When I was in college I worked for The Sierra Club. For 12 months in 1996 I worked evenings canvassing suburban neighborhoods in and around Denver Colorado. By canvassing I mean I was the kid ringing your doorbell during dinner, when you least desired such an affront, and using a carefully memorized script, tried to guilt you into a donation, membership, a magazine, or a tote bag to support environmental protection. It was mostly terrible work: long hours spent knocking on doors that were 95% unreceptive. I had doors slammed in my face. Residents routinely lectured me about what an annoyance I was to them. It sucked. Even for a “good cause,” hitting people up for money is not a pleasant experience.
Most folks, even those whose hearts and minds are rooted in a charitable place, just don’t want to deal with the inherent complications of the vast charitable organization landscape:
· which organization to support
· what their money goes to
· how efficient an organization is by the standards of accountability
· where to find those standards of accountability; just to name a few.
Start digging into charitable organizations and it gets very complicated very fast. Most folks finally throw their hands up in frustration. Or in the case of the residents I encountered in Denver, Colorado circa 1996, politely shutting the door in some blue-haired, smiling kid’s face. Totally understandable.
Well, thankfully, Kickstarter.com found a way around all that.
Kickstarter is “The world’s largest funding platform for creative projects” with a stated emphasis on projects by artists. This kind of fundraising is referred to as crowdsourcing, and you can use that term at a party and feel very hip. The means by which these funds are raised look very similar to those of philanthropy; the money requestor ordinarily makes a short pitch video in which they try to convince you to financially support a project that will ultimately be good for the world, or your community, or their community, or what have you.
But the rules around this platform are very lax and that’s where Kickstarter starts to get a little murky. Because, really, what project is not creative? If I want to add a sun deck to my beach house, that’s creative, right? If I want to expand my artisanal burger joint, that’s creative too. A quick review of Kickstarter’s hosted campaigns will show you that it is overflowing with these types of projects, which, to me, are often entrepreneurial or profiteering ventures in charity’s clothing. (And to clarify, of course I’m not talking about your personal Kickstarter campaign, if you have one, dear reader.)
Also of note, Kickstarter does not allow any 501(c)(3) organizations, charities, or “cause oriented” groups to utilize their platform. So, as a money requestor, you don’t have to deal with any of those complex non-profit accountability matters mentioned above even though the campaigns often have the appearance of charitable intention. Kickstarter campaigns are indeed businesses. But what is that business?
If you launch a Kickstarter campaign what specifically is it that you are doing for money? Well, you’re begging. No that’s too harsh… How about digitally panhandling? Your job is to get people’s money from them so you can have it and do whatever you want with it – great! Unlike an IRS certified 501(c)(3), you’re not accountable for what you spend it on. Unlike a legitimate business that gets a loan or investment, you aren’t accountable to your investors or the bank – double great! So while the American Red Cross, or The Human Society, or Earth Justice are still using arcane techniques like canvassing, mailers, or convention tables to fail at getting your money, and small businesses are getting denied SBA loans left and right, some people are handing over their dough like it grows on trees to people on Kickstarter who have sexy, current, and hip videos selling you a rainbow of all the great things they are going to do but are in no way obligated to do, nor are they subject to any financial consequences if these things fail. I think this matter is worth consideration.
It was this line of thinking mixed with a mutually shared bizarre sense of humor that inspired Packard Jennings, Steuart Pittman and I to realize that if we campaign to raise $10,000 on Kickstarter to erect a 9 foot tall papier mache statue of Tom Hanks in front of Oakland Technical High School, and we end up spending, say $9,900 less than expected for the completion of the project, Kickstarter can make no claim to what we do with our profits. If we make the money, we can do what we want with it. Therefore, we could take a page out of Kickstarter’s own book by co-opting their method (as I suggest they have done with that of charity) and take that $9,900 in profit, give it to the auditorium renovation project for the performing arts department at Oakland Technical High School, and make some broader points in the process. And Kickstarter would have absolutely no say in any of that either – sweet!
So then, all we need is the 10 grand. We’re 18% of the way there and we’ve only got 7 more days. Damn, we’re going to have to knock on some doors.
Me: “Knock Knock”
You: “Yes, can I help you?”
Me: “Hi, I’m Scott Vermeire and I’m from Wonderment Consortium, we’re an Oakland based arts collective currently focused on raising money for Oakland performing arts students, would you like to help support our project?”
Wait – that’s not going to work.
Let’s try this: