It breaks my heart every time an awesome teen says “Blake, I’d love to go on an Unschool Adventures trip, but I just can’t afford it.”
A small amount of money shouldn’t stand between you and your dream, whether it’s a dream of traveling the world, producing a movie, building a website, or seizing a high-quality educational opportunity.
I don’t have the solution to all of your money problems, of course, but I have been paying attention to a new and rapidly growing method of fundraising: crowdfunding. In this post I’ll explain a few key strategies for creating your own crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a trip, project, or other goal.
[Total reading time: 20 minutes]
When you “crowdfund” a project, you ask for small contributions from a very large number of people, typically by harnessing the power of social media. Using crowdfunding I’m confident that, within one month, a social media-savvy young person can raise $500-$5000 for:
- A big international adventure, especially if it has a learning focus
- A well-defined creative project like producing a film, writing a book, coding a game, or creating a website
- A community event, with or without a charitable cause
- A significant, once-in-a-lifetime educational opportunity
- A tiny business startup
The two biggest crowdfunding sites today are Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. Kickstarter has received much more press than IndieGoGo thanks to some of their wildly popular (sometimes multimillion–dollar) projects. But with fame comes selectivity; to run a campaign on Kickstarter you must apply, and they often deny applications. (They denied three of mine!)
That’s why I use IndieGoGo, which lets anyone start a project. Over the past year I’ve used IndieGoGo to raise $2,370 to build the Zero Tuition College social network and $9,200 to publish my new book, Better Than College.
Other successful IndieGoGo campaigners have raised thousands of dollars for their music albums, films, travel, and business startups. Teen unschooler Tendal Mann raised over $3000 for his zombie film and Weston Messer, one of my mentees, raised $1,225 for his missions trip to Peru.
Another advantage of IndieGoGo over Kickstarter is that IndieGoGo lets you keep the money you fundraised if you don’t meet your campaign goal. (They do, however, increase their fee from 4% to 9%.) Weezie Yancey-Siegel, a 19-year-old who I interviewed for Better Than College, attempted to raise $7000 to fund her travels and a writing project. She was only at $3,136 when her campaign ended, which IndieGoGo let her keep. Kickstarter operates on an all-or-nothing model, which means they would have refunded everyone’s donations. I bet Weezie was still happy to have raised over three thousand dollars for her travel and writing.
So, I’m biased toward IndieGoGo. But all of the crowdfunding advice I give, and much that you’ll find online, can be applied to both IndieGoGo and Kickstarter campaigns.
Crowdfunding Isn’t Charity: The Magic of Perks
The magic behind crowdfunding, I believe, is that you’re not asking for a handout.
Some people think that slapping a PayPal “Donate” button onto a website or posting a Facebook status that says Please donate to my project/cause/whatever is fundraising. But in my experience, you’ll have the same chance of raising a significant amount of money by watching your navel lint accumulate.
Unless you’re fundraising for a truly charitable cause, don’t ask for charity with your crowdfunding campaign. Unless I’m a family member or close friend, I’m not going to give you $50 to travel to France just because you ask nicely. Instead, make me a deal. Offer me something unique, compelling, cute, or useful—and ultimately meaningful—in exchange for my donation.
Both Kickstarter and IndieGoGo embrace this idea by asking you to create perks (Kickstarter calls them rewards). Every donor to your campaign receives a perk. The more money someone donates, the bigger and better a perk they receive.
During my book campaign, I offered the following perks:
$15: a copy of the e-book, three bookmarks, and your name in the Acknowledgements
$25: all of the above plus a signed paperback copy, shipped to your door ($5 more for int’l shipping)
$75: all of the above plus two more signed paperbacks, ten more bookmarks, and ten stickers
$150: all of the above plus a “funny, heartwarming, witty, and/or charming thank-you video”
$225: all of the above plus 20 e-books donated to a group of your choice
$350: all of the above plus 200 e-books donated and Skype consulting with Blake
$500: all of the above plus 10 paperbacks + 50 bookmarks + 50 stickers
$1000: all of the above plus lunch and a hike with the author in Lake Tahoe, CA
Analyzing the best content and pricing of perks could be an entire blog post in itself. (Here’s the best such analysis I’ve found.) But a few principles are clear to me.
Offer perks directly related to (or produced by) your project. If you’re raising money for a film, don’t send me a Snickers.
Your perks shouldn’t be so fancy/expensive that they suck up all of your donations. The point is to use your fundraising money for your project, not just providing the perks. (This isn’t necessarily true if you’re crowdfunding a physical product launch and essentially using the platform for pre-sales.)
Your perks shouldn’t feel cheap. In other words: don’t make your perks so dinky that it feels more like a charity donation. I think that Weezie’s perks could have offered more at the $25 and $100 levels. My book campaign’s perks were too weak at the $225 and $350 levels (and perhaps other levels).
Personalize, customize, and one-time-only-ize. Great perks can’t be found anywhere else.
Produce excellent perks under $100. Most crowdfunding campaigns succeed through tons of small donations rather than a few big ones. Your $10/$25/$50/$75 perks will net the most cash, so make them awesome.
The Best Perks Sell Meaning
Most importantly, know this: You’re not offering perks, you’re offering meaning.
How do you give people “meaning?” You do it by giving them the chance to:
- be part of something big
- support a motivated young artist, adventurer, or self-educator
- be personally recognized
- receive a behind-the-scenes look
- meet you in person
- enjoy a one-time-only offer
Of course, the quality of the physical (or digital) perk that you offer matters. You can’t polish a turd, as they say. But equally as important as offering a quality perk is creating meaning. That’s why a $1 personalized thank-you postcard mailed from New Zealand can earn you $5 toward funding your New Zealand trip.
Teenage unschooler Alex K. from Victoria, Canada, shared this great piece of feedback on creating meaningful perks:
“You want the funders to feel like a part of them is going with you—like they’re a part of the journey themselves. A postcard could do this to an extent, but here’s another idea: Take a photo on top of a mountain in New Zealand with a sign that carries the funder’s name and the date. That creates a deeper connection between the funder and campaigner.”
Alex’s mountain top photo idea would unquestionably create a sense of meaning. Combined with a thank-you postcard, you’ve got a solid $15 perk.
Bring home a small souvenir that can only be found in New Zealand—to be mailed to the donor upon your return—and you’ve got a $25 perk.
Next, throw in a CD of funny things that Kiwis (New Zealanders) say. Record this CD as your travel around the country, and then burn the CDs when you get home. There’s your $50 perk.
Exploit some quirky personal talent for the $75 level—perhaps you can draw or paint a New Zealand landscape.
Finally, for $100, offer a t-shirt with that New Zealand landscape on it.
(All of these perks would be cumulative: for example, the $75 perk would also include the $50, $25, $15, and $5 perks.)
Perks like these can provide meaning while also not breaking your budget. But don’t just copy these ideas for your own campaign: browse lots of campaigns in the same genre as yours (travel, film, technology, etc.) to get great perk ideas. Do this research—it will pay off.
And finally, a warning. Don’t think for a second about not fulfilling your perk promises. Crowdfunding operates on a trust model. People contribute to your campaign, you get the money, and then it’s up to you to provide the perks on-time and as-promised. The Kickstarter and IndieGoGo police won’t come after you if you fail to deliver. Don’t fail to deliver. You’ll lose people’s trust and tarnish crowdfunding’s reputation.
Promoting Your Campaign
Shortly after my first book got published, I realized that no one—not my publisher, not Amazon.com, not an independent bookstore—was going to seriously publicize my book but me. I realized this too late, and I did a pretty poor job of promoting the book.
The same truth applies to your crowdfunding campaign. You’ve got to do-it-yourself, baby.
Don’t expect that by simply publishing your campaign, people will donate to it. The anonymous public won’t. Some mythical IndieGoGo-trolling philanthropist won’t. No one will donate to your campaign unless you actively, strategically promote it, day after day. For the entire length of the campaign, consider its promotion your part-time job.
Of course, “promotion” doesn’t mean spamming everyone you know. That will make them ignore you. Instead, it means:
- Posting links and updates to your social media networks every few days.
- Politely asking other people to re-post your links to their networks.
- Asking people you know who write blogs or newsletters to spread the word.
- Tapping specific networks of people who are related to your project — your online writer’s group, local alternative school, former travel buddies, etc.
- Making a habit of telling people about your campaign in face-to-face life.
Here’s a fact that both IndieGoGo and Kickstarter emphasize, and I found to be radically important: Your friends and family will be your biggest donors and cheerleaders. These people know, trust, and believe in you, and therefore they will be your first and best promotional team. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help if the campaign is going slowly.
Also, if you’re fundraising to join a certain event or program, tell the event/program organizers about it. If you’re fundraising to write and self-publish a NaNoWriMo novel, for example, write the NaNoWriMo blog administrators and tell them about your campaign. They might think it’s interesting and post a story about it on their blog, attracting new donors. If you’re fundraising for an Unschool Adventures trip, I’ll gladly publicize your campaign on the Unschool Adventures Facebook page (and my personal Facebook).
Special Advice for Teens and Unschoolers
This article only addresses two aspects of crowdfunding: perks and promotion. At the bottom you’ll find a list of must-read articles that explain the rest of the crowdfunding process. But much of that advice is aimed at a general adult audience. For young adult unschoolers, I’ve got a few extra pieces of advice.
Milk your age. When crowdfunding, youth works to your advantage in two ways. First, it implies that you’re broke. Unlike a 25-year-old who’s had a fighting chance to earn money, you’re a poor impoverished 16-year-old who deserves a little help toward that big trip/project.
Match efforts. Don’t rely only on your crowdfunding campaign to provide the funds you need. Get a part-time job, sell your art or services, mow lawns…just do something that shows that you’re working hard for this goal and not relying entirely upon other people to make it happen. Be sure to mention these efforts on your campaign page.
Emphasize learning. No matter what your project/goal is, think of it as a learning experience—which it surely will be. On your campaign page, emphasize that donors will be contributing to your education, whether it’s a cultural education, entrepreneurial education, creative education, or all of the above. Adults love supporting an enthusiastic, self-directed young person’s education.
Tap the unschooling community. If you’re an unschooler, know that there’s a giant online community out there that’s ready to help promote and contribute to your campaign. I’m hugely indebted to this community for my own fundraising successes. Get in touch with a few unschooling conference organizers to start—they’re typically well-connected and will gladly help you get the word out.
Get an editor… or three. Please, please, please don’t just write up a first-draft project description and then launch it. Have a different set of eyes read your page (and your perks, and your personal bio) and give you constructive feedback. Do this two or three times. Really. Ask these friends/family/mentors/grammar-nazis to help you craft a compelling, compact, and typo-free proposal. (This advice isn’t teen-specific, by the way. I still recruit multiple editors for my fundraising campaigns and other important writing pieces.)
Important Articles for Further Research
There are the creme de la creme. Read them thoroughly before starting your campaign.
The IndieGoGo Blog (specifically the Customer Happiness and Insights sections)
If you use this article to help start your own crowdfunding campaign, I’d love to hear about it. Please post a link in the comments section. We might help you promote it!
Finally, here’s an idea that I’d like your opinion on. Do you think that this blog post, if expanded with additional research and examples, could be transformed into a short e-book? And if I ran a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign to publish that book, would you contribute? Let me know below!
Thank you Brenna McBroom, Jessica Barker, and Alex Kurucz for providing feedback on early versions of this post.