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Crowd-funded science: thoughts after 185 people gave us $10,733 for research

I’ve spent the last month pushing our Experiment.com crowd-funding campaign, to support my lab’s upcoming research in the Falkland Islands. After successfully hitting our $10,000 goal with four days to go, I feel like I have a few thoughts about the process (and a lot of you have asked), so here goes:

Crowd-funding is hard. It took Dulcinea and Kit a lot of time to put their website together, and I spent a considerable amount of time pushing the campaign out via social media, email lists, and to our university press office (definitely do this! We got local TV news coverage), not to mention the time explaining to people how the whole thing works. The effort was, at times, on par with standard grant-writing. Be prepared to put a lot of time and effort into making a really fantastic site, and to follow up with a relentless social media presence. Which brings me to my next point:

Crowd-funding will only work if you’ve got a strong social media presence — particularly via Twitter. Most of our contributors came from my Twitter feed, at least until we got a large matching donation by Arthur Chu late in the game. In fact, for large (>$3000) projects, I really think it will take more than just the traditional social media push for crowd-funding to be successful. I had over 6,000 followers when we started, and I thought we’d have this in the bag, easily. I was wrong.

Penguins lined up to give to our campaign! #fakepenguinfacts (King penguins, Volunteer Point, Falklands.) Photo by the author.

Penguins lined up to give to our campaign! #fakepenguinfacts (King penguins, Volunteer Point, Falklands. Photo by the author.)

If you can court a matching gift, or a large donation, especially from someone with social media clout, go for it. Arthur Chu (the Jeopardy winner) contacted Experiment after hearing about our project from his sister, who was my old roommate when I was a postdoc. I never met Arthur (though my cats did), but we still had a personal connection. Getting your work mentioned on a high-profile media site or by a relatively famous person will do wonders to get your work in front of new eyes. I also noticed a big boost during the fiasco around #thatshirt (and, in the aftermath, #scishirt)– people were really supportive as I was being harassed by trolls, and I got a bunch of new followers, too.

Because here’s the thing: asking for money is hard. Asking people you know, even just a little on the internet, is really hard. Asking them again and again and again for an entire month? That’s really, really, really hard. If you’re like me, you’ll struggle with guilt at asking folks to contribute and spread the word. Try breaking up when you ask — hit those European followers and your Australian followers. If my cat woke me up in the middle of the night, I tweeted. I tweeted first thing in the morning even though most Americans weren’t out of bed yet. Every bit helps.

We tried lots of angles — the climate change angle, the OMG PENGUINS angle, the women in science angle, and the science-funding-sucks angle. Finally, a little desperate, I started #fakepenguinfacts because I was sick of asking for money, and that was a good opportunity to have a little fun. It started as a joke but it really took off! I started noticing that the #fakepenguinfacts tweets were getting retweeted and shared much more often. People would join in and tweet their own (usually without linking, which was fine), and that just brought more eyes to our project page. It also kept me from going a little batty during the process.

Thousands of people looked at our site, but only 182 gave. This is fine with me, because not only does crowd-funding help raise money, but it also gets new folks looking at your research (which, in the long run, is what we really care about, right?). It may be that we could have lost people in the details of our site, too. Experiment has a pretty strict format (with word limits!), and while we really liked working with them, the site really hinges on getting people to watch your video, so if folks don’t do that, they miss important information that could be buried on the site. Plus, I’ve learned in my science communication efforts that often, what we think is really obvious is actually not at all. So, definitely get lots of feedback from non-experts on your site!

This is not a metaphor for discussions about science funding. This is a photo of the main road to Stanley, Falkland Islands. (Don't worry, the mines are all on the SIDES of the road).

This is not a metaphor for discussions about science funding. This is a photo of the main road to Stanley, Falkland Islands. (Don’t worry, the mines are all on the SIDES of the road).

Speaking of Experiment, a lot of folks asked us why we used them, given that they take 8% off the top. What I liked about the site is that they gave us a lot of support, a really elegant and easy-to-use platform and, most importantly, credibility. Experiment is one of a few sites that are dedicated to crowd-funding science, and even the traditional crowd-funding platforms take a cut. What I liked about Experiment is that it looks legitimate, and it’s easy to give (they also have great analytics). When I first tried crowd-funding just on my own (to attend a conference in grad school), I found that people were often loathe to use PayPal or send checks. We only had one person balk at using Experiment.com and send a check instead.

Ultimately, I don’t think that crowd-funding is the magic bullet that will solve our the science funding crisis. It’s a lot of work, and I’d seriously worry about alienating my social media followers if I tried something like this too much. I think our lab can handle maybe one project a year, tops. And even so, I worry that the novelty is wearing off. Once people have been tapped a few times, will they keep giving? I’m not so sure. Compared with, say, Kickstarter, crowd-funding science tends to have fewer perks, so I’m not sure it’s really comparable.

TL;DR? Crowd-funding is a lot of work. It can be a nice funding stop-gap, especially for small projects or preliminary data. It’s great for students because it helps them develop communication skills. Sites like Experiment that have a nice interface to give your donors updates help connect people with your science, and add legitimacy to your efforts.Just be prepared to do a lot of work, get creative, and reach out to social media, the press, and celebrities. I’m not sure if science crowd-funding has a long lifespan, but it’s worth a shot. But it’s money! We all need more of that, right?

Update: I totally forgot to mention incentives! We were really hesitant to do them, because they cost money, and we wanted our money to go to the project, not to mailing hundreds of postcards from the Falklands with international shipping, or dozens of crocheted penguins. We ultimately did ad a digital photo incentive with our field photos, and added an expedition calendar for $100 contributions, because that was a fun and low-cost option. We added it midway, and I suspect a number of people bumped up their gifts to be eligible for those, which was nice.

Categories: Academia Commentary Tips & Tricks

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Jacquelyn Gill

14 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Diving into the deep and commented:
    Jacquelyn Gill provides insight on how “crowd-funding” can work as a solution for science- that is, if you are savvy with social media (calling all students!)

    “TL;DR? Crowd-funding is a lot of work. It can be a nice funding stop-gap, especially for small projects or preliminary data. It’s great for students because it helps them develop communication skills. Sites like Experiment that have a nice interface to give your donors updates help connect people with your science, and add legitimacy to your efforts.Just be prepared to do a lot of work, get creative, and reach out to social media, the press, and celebrities. I’m not sure if science crowd-funding has a long lifespan, but it’s worth a shot. But it’s money! We all need more of that, right?” (Gill)

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  2. Very interesting post! I had no idea that such websites existed. In fact, I recently listened to an episode of my favorite podcast, Stuff You Should Know, called “How Kickstarter Works,” and I found myself thinking that it would be cool if there existed a crowdsourcing resource specifically for research. Glad somebody else thought of it before I did!

    I imagine this funding source was an interesting look at different demographics of supporters. For instance, if I set up a crowdfunding campaign for a scientific or otherwise career-related project, I would be curious to see who contributed more: my professional colleagues or my mother! Of course, contributions from both my professional peers and my family and friends would be welcome, but I imagine it would be difficult to address both audiences at the same time. As you said, asking for money is just plain hard, but it must be hard in different ways depending on who you’re asking. Did you experience anything like this?

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  3. I imagined that this is what you were experiencing:

    “Because here’s the thing: asking for money is hard. Asking people you know, even just a little on the internet, is really hard. Asking them again and again and again for an entire month? That’s really, really, really hard. If you’re like me, you’ll struggle with guilt at asking folks to contribute and spread the word.”

    Having worked for charities before, lengthy discussions about what to do to raise money along with a lot of trial and error in trying to figure out what is successful is a hard thing to do. There are entire careers built on this concept, and the literature is vast. But the studies are not so intense because that takes money, and charities get dinged for anything outside the cause they promote.

    But at best, what I could figure out in my time with charity work was to capitalize on marketing techniques, which is a lot of what you touch on, and two of the coveted techniques are endorsement (which you had at the end) and word of mouth. Getting others to voice their support and urge others to do so probably goes a long way (otherwise, why would there be those links to FB and Twitter to share that you’ve just supported). Fake penguins facts was a fun way for others (non-scientists) to become involved and feel a part of what you are doing. The ice bucket challenge seems like that kind of concept too. Most people don’t understand ALS or know someone with it, but they can certainly be silly by pouring ice water over their heads. Soliciting those would have been great. I joined in, even though I don’t know you, because I knew it was a worthy cause and I wanted to help be that word of mouth support. And what others created was something neat for the 3 of you to share to your followers without necessarily having to be the mouthpiece asking for money again and again. Though I don’t have any metrics, I imagine that there was a positive effect.

    Anyhow, those are my two cents from outside a science program. I’m excited to follow your field work and see the results.

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  4. Hi Jacquelyn,

    Congratulations on your success!

    I absolutely loved this post, and echo pretty much everything you’ve said with our crowdfunding campaign (attained our $6k goal this morning, yay!). I’d say for us, while it helped having an easy topic to sell (Camera traps for Tigers, Elephants, Orangutans etc in the rainforest), but the most important thing was working under the umbrella of our NGO partner who had an excellent social media presence and a database of their supporters who we could target for sponsorship.

    There was one thing that was extremely different and disappointing in comparison to your experience however: My University was completely unwilling to publicize our campaign in any way shape or form! I think this was because they don’t make anything from overhead if we aren’t going after federal grants, but I thought this was extremely short sighted on their behalf, and something that will hopefully change in the future as crowdfunding becomes more popular.

    Have a blast in the Falklands!

    James

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  5. Interesting post, confirms my impression of the state of play in crowdfunding.

    It occurs to me that crowdfunding for science is rather like blogging for someone who wants a decent-sized audience–it can be rewarding for a relatively small fraction of people, but for most people it’s probably not the best use of their time.

    To have any chance of success, you have want to do it (as opposed to, say, feeling obliged to do it) and enjoy doing it, otherwise the required effort will be too unpleasant.

    You have to have the attributes needed to succeed. Some of those attributes can be acquired with practice (e.g., learning what sort of pitches work in crowdfunding, learning to write quickly if you’re a blogger). Others are difficult or impossible to acquire if you don’t already have them (e.g., several thousand Twitter followers and “marketable” research interests in the case of crowdfunding).

    You have to be prepared to put in a lot of work, over a sustained period of time.

    Some of the things you probably need to do to succeed may well feel uncomfortable, and may even be frowned upon in some circles. (e.g., repeatedly asking your Twitter followers for money in the case of crowdfunding, or publicly expressing your opinions and defending them against those who disagree in the case of blogging).

    To succeed, you probably have to be lucky as well as good, whether in attracting a big donation from a celebrity, or, say, having a popular established blogger link to you.

    There are some side benefits to doing it, some of which might apply even if you fail in your financial or audience-gaining goals. For instance, honing your communication skills, or public outreach and education. You’ll probably be happiest doing it if you attach a lot of importance to those side benefits, and if you don’t think there was any other way to get those side benefits (e.g., you couldn’t have reached just as many people with less work via some other form of outreach).

    Though there are some differences. Blogging a lot doesn’t produce blogging fatigue in your readership. Whereas I’m sure you’re right that you couldn’t successfully go back to the crowdfunding well for a while.

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  6. Hey Jacquelyn, I was so delighted to see your project make it’s funding goal!

    I think you accidentally stumbled upon what actually makes science crowdfunding work, with this comment.

    “We tried lots of angles — the climate change angle, the OMG PENGUINS angle, the women in science angle, and the science-funding-sucks angle. Finally, a little desperate, I started #fakepenguinfacts because I was sick of asking for money, and that was a good opportunity to have a little fun. It started as a joke but it really took off! I started noticing that the #fakepenguinfacts tweets were getting retweeted and shared much more often. People would join in and tweet their own (usually without linking, which was fine), and that just brought more eyes to our project page.”

    We’ve seen this time and time again, the reason why people get involved with science projects isn’t the appeal to the current funding crisis, climate change appeal, even the women in science angle. These are all great for starting conversations with audiences that might be outside of your immediate circle of influence (e.g. always wanted to get involved with women in STEM, crowdfunding with a project is a great excuse to join the conversation).

    What really gets people hooked is content! That’s ultimately what the backers expect in return (we’ve done lots of user studies to validate this), for the researchers to share real scientific efforts and progress.

    I think that if you started providing #realpenguinfacts for your backers, you’ll be surprised at the response and interest! Sharing a window into the research is the best way to give backers the feeling of scientific progress, even if it’s just the day to day minutiae of science. It’s something we’ve been trying to promote more of among our researchers, and we’ve got a lot in store for this to make this easier for crowdfunders in the future.

    In any case, science crowdfunding is still new and while there is a ton of room for improvement as it matures, there’s nowhere to go but up! Thank you for sharing your perspective. Scientists like yourself, Dulcinea, and Kit are pioneers of science on the internet!

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  7. From the outside, you all did a great job with this (not that you need my validation). I’m really impressed. And I agree, it is really hard. In terms of bang for the buck, getting an NSF/NIH/other Federal grant is probably hands down worth the time.

    The only crowdfunding of science I’m aware of was µBiome who sequenced people’s microbiomes and I think gave them the data (as well as used it in their work and may actually be a legit company now). Most scientists won’t have that kind of hook, or benefit (if it’s actually beneficial to know your microbiome…not sure it is).

    Congrats again and I hope the research trip yields all the penguins and data you desire.

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    1. Oh, that’s hard to say! I’d say that at times, they were the same amount of mental energy. Asking (and remembering) for money again and again was emotionally more difficult. There was also the stress of not knowing if you’d succeed, but in a different way than traditional grant funding. We’d gotten so many people excited about the project that it would suck to not get ANYTHING in the end.

      Ultimately, I think standard grant writing is harder, but it’s going to be the only way to fund the personnel side of science, I think. And I did spend a lot of time on Twitter, which was good and bad. 🙂 I enjoy the collaborative side of grant-writing, but this felt much more like a communal process, which I enjoyed.

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  8. Great post, Jacquelyn, and congratulations on your success! While we would have loved to host your project on Endeavorist, we’re super happy to see it come to fruition nonetheless. Projects like yours are a great step forward for science crowdfunding–especially when the concept is still in its infancy. In fact, we believe much of the difficulty of crowdfunding science will be reduced as crowdfunding becomes more commonplace (imagine not having to preface every conversation with an explanation of crowdfunding itself!)–but as you’ve said, it is NOT easy right now. That’s a reality we’re coaching our current researchers through, so they can have the best shot at success. Just as you’ve underscored the importance of social media, we’ve had to do the same with our researchers–many of which don’t have the advantage of any existing social presence. Still, as undeniably challenging as a campaign can be, the effort is nonetheless a far more temporary one than that of traditional processes, and we think that, among other reasons, makes it worthwhile. That’s why we encourage researchers everywhere to strongly consider the option. (But yes, we are a bit biased.)

    Anyway, it’s very exciting to read the insights of someone who’s experienced the science crowdfunding process firsthand, so thank you for this post. We suspect your positive results and cautionary advice will assist others in their own research pursuits in the very near future!

    Best of luck with your research!
    (And please don’t stop tweeting #fakepenguinfacts)

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    1. Thanks! We may well try your platform next time. It’s nice that there’s a wide range of options out there– it really does lend credibility.

      One bit of feedback we had for Experiment was that it would be great to be have a structure for incentives, like on Kickstarter.

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      1. We’ve deliberated over the question of incentives from the get-go, and we’re still at it. When we’re already thrusting scientists into this new world of self-promotion and public communication, it can be overwhelming to also ask them to devote their time and resources to fulfilling tangible rewards. Still, it may be worth it, because there’s no question that tangible incentives motivate contributions. We just don’t want to put researchers in a position where they feel obligated to build a series of rewards (especially if it really doesn’t make sense for their particular project)–and we’ve had concerns that even offering that kind of structure optionally would inevitably oblige all researchers to utilize it anyway, given the crowd’s general expectation. Furthermore, even Kickstarter and Indiegogo have had significant issues with project creators failing to properly plan for the fulfillment of rewards, resulting in numerous controversies and many angry contributors. We’re very wary of introducing variables than could affect our overall integrity. Still, through proper education and good user experience, it can probably be done well. We’d need to make every effort to inform each creator, ahead of time, that they’ll need to DO and triple-check the math before making any promises. Seems like a no-brainer, but apparently this is a challenge for many. Hopefully we can integrate that kind of clear guidance in our system in the very near future.

        By the way, if you have any other suggestions or questions now that you’ve been through the crowdfunding process, we’d love to hear them so we can take them under advisement. We’re always looking for experienced input to improve our approach in any way we can. Feel free to PM or email info(at)endeavorist.org.

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  9. I think this is a great wrap up Jacquelyn. Obviously crowd-funding is getting lots of attention these days. I’ve been asked about it during job interviews, and the current funding crunch (as opposed to the last funding crunch and the crunch before that) has made the idea more attractive for people.

    It would be interesting to see the ratio of views to funders, but I suspect it’s a bit depressing. What’s more depressing is that you had a great and charismatic project to boost. Remote location, charismatic species, and obviously, a great social media presence.

    I think the reality is that crowdfunding is definitely an option, it’s a very modest option, and there’s going to be a lot of failure. Part of the problem with crowdfunding is that the public outreach component relies less on methodological soundness than charismatic branding. Your project obviously was able to combine the two, but there’s the possibility that other projects will succeed in funding only to be mired in poor scientific practice. I suppose there’s the possibility with institutional funding as well, but there are mechanisms in place to potentially reduce those impacts.

    Anyway, congratulations, and have a great summer down south!

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    1. I don’t have the numbers, but Kit and Dulcinea do (they were the ones with the account, and handled everything on that end). I can ask! It was, I believe, a couple orders of magnitude less, though. That could also be because we spent a lot of time reloading the pages, ourselves. 🙂

      I think the penguins and climate change angle definitely made this easy. We went with a pretty straightforward page, but you could definitely come up with creative or fun angles. We also tried to mesh two projects together rather than pit K and D against one another.

      I think you’re definitely right about the public outreach component. I think it -does- ultimately help us figure out ways in which our research is relevant to the public (even if just in an OMG PENGUINS way), and crowd-funding won’t work for a lot of basic science for that reason.

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