Why Crowdfunding is Not a Social Media Strategy

40e3174e8ac7bd6ceb6f93f5ba910eb2If you’ve been watching #AdvancementLive, reading fundraiser’s tweets or work in close proximity to your annual fund office, you’ve no doubt been hearing the buzz regarding crowdfunding. For those of us in social media it seems like a concept we – as frequent crowdsourcers – can easily understand, only in this respect you ask your crowd for, well, funding. Seems pretty simple right? I mean, if Veronica Mars fans can do it, why can’t higher ed?

Crowdfunding, according to Wikipedia “is the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their money, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations.” Sounds a lot like your annual fund, doesn’t it? When people begin to get excited about the prospect of crowdfunding their almost immediate next step is to social media. I’ve heard many a time that ‘crowdfunding works because of social media’, which led me to question ‘is that really what makes it work?’. Before we pin all of our expectations for crowdfunding  on our social media professionals, let’s think it through…

Social media are a means to an end. We use them as a tactic within a larger strategy. A strategy that is not only digitally focused. More than that, it is segmented and cultivated person to person, cohort to cohort. Just like your personal social media use: you have an idea, you talk about it with your like-minded friends, you come to a conclusion together. You don’t talk to non-rowing friends about rowing or Dexter’s horrible finale with non-Dexter fans. Now with crowdfunding, you aren’t simply sending out generic information to your uninterested alumni are you? We can’t mega-phone it in and hope for a big pay off.

What makes crowdfunding work is the specificity of the purpose and rallying like-minded people around it. It is tangible. It is a cause that the collective and specific ‘we’ can see through to fruition and then feel good about. It is the fact that we are needed to help solve a problem. Instead of pitching Veronica Mars to your friends who have never seen it/do not like it, you pitch it to your friends who are rabid fans. They pitch to other fans, and so on. The crowd has power. Specificity and passion make the cause work, not social media, which they use to communicate its value to others who also value it. Social media make it easier.

For instance ‘Hey everyone who ever went to school here: give us money to do stuff. You help make us better!’ is not as relevant or tangible as ‘Hey, rowers! Help us get $50,000 for a new alumni rowing shell before our first race against Penn this upcoming season!’. Of course more people in this cohort (the ‘Jess’ cohort) would want to give money to the second ask because it is tangible and meaningful and allows them to help people in a position they were in themselves before solve a problem. Middlebury is one example of an institution using this crowdfunding technique for everything from scholarships to athletic team trips abroad.

A different use is what UC is doing with its campaign for financial aid, where celebrities and alumni alike post what they’ll do if you donate a certain amount of money. Obviously using celebrities wins a huge pay off in word of mouth. Will it work? Will it engage the right audience? Will it create a stronger culture of giving? This remains to be seen. Much like the backlash Zach Braff encountered after launching a successful Kickstarter campaign for a movie many questioned if he could have financed himself, how much will the activity of the campaign itself – in any crowdfunding situation – influence brand perceptions?

As an unengaged alumna, the only times I have considered giving are the times that the ask was specific to my experience at the institution, not because it came from social media or a personal connection. What do you think about crowdfunding in higher ed? How strong of a role do you feel social media play?


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