Opinion: the push to crowd-funding

Yesterday I attended a crowdfunding workshop staged by two local authorities in conjunction with a crowdfunding platform which they had chosen to partner for local projects.

I say 'attended' because I actually left at half time. I say 'left', I actually slid out through the fire exit...

In the UK in 2018, we're looking back on ten years of austerity policies, having bailed out the greedy, useless bastards in the banks who crashed the economy. We're most certainly not "all in this together" (the equally useless bastard David Cameron, whose party of over-privileged posh boys were never in this with anyone).

We're also looking at ten years of funding cuts to charity and voluntary sectors, as central government gradually cuts all discretionary funding.

So to invite folks on the front line to a 'workshop' to tell them a chunk of their previous grants have gone and now they have to Internet crowd-fund on an all-or-nothing basis in order to qualify for matched-funding from a pot the size of an egg-cup, well that was never going to be an easy sell.

The crowdfunding platform people really didn't help themselves; it was a shambolic presentation by a very genuine chap out of college who had no idea who he was talking to and therefore no context. The folks from the two local authorities, spoke late, spoke poorly and didn't set the context either.

When it became clear that the matched funding available is minute, conditional and tied into this webby-thing that you have to get your supporters onto and then promote the hell out of, the session disappeared down the rabbit hole of questions to the LA folks about what happened to the previous funding and how it sits alongside the current funding sources; and the fact that most of them are mutually exclusive. It all got a bit frosty.

There were, predictably, three responses; anger, bewilderment and disinterest.
  • Anger - one third of the room felt like they'd been conned and the whole thing was to dress up further funding cuts from the local authorities, making them work a lot harder for less or even nothing at the end of it.
  • Bewilderment - one third of the room didn't understand most of the new scheme, weren't Internet-literate, and had no idea how they would reach beyond their current support network to achieve the targets for all-or-nothing matched-funding.
  • Disinterest - one third of the room decided it wasn't worth the time and effort for the kinds of projects they run and what was the point, they didn't have much of a crowd to tap into?
You could hear the cog-wheels turning as people realised you've got to play the talent-show game of a tear-jerking sob-story to catch funder's attention. We don't need that many mosquito nets for children in Exeter; prosthetic fourth legs for three-legged donkey calfs is a bit of a stretch. The flip-side, the reward-based funding model doesn't really apply either; most of these folks don't have a 'product' that funders themselves can benefit from, like a signed first-run t-shirt, limited-edition snuff box, or even cheap doughnuts from the community bakery. It's things like community transport, 24-hour helplines, unglamorous, day-to-day stuff that doesn't have a compelling sob-story or any funder benefits package.

When most of the answers to the questions were 'read the instructions on the crowd-funding website' I decided I wasn't going to get anything out of the session and left.

This isn't to say that crowd-funding is a bad thing. The folks from the partner platform can point to a huge number of successful projects and a lot of cash raised, and we know from the stats this goes for several of the larger UK and International crowd-funding platforms; it has launched careers and good causes, benefiting large numbers of people.

However, for the overworked, underpaid and tired grass-roots volunteers in that room, this was a snake-oil pitch disguising some financial sleight-of-hand by local authorities with no discretionary spending left. The message was poor, the content generic, and the prospects of getting funding at the end of it not great as they saw it. How do you compete for pennies with guide dog puppies and the local kitten sanctuary? So it doesn't really matter how successful the partner platform has been (you shouldn't have mentioned your fees so near the beginning, chaps), these are not the tech-savvy audience of hungry young entrepreneurs you're from.

It reminded me of past promises of technological advancement - if you build it they will come - presented as The Only Game in Town, but this time no one was ready to swallow it. RC