The idea behind crowdfunding isn't new. If you've ever organized a group of friends or family members to chip in and buy a present that none of you individually could afford, you've crowdfunded. If you've ever given some change to someone in the street who asked you for it, you've crowdfunded. What is new is the ever growing number of websites that are set up to help people raise money (from friends, from family, from strangers) for something they want or need.
In 2012 I decided to turn to Kickstarter, by far the most popular site for crowdfunding creative projects, to raise money for my first children's book about reproduction. I ended up making my goal in the first 24 hours and by the end of the campaign had surpassed it by 690%.
Most crowdfunding projects never make their goals, and projects that have something to do with sex or sexuality face additional obstacles of stigma, embarrassment, and shame. When my campaign was over it was the most funded picture book on Kickstarter. As a result, each week I get several requests from people wanting to know how I did it. No one can do exactly what I did because part of crowdfunding is that it's a unique reflection of you. But I thought it would be helpful to put together some of the advice I give people, as well as some of the tips that helped me.
You'll notice that advice below isn't specific to raising funds for a sexual health or sexuality related project. Most of what you need to know applies to every project. The unique challenges of raising money for something to do with sex comes when you have to think through your language and the obstacles to getting people to share the project publicly. But first, the basics.
Understand the Platforms
Start by getting a lay of the land. Make sure you understand the difference between crowdfunding, which is just about getting money from people, and crowdsourcing, which refers to also asking for input/ideas from the universe. Learn about the differences between crowdfunding for creative projects where people give money and in return receive rewards, and crowdfunding for business, where people can invest and even own shares in the future of your product or company.
Read a few introductory articles about crowdfunding from news sources you trust. Then go check out a bunch of sites as a potential backer (the term for someone who gives money to a crowdfunded project). Better yet, actually back a few projects, which allows you to really experience it from the other side and has the bonus of paying it forward a bit. One thing that your potential and actual backers want to know is your ability to follow through. Demonstrating that you understand the systems you are using to raise money is one way to instill confidence in your backers.
Choose the Right Site
New crowdfunding sites are popping up all the time. What started out as mostly musicians and indie filmmakers raising money for their projects has blossomed into sites and projects for everything from HIV research and education to video games, mobile apps, and arts and crafts projects.
Most of the time my advice is to use Kickstarter for the simple reason that they have the largest audience. When you start your campaign people backing it will probably come through your personal networks, friends of friends or family. But a site that has a lot of people coming to it means more chances that strangers with an interest in what you are doing can stumble on your project. Popular sites, like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, will bring people to your project who otherwise might never have seen it. By the end of my project, almost 20% of people who gave me money found me through Kickstarter, not through my networks.
When it comes to sexuality related projects you may have fewer choices. The bigger sites will usually deny any project that is too sexually explicit. So if you're making porn you're usually out of luck. Same goes for sex toys. It seems like some educational films get a pass, and a lot of it has to do with how you position your project, but if you want to highlight the sex parts of it, you may need to choose a smaller, more niche, crowdfunding site. There are a few sites that are specifically geared to sex related projects. Choose wisely though, and consider the company you are keeping when reviewing those sites.
Why Would People Back Your Project?
You should be able to answer this question, even if it has many answers. Specifically, you should have a sense of whether people are going to back your project to get the reward or product you are hoping to produce, or are people going to back it because of the idea behind it, because of the politics, or because of you. There's nothing wrong with creating a crowdfunding project with the intention of only having friends support it. You might want to raise $1000 so you can finally finish your short story collection, or publish your own erotic photography. If you think you know 100 people who will give you $10 each, you're in business. But if that's your situation and your goal, your campaign will look very different than if you are trying to raise $50,000 to get your sex toy invention off the ground.
It's important to dream big, and stay motivated by infinite possibilities. But it's equally important to move beyond the great idea and toward a more realistic understanding of who will be most likely to support your idea is. Your best guess at who and why people will back you should inform every aspect of your campaign.
Work on Your Pitch
For most crowdfunding sites you need both a written pitch, or description of your project and what help you need, and a video. The video is by far the most important element of your pitch, but before we get to that, you need to be able to answer a few questions, and answer them succinctly. In three minutes or less you should be able to describe:
- What the project is.
- Why you want to do it and why it is needed in the world.
- Why you are the right person to get it done.
- What you need to get it done.
You may want to start by writing it out, but it's also helpful to practice with friends out loud. The first few times you'll do this it will be long and meandering. But you want to be able to explain this briefly before you ever start writing your text for your project page or making your video.
Don't worry about explaining all the details of what your project will do or achieve, and don't spend a lot of time telling us why it's going to change the world or why it's the greatest idea ever. Get to the point, but do so with excitement and with hinting at all the other things there are to say about your project. People should hear your pitch and know right away if it's something of interest to them. If it is, they should want to know more (and there are ways to offer more information later without loading down your pitch).
What's Your Relationship to Backers?
This is a conceptual, but important, consideration. You are going to be spending a lot of time asking strangers and friends for help. Once someone decides to help you, you need to know what your relationship is to them. Are you friends? Is the relationship that of buyer and seller? Artist and admirer? There isn't a right answer here, but the best way to prevent backers from being disappointed is to be clear from the start what your relationship is with them. If you tell people that you want not only their money but their input, and then you ignore emails from backers offering suggestions, you're setting yourself up for trouble.
Interactions on crowdfunding sites are unique, and the clearer you can be up front, and the more consistent you can be throughout your campaign, the less time you'll have to spend explaining yourself and appeasing disgruntled backers, and the more successful your project will be overall.
Setting Deadlines and Financial Goals
Most sites allow you some leeway in how much time you have to raise the money. With very few exceptions I recommend no longer than 30 days. 30 days is a long time to run a campaign, so in part it's about your quality of life and ability to maintain focus. But one of the hooks about crowdfunding that seems to work well is the sense of limited time. This is why I recommend Kickstarter's all-or-nothing model (where you either reach your goal by your deadline or you receive nothing). People are busy, and it's easy to say that you'll give tomorrow or next week. When you see that there are only 3 days or 12 hours left, if you believe in the project or simply want the thing that is being promised, you'll act.
Choosing a dollar amount as your fundraising goal is partly a question of math and partly a question of motivation. You should already have a detailed budget and a realistic idea of how much money you need to pull off your project. Next, you should try to estimate, roughly, how much money you think you can raise. If you're not sure how to do this, I recommend this article by Ryan Koo. Of course this is a guess, but try to make an educated one. Finally, with both of those numbers in mind, you should add just a little bit. Your goal should feel just slightly out of reach. Not unrealistically so, but I do believe that it's best to go into a crowdfunding campaign a little bit scared that you aren't going to succeed. It keeps you motivated, and it also keeps you humble and willing to ask for help, which is essential.
What your rewards are should be dictated both by the project itself and by why you think people will back you. If your project is art related, for example, and you think most people are going to back you because, like you, they believe a giant dildo installation will make the world a better place, then you don't need to offer all sorts of unrelated rewards that people probably don't want anyway. But if you're writing a book and you think most people will give you $15 for the book, then that's what your $15 reward should be. What is most important is that your level of rewards are easy to understand. Don't offer dozens of levels when six will do. Some people connect the rewards not just to the literal content of the campaign, but to underlying themes. It's an opportunity to have fun and playfully communicate something else about you and your project to your backers. Just keep it simple!
Even if you choose a crowdfunding platform that doesn't require you to make a video, you should make a video! It's the best way to get your message across and the most likely thing people will share. My number one tip for the video is that it be short. No longer than three minutes and ideally closer to two or two and a half. Think about the kinds of videos you like to share with friends and consider all the different places the video may be shared when choosing both language and visual imagery. Your video doesn't need to look professionally produced as long as you are sincere, and it's not too long.
Once your campaign starts plan on spending the next thirty days asking for help. You can't do crowdfunding alone. And it helps to get help even before you start. If you have a few friends who will act as a support team, enlist them. Ask them to check in with you every few days just to see how it's going. See if they'll commit to sharing your project at least once a week with their networks (even though yes, that can feel annoying). It is also good to have a few friends lined up to chip into your campaign as soon as it goes live and before you start sharing it with the world. Most people won't want to be the first person to give, so having $50 or $100 in the pot before you send your project out to the world is a good idea.
You can call it marketing or outreach or promotion, whatever it is, you should have a plan in place before your project goes live as to how you are going to get the word out. One way to approach it is to think of sending the word out like a pebble dropping into water, with concentric circles getting larger and larger, and further and further from the center. There are many ways to do this. One example is to start with friends and family, then move to colleagues and co-workers, then to bloggers who you don't know but might want to share your project based on similar interests, and finally to the media. Getting mainstream media attention shouldn't be something you spend too much time on as it's not necessarily going to bring you the best return, but you never know, and you should try everything.
When I was researching my Kickstarter project I read in several places the advice that you should be prepared to ask people three times during your campaign for help. Apparently this comes from the world of marketing where they say people need to be "touched" three times before they really pay attention. I don't recommend touching strangers, ever. But I do agree that people are so busy that they can easily ignore the first and even second email.
You need to find a way to communicate your need for help that fits who you are. In my case this meant that the first time I emailed people I offered a half-joking warning that they were going to hear from me three times that month. I apologized for it and promised that once my campaign was done things would return to normal. What I found was that no one complained. Those people who didn't care just ignored all three emails. Some people responded to the first, some to the second, and several told me that it was good I asked three times because they had kept putting it off, but were in fact happy to help.
Communicating with Supporters
Once someone has gone from being a potential backer to an actual one, you owe them some communication. It might just be a thank you and a note that you'll be back in touch after your campaign is done with an update on the project. You might choose to send out a weekly update to all your backers. Find a balance between inundating them with multiple updates about every little thing you're excited by and not communicating with them at all so they feel like now that you have their money you don't care. How you communicate with backers should link back to the question of what your relationship is to them. You don't need to do more than you promised, but if you don't keep your promises, you may lose them as backers and it's less likely they'll continue to share your project during the campaign.
Some people aren't sure about asking backers for more help once they've given you some money. This is partly about managing a relationship. If they backed your project they probably do have some interest in helping you make it happen, so asking for help is a good idea. But you don't want them to ever feel as if they are working as hard or harder than you are to get you to your goal. Keeping to one update a week (at most) is one way to strike a balance. Being clear with backers that it's your job over the next 30 days to keep asking for help, but that they've already done more than enough, is another good idea. It's as much how you say something as what you say that can have a positive or negative impact, which becomes the difference between having backers who are cheerleaders and having backers who are more like silent partners.