so on. We’ve built out a page for alumni giving, and our next phase of growth will include a grateful patient page for our medical system. The most challenging yet intriguing hurdle will be equity crowdfunding for research programs/startups but we’re nowhere close to this right now.”

Kagan agrees with Katano’s assessment. “We believe crowd funding is very viable for all levels of the educational spec trum. It is not only an innovative way to engage donors, alumni—and in the case of universities, current students—but it’s also a good way to renew interest from lapsed donors who may have become unresponsive to more traditional fundraising channels.” While Kagan thinks crowdfunding is maturing as a model, she sees it as still being in the early stages of maturity. “Because there are still many competing platforms, the industry hasn’t yet begun to consolidate to a few key players.”

The University of Minnesota Foundation’s Robyn White reports that “crowdfunding success in our experience varies on a project-by-project basis and has a lot to do with the following factors: the appeal of a selected fundraising cause; having a defined and engaged online audience; marketing efforts tied to the crowdfunding initiative; setting an attainable goal; and the presence of matching dollars to encourage giving.” Its success has been clear. “Of our more than 5,000 crowdfunding donations so far,” White says, “69% were made by new donors to the U.”

According to Jerome Jackson, assistant director of crowdfunding and social media at Rochester Institute of Technol ogy (RIT) , “Crowdfunding in higher education remains limited in scope due to the nature of crowdfunding and many university gifting policies. Limitations such as dura tion of campaign, team size dynamics, fundraising goals, appeal, and other elements often define whether a campaign has the potential of being successful. Once these elements are identified and vetted, it becomes a lot easier to manage campaigns.” At RIT, efforts are made to clearly vet projects, and thus far “during the first academic year (2015–2016) of the program, we accepted and launched 19 out of 27 submitted applications, with 11 of those being successful campaigns.

“Crowdfunding at RIT is supporting projects that would otherwise be ineligible for traditional funding,” he adds, explaining that the program is building a pipeline of students who, from their own crowdfunding experiences, will hopefully understand the importance of supporting RIT as an alum. “Through this online marketplace, we are providing alumni an opportunity to view and immediately support meaningful and impactful campaigns that have smaller appealing fundraising goals. As we continue to refine and streamline our program, we will have a better understanding of the various projects that are more successful and sustainable.”

Libraries are also getting onboard. Notes University of Michigan (UM) librarian Karen Downing, “Our Museum of Natural Science recently launched a successful crowd funding campaign to pay for digging up and moving woolly mammoth bones found in a nearby farm field (ns.umich. edu/new).” The UM library has added information on crowdfunding to its library guides as well.

The Next Phase in Academic Fundraising?

As Forbes contributing writer and entrepreneur Devin Thorpe sees it, “Universities are not fully utilizing the potential of crowdfunding by keeping things close to the institutional vest as most do.” In order to be successful at raising dollar amounts relevant to the school, Thorpe says universities need to distribute the tools, training, and responsibility to faculty and students to raise money for their respective programs. “If the university provides matching funds,” he posits, “they make it even easier for those with the real stake in the project to be funded to raise the money for it.” The problem is that universities are concerned a student reaching out to a billionaire donor for a $5,000 crowdfunding donation could negatively impact the school’s ability to get a $5 million naming grant later. In Thorpe’s opinion, the school should not try to control the fundraising, but should distance itself from it. This way, the big donors won’t think of the small donations as being made to the university, but instead to the project.

“No university will ever be able to fund its entire bud get with crowdfunding,” Thorpe cautions, “but no univer sity should be trying to fund a full budget without some crowdfunding. A lone researcher can, with diligent effort, raise $5,000 via crowdfunding. Some research grants are that small, but most are bigger—often much bigger.” While Thorpe concedes that crowdfunding is not likely to replace traditional grant makers for research funding, he also believes crowdfunding can serve to be the earliest seed capital for the first stages of research that might allow researchers to qualify for traditional sources. This, he explains, allows “the crowdfunding funds [to] come in without the same rigor as the big grants.”

UC–Berkeley’s crowdfunding manager Ryan Lawrence concurs. “In my opinion, crowdfunding for higher ed is a great way to showcase unique projects/groups to engage alumni and friends. While they certainly do bring in a large number of new donors, I try to provide resources and advice to make every project as successful as possible.” Law rence, in fact, does weekly check-ins with the university’s projects and, for the next academic year, hopes to expand training to help out its groups as much as possible. “I want projects to be successful so that donors feel good about the projects they are supporting—and hopefully, they will want to support other ones in the future since they see the direct impact of their gifts.”

As support for higher education from state and federal funds continues to decline, crowdfunding is presenting an option which seems, at this early stage, to be both successful and viable for higher education and research for many years to come.

Nancy K.Herther is the anthropology/sociology librarian at University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities Campus.


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