Independent travelers are self-reliant: We don’t rely on tour guides to shuttle us around foreign lands, we blaze our own trails, and we pay our own way.
Unless we can’t pay our own way.
Most world travelers know the feeling of working hard for months (or years) to save up for the next big trip. This is an important part of the travel process, and one that makes the reward all the sweeter.
Many of us also know what it feels like to work hard toward a travel goal and remain utterly distant from it. This scenario is most present among young adults ages 16 to 23: those with the lowest wage-earning power yet the most freedom to travel. Think, for instance, of the 19-year-old working long hours in a climbing gym, or the underemployed recent college graduate making ends meet as a barista.
For the broke and travel-hungry, there are two clear options. The first: Travel more cheaply. Head to Central America instead of Europe; go for one month instead of two; use your parent’s beat-up old backpack instead of buying the glimmering new one in the outdoors store.
The second option: Don’t travel yet. Wait longer, work harder, and save more money.
Everyone should learn how to travel cheaply. But not everyone should defer their travel dreams.
Sometimes there are golden opportunities that deserve to be seized. Perhaps it’s the gap year that you take between high school and college: your one big chance to see the world before another 4, 6, or 8 years of school. Or the moment when two of your close friends can finally travel with you at the same time. Or when a rare educational opportunity suddenly appears: a multi-month apprenticeship with your favorite artist on the other side of the country, for example.
In moments like these, if you wait, you lose. This in when life demands a fast and creative fundraising solution. That’s where crowdfunding enters.
You’re probably familiar with Kickstarter, the preeminent crowdfunding platform for creative projects like movies, music, gadgets, and games. The concept is simple: someone needs a lot of money to complete a project that’s can’t be easily fund on one’s own. Other people make contributions to the campaign—typically $15 to $150—in exchange for rewards related to the project, such as a copy of the final movie / album/ gadget / game. Campaigners also offer unique, one-time-only rewards in exchange for bigger contributions, such as behind-the-scenes peeks, personalized rewards, special recognition, and opportunities to meet the creators in person.
When you crowdfund for travel or educational opportunities, you apply the same basic concept—asking many people to contribute to a big goal in exchange for rewards—with a few crucial distinctions.
The first (minor) distinction is that, for travel fundraising, you can’t use Kickstarter, which only allows campaigns designed for tangible creative projects. Instead, use Indiegogo: a well-designed and popular crowdfunding platform that allows fundraising projects of all stripes. (Your campaign probably belongs in the “community” or “education” category.)
The second (very large) distinction is that, with travel fundraising, you’re asking people to fund an experience, not a product. This changes the game significantly.
Crowdfunding campaigns that involve creative projects are inherently entrepreneurial ventures that offer products for cash. That’s the power of crowdfunding—it’s not charity. When you fundraise for an experience, however, devising valuable goods and services to offer is not so simple.
Smart Rewards for Travel Fundraising
When you browse travel fundraising campaigns on Indiegogo, you’ll see lots of $15 thank-you postcards, $40 t-shirts, and other rewards that make a campaign feel more like a charity drive than an entrepreneurial venture. This is a problem.
To be clear, virtually every crowdfunding campaign—for travel, creative projects, or otherwise—involves some level of charitable philanthropy. Donors aren’t just paying for the rewards offered; they’re paying to bolster a cause, support an individual they admire, or participate in something bigger than themselves. In other words: They’re buying meaning. That’s why it’s not wrong to offer thank-you postcards for $15. But in order to reach a wider audience than your immediate friends and families (who are already sympathetic to your plight), you’ll need to do better.
To create quality rewards, begin by surveying your talents and interests. Then ask yourself: What would someone who doesn’t know me actually pay me for? Can you illustrate? Throw pottery? Edit essays? Build websites? Provide evidence of these skills (photos, links, etc.) on your campaign website, and then offer them as personalized rewards to your contributors. For $100, offer to custom-design a website where you someone start blogging—a great reward for older, computer-phobic people. For $300, offer to tutor someone in music theory over Skype. For $50, craft a purse made from recycled plastic bags. If you have a skill that could be offered over Elance, Etsy, or Craigslist, you have a potential crowdfunding reward. (And if you think that you don’t have quality skills to offer, you’re probably wrong; ask a close friend or parent to help you identify them.)
After creating a solid foundation of skill-based rewards, add a few travel nostalgia rewards. Offer to bring back a souvenir—something only available in the place where you’re visiting—or create a short video of people you meet on your trip saying “thank you” in their native languages. Make sure that these types of rewards don’t feel cheap: Expensive rewards should genuinely require a bigger expenditure of your time and creative energy.
In your campaign description, remind visitors that they can always donate more than is required for a certain reward or without choosing a reward at all. This feature is important for super-inspired donors or a grandparent who just wants an easy way to support you.
Promoting Your Campaign
Consider the promotion of your fundraiser a part-time job for the entire length of the campaign. Post updates about your campaign on Facebook and Twitter, but don’t alienate your friends and followers by spamming them multiple times a day (unless it’s the very end of the campaign).
Your friends, family, face-to-face communities, and online communities (like blog readers) will be your biggest contributors; be careful not to start thinking of them as money trees to be shaken at regular intervals. If you or someone else has recently run a fundraiser that drew heavily from a specific community (such as your workplace, sports team, educational circle, or church), don’t run another immediately on its heels.
Showing Your Commitment
The most important and ethical way to get solicit donations for a travel fundraising campaign is to highlight the hard work that you’ve personally put into this goal. Did you work and save for months before this campaign? Do hundreds of hours of background research? Study a language for multiple years? These are the hard facts that will draw true crowdfunding energy. And if you haven’t put in this effort yet, perhaps it’s not time to run a fundraiser. Crowdfunding is a powerful tool that should be used sparingly.
When you ask people to help fund your next big adventure, make sure that you’re offering rewards that are creative and valuable, promoting it ethically, and demonstrating significant prior personal investment. Do these things well, and you’ll pave the way to a one-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity.
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Further reading for getting started:
Kickstarter Tips from a Fan of Crowdfunding (applicable to Indiegogo)
Blake Boles is the author of Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree and the director of Unschool Adventures, the travel company for self-directed young adults.
This article is based on Blake’s upcoming e-book, The Unschool Adventures Guide to Online Travel Fundraising. You can pre-order the book through Blake’s crowdfunding campaign until November 14th.