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18 July 2015

As part of a Catalyst project, working with Stopgap, Salisbury Arts Centre and The Point, Dao-ista Alice Holland took on the task of producing a crowd-funding campaign to raise funds for a show by disabled punk performance poet Rowan James: 'It's For You To Say'. Here she gives some background to the thinking behind the project.

I’m going to assume that as 21st century arts professionals you all have an understanding of what crowdfunding is, and that you’ve been told at least once that it’s the future of resilient arts funding. It’s not, but it is interesting and pretty fun.

At its most basic, crowdfunding is the act of asking for small amounts of money from a large group of people, typically via the internet with a campaign video and reward structure for donors.

I’ve been involved in several individual crowdfunding campaigns, including one for my own work on the history of pornography, and am currently running an experiment in consortium crowdfunding between four Catalyst partner organisations to raise £1,500 for Rowan James’ Edinburgh Fringe debut, Easy For You To Say.

Before I show you that campaign and take your money, let’s look at how we as arts professionals and organisations can use what is traditionally an individual or amateur tool to our advantage.

You cannot predict what your crowd will give, but it can be much more than funding; it is audience development, it is market research, it is good PR.

A simple experiment with reward-based crowd funding could be to ask 1000 people to give £1 to back the development of a new artwork.

£1 is the only amount people can give, there is only one reward- an invitation.

Not only could you use this £1000 as 10% leverage on a pretty decent Grants For The Arts project budget but also as market research, indication of interest or pre-registration. 1000 people invested in your project before it even starts; very good.

From this £1000, your host site will take about £35, which is cheaper than getting one of your staff or a consultant to find 1000 people to do a questionnaire about new work.

The one reward you offer is a free ticket to an opening night or private view event at which you give each supporter a glass of wine; bought wholesale for a couple of hundred quid this leaves you with plenty of crowdfund cash to spend on the project or making the party really swing.

People will stick around and buy more booze and tickets from your venue, they will attend your funded project and they will tell their friends about it because they are slightly squiffy and enjoying themselves as part of a crowd.

I think it’s unlikely that reward-based crowdfunding can replace core funding, but you can use a campaign to source project funding, perhaps in the riskier areas of development that you don’t want to have to answer to official stakeholders for, or perhaps to plug the gap that the closure of IdeasTap has left in accessible start-up funding for emerging artists.

Consider crowdfunding for an annual artist bursary to try out a new idea, no strings attached. Administration does not make good art, but a quick cash injection into an idea just might.

Take risks with your audience together- urgency fuels crowdfunding, and vulnerability and enthusiasm will do wonders for your public image, particularly if it’s a little fixed or stuffy. Your audience already knows times are hard.

Asking publicly for help makes us feel vulnerable, and it’s easy to try and avoid it. But…

Popularity and support for anything online relies upon transparency and approachability; see how powerful YouTube vloggers can be by simply sharing their mundane life details. A friendly hairstyle tutorial can lead to huge advertising deals because the audience feel involved and that they are equals with the artist or broadcaster.

 Perhaps in presenting a humble case for support we can further engage our audiences as our collaborators.

We can stay stoically professional, we can accept the cuts to public arts funding and sink slowly, all the while feeling that we’ve done our best and not let the side down by looking like charity cases, or we can be open about our funding challenges, what we have and what we want to offer. It doesn’t get much more approachable than crowdfunding so if you ego can handle it, give it a go.

Giving, joining and sharing, all holy grails of digital engagement, are made possible by offering people something to feel good about, something to boast about, even. Nobody loves your organisation so much they’ll share everything you do, but if your idea makes me look clever for supporting it then I’ll share the hell out of it.

With Rowan’s campaign I have this easy- his show is about subverting and exploring the social construct of normality; nobody wants to think they are normal, few feel that they are, and online communication can give us the sensation of being both totally unique, and at-long-last connected to the freaks like us.  So the motivation to give money online to a man standing up to express individuality is easy to access.

The show is made, vote for not-normal, place your bets on the young artist on the brink… and we’re at a respectable 52% funded with just over a fortnight to go.

Crowdfunding has been around since about 2007, and it’s ubiquity means that in order for it to stay useful now that the novelty has worn off we need to subvert it’s form and think how we can offer something to our audiences that they genuinely want, something that feels a bit dangerous or scarce, that we communicate with them honestly.

Organisations, I encourage you to look into equity-based crowdfunding, and peer-to-peer lending for your long-term goals. Nesta have predicted that over £3billion in giving will take place this way in 2015 alone, and this is set for growth. Report back.

Individual artists and project managers, prepare the strongest case you can and network it- find sponsors willing to give you amazing reward prizes and write it off on their tax return, partner up with other creatives to run each other’s campaigns as a collective and think BIG; whatever you make from crowdfunding is tax-free and potential match-funding.

If you are making a big step or taking a huge risk then crowdfunding can be really great- please see my article on Disability Arts Online on the basics of running an individual campaign and when to do so.

Without your crowd you cannot have the funds, but with them you can take genuine risks and achieve great results.

Now, for those of you with QR scanners, please use them now, or google ‘Rowan James Crowdfunder’ and lets see how many donations we can make in the next three minutes. "

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