Ask a Freelancer: Should I Crowdfund My Next Creative Project?By Nicole Dieker August 4th, 2015
So you’re a journalist with a big idea. Maybe you want to travel and embed yourself in another country for a story. Or maybe you want to turn a long story into a book and produce it independently. Or maybe you know you’re going to invest months of time in an article and don’t want to be compensated $100 or have an editor tell you to turn it into a 600-word blog post.
How are you going to fund your idea? Not everyone has the luxury of working for a publication that will pay travel and research costs. Many of us have to handle the costs of doing journalism on our own, hoping that the spec piece we’re working on will be good enough to attract an editor’s attention.
It’s no surprise, then, that many journalists are turning to crowdfunding to get the resources to write their stories. Some crowdfunding sites, like Beacon, are specifically designed for journalists; others, like GoFundMe, include journalism projects alongside campaigns for people requesting funds for health problems, rent, and other issues.
But should you crowdfund your next freelance project? Does asking for money make you lose credibility, or is it a good way to take on the ambitious story of your dreams?
I have always been a fan of crowdfunding. I’ve donated to a number of projects, run a successful Kickstarter myself, and last week I launched a Patreon to support the writing of my new novel, The Biographies of Ordinary People.
I decided to crowdfund my novel for the same reason you might decide to crowdfund an article you want to write: because this kind of creative work takes time, and if you’re a freelancer, a project without a guaranteed paycheck can kill your bottom line if it doesn’t work out. It is very time-consuming to write five short articles a day and a novel in the evenings. It is hard to complete that big story that takes months to report unless you can literally afford to take the time.
To me, crowdfunding a journalism project—or any creative project—makes sense if you can check off two boxes:
1. You already have a base of readers and supporters. This means you have to do the work of establishing yourself as a journalist (or musician or author or filmmaker) before asking your fans for money. After all, if you don’t have any fans who are ready to support you, your project will fail.
2. You are working on a compelling project. If your fans aren’t interested in what you’re selling, they won’t buy.
Let’s quote Amanda Palmer, whose book The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help is essential reading for anyone planning to crowdfund a project:
Effective crowdfunding is not about relying on the kindness of strangers, it’s about relying on the kindness of your crowd. There’s a difference.
Now that you understand that crowdfunding is for people who have already started to build a crowd, let’s take a look at what the most popular platforms out there have to offer:
As I mentioned above, Beacon is a crowdfunding site that focuses specifically on journalism. When you browse Beacon’s list of writers, you see people like Matthew Russell Lee, who currently receives $74 in crowdfunded support per month to “tell stories about the UN Security Council—and its victims,” or Mujib Mashal, who receives $140 in support per month to write about Afghanistan and South Asia.
For Marris, Beacon offered a funding source for the book she was planning, where traditional publishing methods couldn’t. Typical trade book advances aren’t enough, Marris said, and she thought few journals would be interested in collaborating on her wolf research.
Her Beacon project “Wild Wolves in the 21st Century” has raised over $11,000.
Beacon takes journalism seriously, and journalists and their audiences both appreciate that. The big drawback to Beacon? It isn’t a household name like Kickstarter. Crowdfunding is all about trust, and your fans often want to know they can trust the infrastructure you’re using to fund your project. (Would you donate money to a site you’d never heard of?)
So if you want to use Beacon, start prepping your audience in advance by tweeting about the platform or writing about it on your personal blog. The more your readers understand what Beacon is, the more likely it is that they’ll send their support.
Kickstarter is the crowdfunding site everyone knows about, which is great for you because you won’t have to explain to your aunts and uncles why you’re asking for money on the Internet. Kickstarter also recently launched a journalism category, which means your project will fit right in with Joshua Tauberer’s Congress-tracking project (current funding: about $5,000) and Maciej Ceglowski’s plan to take a 36-day voyage in Antarctica (current funding: about $36,000).
Are there any drawbacks to Kickstarter? Well, the biggest drawback is that it’s all or nothing; if you don’t get enough supporters to meet your crowdfunding goal, your project “fails” and you don’t get any of the money.
As the American Journalism Review detailed in April:
At Kickstarter, where the journalism project category is about to celebrate its first year, such projects have a 74.3 percent failure rate, according to company data.
I hope you can beat those odds.
While Kickstarter is built to fund a single project, Patreon is designed to fund more of a long-term body of work. My novel, for example, is going to take two years to write, which is why I chose Patreon over the other options
The people who are successful on Patreon generally have established careers and fanbases, which makes sense because Patreon’s model asks fans to give a little money every month instead of making a one-time donation. (Only a true fan is willing to give repeatedly to your cause.)
Susie Cagle, for example, is one of my favorite journalists, and her Patreon currently brings in $555 per month. She makes it clear that she does not expect Patreon to fund her entire career, but crowdfunding helps her fill in the gaps that her freelancing paychecks don’t always cover. As she explains on her profile: “These small pledges of support go a long way toward helping me pay for reporting expenses and art supplies.”
If you already have a solid freelancing career and are looking for a little extra funding to pay for reporting expenses (or write a novel), try Patreon. If not, keep pitching.
IndieGogo follows the Kickstarter model, with one big difference: You get to keep what you raise even if you don’t hit your goal. Right now, IndieGogo is home to a handful of journalism projects launched by established publications—like Gawker’s infamous crowdfunding effort to “purchase and publish a video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine”—but I was unable to find much in the way of freelance journalism, unless you count projects like “New Laptop for Creative Writer and Journalist.”
So if you want to try your hand at funding a story through IndieGogo, go go ahead—but you might be better served with another crowdfunding site.
GoFundMe is “the #1 do-it-yourself fundraising website to raise money online.” This is where you’ll find people crowdfunding to pay their rent or to cover an unexpected medical expense.
But you’ll also find journalists like Raven Rakia, who explains her project as follows:
Reporting, and especially investigative reporting, is super difficult without the backing, money, and support from a news organization (and without a full-time staff reporting gig). As a freelancer, I’m often not given a budget for expenses and travel. Most of the time, it all comes out of my own pocket. I have a few story leads that will bring me to upstate New York and Pennsylvania to investigate on a flawed trial that could prove someone’s innocence, the intersections of environmental racism and prisons, and other topics that I’ve been writing about for the past couple years. I’m asking for support to be able to complete this work.
She’s currently raised $2,860 in funding.
Should you try GoFundMe? If you’ve got a solid project, why not? Here’s my opinion, though: If I were choosing between GoFundMe and Kickstarter, I’d pick Kickstarter. I’d find it hard to see my project next to GoFundMe’s pages and pages of funding requests from people whose homes have burned down or who need money for serious medical treatments. Choosing a crowdfunding site that focuses on creative work would make me feel less like I was competing with these more urgent needs.
So that’s everything I know about crowdfunding. Remember that the most important part of crowdfunding is having a group of people who consider themselves your crowd. Once you’ve got that, you’ll be able to ask for money, maintain your credibility, and get the funding you need to complete your project or build the next part of your career.
Nicole Dieker is very excited about the novel she is writing, and hopes you take a look at the first chapter. She also hopes you send your Ask a Freelancer questions—and updates—to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image by hidesy