For most, donating to a crowdfunder is a way to back a beloved artist, or help a friend with extortionate medical bills. But what happens when things go wrong?by Penny Andrews / August 20, 2019 / Leave a comment
What links Chris Williamson, Tommy Robinson, Jolyon Maugham and the man who threw a milkshake at Nigel Farage? Not Brexit—it’s raising money online.
Once mainly seen when your friend wanted to raise funds to go to Edinburgh fringe, crowdfunding has moved from the creative industries out into the wider world, where it’s being used by people of all political backgrounds, from Americans paying for medical bills to Remainers wanting to fund a legal challenge against No Deal. Some offer particular rewards: special rehearsals or artwork, or a thank you in a book. For others, the sense of participating in something grassroots is its own motivator.
Crowdfunding is an umbrella name for funding a project or venture via small donations from a large number of people—whether it is via a dedicated platform or just sharing with followers somewhere donations can be sent, such as a Paypal account. Some dedicated platforms allow any kind of fundraising, like GoFundMe. Others are dedicated to charitable fundraising (JustGiving), legal costs (Crowdjustice), producing writing and other forms of culture (Patreon) or supporting entrepreneurs (Indiegogo, Kickstarter). This year, crowdfunding has a transactional value in the UK of £68.7m, representing over 14 per cent growth year on year.
Journalists, authors, artists, LGBTQ+ people, environmental rights groups and more are taking the 1000 true fans concept—the idea that you only really need a select group of people who will buy anything you produce to succeed—and monetising their following online. Academics and journalists writing about the noughties internet were excited about the possibilities of participatory culture, and even though the sort of people who now become celebrities, famous musicians, influencers and politicians are mostly the same as they ever were, it is easier than ever to find and support your community online.
We can help online pals on the other side of the world with their obscenely high surgery bills, and help bands we love to make another album. We can also chuck our friends online a tenner when they’re struggling. I personally benefited from this support from my followers when an accident meant I couldn’t work for months and simultaneously lost my clothes, coat and bags to the paramedics’ scissors. Now I wonder: Does that make me a grifter, exploiting my friends for their cash?
It is easy to mock people trying to raise money online, particularly people with different politics or lifestyles than our own, or those who seem to be exploiting the hopes of a desperate fanbase. But not all crowdfunding is created equal.
It seems diminishing of the potential impact of both cases to compare a campaign group supporting former Labour MP Chris Williamson against the family of murder victim Susan Nicholson—regardless of your views on the legality or morality of each—but distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate fundraising efforts can be difficult. From the recent collapse of direct-to-fan music platform PledgeMusic to Kickstarter failures, who disappear with the money, many creators and supporters can tell stories of things going wrong. Australian Lucy Wieland obtained £30,000 in donations from followers who believed her fake social media stories of her journey with ovarian cancer, breaching their trust as well as the law. JustGiving had to suspend over 200 accounts after con artists set up fundraising pages in the wake of the 2017 Manchester bombing, when the public were keen to give money to those affected.
Donating usually comes down to whether or not you like and trust a person, what you think they might do with the money and if you have the funds available. In many cases, there is very little transparency, and trust depends on existing relationships—just like it does outside the internet. Of course, problems can also arise when fundraisers offer donor rewards that are then impossible, or uncomfortable, to fulfil. Recently, an open letter from a fan of a particular actor, in which they admitted going into debt to crowdfund a certain production, went viral online. Paying back the loan was not the only problem. This fan stumped up for a high level of support for the production in order to enjoy a promised access to rehearsals and more.
The producers were not expecting a change in the level of personal engagement or passion for the play when they changed funding model—and the fan ended up being asked to stay away from performances due to making actors feel uncomfortable. Platforms, too, are having to learn the lesson that not all originators of crowdfunding projects nor their supporters behave in the expected ways. Some donors expect the personal relationship to continue after the project has ended and any rewards have been fulfilled. Regular communication from the campaign and personalised rewards—plus a space where backers can comment at length and know that their messages will be seen—can set up a level of familiarity and expectation that is difficult to maintain, but which can feel like a loss when it is withdrawn.
Trust on the internet is a big deal, just like it is everywhere else. It is easy to say that what other people do with their cash is not our business (assuming they freely consented to give it away). But as crowdfunding continues to grow, people who fundraise for their projects need to be alive to the need for transparency, and aware of the power and exploitation that can occur when in a position of truth. People who donate, meanwhile, have to accept that they won’t always like what happens to their money. Sometimes things in the real world just don’t work out, too.