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The Future of Development: Crowdsourced Funding

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

When AAM conducted its 2009 Museum Financial Information survey, a quarter of respondents had a capital campaign in progress. We don’t even have stats on how many museums regularly run annual giving campaigns, but it sometimes it seems like all museums, all the time. (To judge by MY mail, at least.)

Will the traditional campaign giving pyramid work in the future? Are people becoming inured to NPR-type annual nag fests? And how will museums adjust to the loss of traditional local sponsors (as businesses close or are bought up by national chains) and attrition among an aging donor base? I have one word for you (lean in close):


Not as sexy as plastic? Still, it’s worth your attention—a model of funding projects that capitalizes on all the current hot buttons: social media, gaming, micro-finance.

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How does it work? Sites like Kickstarter, and are platforms to present projects to potential funders over the web.

Kickstarter, which I’ve been monitoring, is a fundraisingr website devoted to creative projects in need of financial support. Creators submit projects for approval by Kickstarter staff, set a goal for the amount of money needed and establish a deadline by which those funds must be accumulated. The pledged funds are only collected if the goal amount is met before the predetermined deadline. This is effective because:

1) It reduces risk. Supporters don’t have to worry about their money being wasted on an underfunded project

2. It allows creators to test concepts—and if an idea is going to bomb, wouldn’t you rather have it bomb (for little or no cost) on the web rather than via an expensive feasibility report of dubious utility?

3. It’s viral—supporters become recruiters, promoting the project via their own social media and word of mouth in order to see the projects they pledged to come to fruition.

That last point, recruiting not only supporters but enthusiasts, is huge. As the site points out, Kickstarter provides creators with the opportunity to tell a compelling story, and to enable supporters to become part of that story. Successful projects kick off this narrative with a punchy video short pitching the project. The video is a creator’s best chance to woo potential supporters through charm, inspiration or humor. They also court supporters with creative incentives, linked to levels of giving which might range from $1 to $10k, and they make effective use of social media to promote the heck out of the project.

The wacky thing about this is that it isn’t classic charitable contribution—you can’t write donations to these projects off your taxes, and you don’t get “shares” in a new business. (At least, not in the projects I’ve perused.) Beyond the incentives, you’re simply handing over money for something you think is fun or worthwhile. And yet, it works. While most of the projects have modest goals, in the four to six figure range, the most successful Kickstarter project of all time raised nearly a million dollars. (Mind you, with that one, backers got some real techno booty.)

Some project creators are slow to exploit the full potential of this new model. For example, some museum-fundraising projects on Kickstarter mimic traditional campaigns. (The Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis, for their City Wide Open Studios project, for example, offers incentives of listing on donor walls, memberships, t-shirts and tote bags.) But others explore the creativity and rule-bending inherent in this format. The Museum of Non-visible Art (a project by Praxis and James Franco) offer one dollar donors their undying gratitude (and a thank-you note), while a $10,000 sponsorship garners the lead donor sole rights to a conceptual art work consisting of a breath of fresh air.

Kickstarter projects don’t have to be “charitable” in the sense of being for the public good (though many are). A pitch may be by an artist wanting to caste sculptures of procreating mice in bronze, a group wanting to fulfill their lifetime dream of starting a vegan donut bakery, or a writer/illustrator funding a graphic novel.

But some projects do have a broader social good as their goal, and some such projects relate to museums, such the current drive by Brian Cook to fund a “Museum Passport” encouraging schoolkids to explore the museums of Hartford, CT. (This project, BTW, has a goal of $3,000 and is 75% funded with 38 days to go. Interested?)

Museums themselves are beginning to explore the potential of such sites as well. In addition to the projects mentioned above, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art raised over $3,000 to fund an exhibit of art by Al Jaffee of MAD Magazine fame; the Arab American National Museum garnered over $10,000 to support their Helen Thomas Sculpture Project; and the Neversink Valley Museum of History and Innovation (in Cuddleback, New York) raised over $11,000 to fund materials (architectural model, promo video etc.) to kickstart more traditional capital campaign.

Maybe you should try out crowd-sourced funding before the trend peaks…And please write to let me know about your projects! I would love to track them on the blog.

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  1. The Arab American National Museum utilized Kickstarter to complete a campaign last summer. The project sought to raise $10K to support the creation of a sculpture of Helen Thomas by a former colleague & friend from the White House Press Corps. The overall project cost upwards of $25K. As one might expect, this was one of numerous museum fundraisers at the time and, because of the economy, it ranked as a lower priority.

    We raised $15K over 1 year with minimal effort, but we raised the final $10K using Kickstarter in just 45 days. Many were first-time donors. Overall, it was a good experience and I suspect we will try something similar in the future.

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