How I Crowdfunded my MA

By on July 24, 2015

The brilliant project creator, Daniel Vincent, recently raised £6,370 to help fund his MA in Documenting Endangered Languages at SOAS. He’s kindly written a guest post about the challenges he went through to make his crowdfunding campaign a success! Introducing Daniel:

So it turns out I have a crowd, and this September, thanks to everyone’s support and generosity, I’m off to start an MA in Documenting Endangered Languages at SOAS in London. I first had the idea of crowdfunding the fees after spotting an article about Hubbub in the Evening Standard. At the time, I had no experience of this kind of fundraising and no idea if it would actually work or not. Happily, it did. Here I’ve put together some of what I learned, along with some advice I have for future crowdfunders.

Pre-campaign Stage

As a teacher, I’m well aware of the importance of thorough preparation – lessons bomb without it. I did prepare my campaign, drawing up lists of potential funders and their contact details, designing a logo, drafting emails and so on, but in retrospect I think the project would have benefitted from more extensive groundwork. In particular, given that I predominantly used Facebook for promotion, if I were to redo it I would create a separate page rather than using only my personal page and drum up interest by generating ‘likes’ well in advance of the actual launch. This would have made it easier to distinguish who was and who wasn’t genuinely interested, and would have been an ideal place to share links and articles about endangered languages (it’s essential to get people interested in the content of your project so that they buy into its validity, rather than just expecting them to donate because they like you). It might even have made it easier to gain extra followers beyond my personal circles of friends and family.

endangered-languages

I would also think more carefully about how to sell the project and pay more attention to the rewards on offer. In my case, I was offering a) dedicated words or sentences in endangered languages; and b) ‘free subscription’ to a newsletter I plan to write during the MA to share some of what I learn. I thought the former, though somewhat gimmicky, would catch most people’s attention. However, it was the newsletter that persuaded more people to join in, especially once I had, rather late in the day, put together a sample issue I could actually send out. As far as possible, I think rewards should be tangible and it should be clear exactly what donors will get in return – in my case, a share of the knowledge they’re helping me to acquire.

During the Campaign

Once up and running, I was unprepared for just how much work the actual campaigning would involve. Most days I ended up dedicating a good couple of hours to writing to potential donors, following up initial approaches, answering doubts and enquiries and writing updates to post on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. This was tiring, especially as it had to be done during my free time. Campaigning takes commitment, especially when you’re running the project alone, and I would advise any potential crowdfunder to be aware that it’s hard work.

One of the most challenging aspects of the whole project was working out how best to approach people, not only so that they actually pledged but also so that I didn’t offend anyone by coming across as pushy or demanding. I divided my potential donors into four broad categories:

1)Close friends and family I knew I could approach both directly and bluntly

2)Friends and colleagues I could approach diplomatically but optimistically 

3)Organisations working in the field of endangered languages that might be willing to pledge given the nature of the project 

4)Well-known individuals with an interest in language who might be willing to pledge on that basis

With category (2), which was by far the largest number of people I contacted, I can retrospectively break them down into five main groups according to their responses:

a) Those who responded to say yes and who subsequently pledged

b) Those who pledged first and then responded

c) Those who responded to say no

d) Those who responded to say yes but who eventually never pledged

e) Those who never responded

It was impossible to know after sending the first message or email whether an initial lack of reply meant the person in question had simply not got round to replying or was politely ignoring the request. I followed up almost everyone who didn’t initially get back to me (usually about a month later). This ‘nudging’ was successful with many people. However, there were a couple of negative responses to the effect that asking friends for money was not on, and I suspect a number of those who never replied were indeed politely ignoring a request they considered inappropriate or which they felt awkward at turning down. Group (d) – those who said yes but never pledged – was a surprisingly large group, which taught me that no matter how enthusiastic people might be to help out, for reasons that are no doubt entirely understandable many will just never get round to it.

Given that you’re asking for money, it’s essential to write to everyone individually and to personalise each and every approach. As an example of what not to do, I wrote a group FB message to one large group of ex-colleagues, partly to save time and partly because I thought they might give a collectively positive response. In the event, however, the first person to reply said a very firm ‘no’, which set the tone for the entire group and made it easier, I believe, for others to say no as well. When I re-approached certain members individually, however, the responses were much more positive.

A mistake I made was to overestimate how far those in categories (3) and (4) would help out. I spent a lot of time writing to various professors, journalists, writers and directors of institutions, naively confident that they would happily make significant contributions (which had initially led me to set an unrealistically high maximum funding target). A handful did get involved, either by pledging money (Steven Pinker, Guy Deutscher) or by allowing me to quote that the project had their support (Stephen Fry), but most replied that, much as they would like to help out, they were, understandably, unwilling to set a precedent. Even among those individuals, however, there were people who gave me useful contacts or who shared the project on their institution’s Facebook page or mailing list, so the investment of time was still worth it.

Crowdfunding is a great way to raise money, but it’s precarious. All along there was the nagging worry that the project might end up missing the target minimum, which become ever more pressing as the deadline loomed (by the way, you really need to make it extremely clear to everyone that it’s all-or-nothing funding and that it’s only pledges, not donations, until the minimum is reached – this flummoxed a lot of people). Fortunately, mine made it, but during the predicted mid-campaign lull in activity, and even into the latter stages when it was still very touch-and-go, I became increasingly aware not only that I might have to make some serious changes to my future plans if I were unable to raise the minimum funds to undertake the MA, but also that not hitting the target after publicising the whole campaign so widely would entail a very public failure (and would disappoint everyone who had pledged). At times I found it hard to keep momentum and not lose heart.

Last Stretch of the Campaign

It was during the last stretch of the campaign, however, as the clock on the Hubbub page ticked inexorably down towards zero, that the crowd really came into its own and I realised just how much everyone was rooting for the project to succeed. By that stage, I think it’s fair to say, my ‘crowdeesfelt not only involved in the project but also a sense of ownership. This was something they had committed to, something they had chosen to participate in, and now success for me meant success for them. This was really exciting to see. Pledge-wise, it was by far the busiest time, and I received lots of messages of support. I’d also been told to expect some re-pledges towards the end, especially when we were approaching the target, and many did indeed come in, but some pledgers even asked their own friends and families to help out, and there were even a couple who had originally said they were unable to pledge who suddenly changed their mind. To quote one of them: “Been looking at your project. You’re too close to not get anything at all, so in the end I’ve made a pledge to help you get there.” Seeing the running tally hit the target was a wonderfully uplifting moment.

daniel-vincent-target

Summary

Overall, I found the entire experience incredibly positive, not only because I achieved my personal goal but because it taught me so much, opened so many doors, and affirmed for me something which I already knew but now know better, namely that we live in an age when ordinary people are increasingly willing to pull together, away from traditional structures and off conventional paths, to ensure that great things are achieved. I’d recommend crowdfunding to anyone trying to get a project off the ground; there are plenty of crowds yet to form.

 

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