Joining the Crowd (or How I Learned to Indiegogo)

In prepping for hosting Stampede Labs earlier this year, I read Christopher Olsen’s Off-Off Broadway The Second Wave: 1968-1980. Lots of great anecdotes and things I didn’t really know about the movement. One thing that stood out for me was where the money came from to fund the work of the companies working at that time. Back then, it was fairly common for a good company to get 60% from grants and 40% from ticket sales.

Nowadays, the grant pool is tightening. So crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo, Kickstarter and more than 100 others have flooded the web to help projects. This has been a blessing and the source of some backlash.

My indie theater and film company Elephant Run District is in the final days of our first Indiegogo campaign. I’ve learned a few things I felt would be good to share. First is that I have money issues. What’s so special about that? Absolutely nothing. Everyone has money issues. But my biggest issue is that I don’t want to ask people for money. It’s so unseemly. It shows I’m weak and unable to do something on my own. It says I haven’t gotten it all figured out. Or I fear people will think the work isn’t good enough to have financial angels drop wads of cash from their large condos into our coffers.

I really really really don’t like asking for money. I’m afraid of losing friendships or having people turn on me. I’m worried we’ll be mocked.  Just before we began our campaign, someone posted on Facebook that he had received 70 requests to help fund projects in the 2 weeks prior to his post. Having been on the receiving end of a similar flood of requests, I know what a bind it can put you in— “I can’t give to everyone. I don’t want to play favorites.” So my compromise was to forgo using my Equity card to get into shows for free and to pay full price for tickets for Aimee and me. (We take turns.) I felt it was making both a show of support physically and by putting money down. The problem is there is only one of me and hundreds of shows happening at once. With work, running ERD, doing work for LIT and trying to be an artist, it’s hard to get to everything. But I get to a lot. Here is my stack of programs for roughly the last 2 years. I don’t have a count.

program pic

One thing I’ve learned is that some people give anonymously. They don’t want the world to know that they gave to one campaign over another. Also, some folks don’t want to blast how much they donated. They will send a note that says, “I have hundreds of people asking me for money. Please don’t let anyone know I gave to your campaign.” Who can blame them? Seems like a legit way to deal with things. This is something I’ll do when I can’t get to shows I want to support from now on. Ralph Lewis, a poetically blunt man and true person of the theatre, says we’re all passing around the same twenty dollars. There’s a lot of truth to that statement. If only that could fund everything people want to do.

Going into our campaign, we were advised by the producer/director/coach Andrew Frank that the majority of the money comes at the beginning and the end of the campaign. So you want the window of time in between to be as short as possible. With that in mind, we made our $10,000 campaign only 30 days long. Andrew said 90% of campaigns that get to 30% make it all the way. We hit that mark in about nine days. The second week was a lull. For three days of our third week, we had an anonymous donor who was matching $1 for every $2 we received. This helped us leap from 33% to 69% and was followed with a few more donations. So far, we’ve had 92 funders give to this campaign.

We were advised to go with Kickstarter as our funding platform. The deal is either you get to 100% or you get nothing. While that makes for more drama and raises the stakes, the thing that made me not want to use them is that they are affiliated with Amazon. I’m also glad we did not go with Kickstarter because you can’t contribute anonymously with them. No bueno.

With Indiegogo there’s a 7% fee (4% for FirstGiving’s payment platform and 3% for credit card fees) or 12% (7% + 5% of what I’ll call the Loser Fee) if you don’t reach your goal. For our campaign that’s a difference of up to $500. You can arrange for a “Fixed Funding” structure, which will work like Kickstarter where you don’t get any funds and the funders get refunded if you need that extra kick in the pants.

What we had going into our campaign was our Managing Director Ethan Angelica. He worked very hard to create new content in the form of videos and pictures to go out to the internet each day, with a detailed schedule. He also arranged the perk structure and all the details. It was like magic seeing all of it come together. He wanted to have our max be $7,500. I pushed for $10,000, saying it’s good to go beyond our comfort zone.

As I type three days away from the end of our campaign, we’re at $7,089.

$10,000 is a lot of money. For some people it’s not but I don’t know many for whom that’s true. Most of the work I’ve done has been solo shows on shoestrings. I tried a couple times to ask for donations but it felt too personal so I was unsuccessful. Having a company structure and our 501(c)3 has helped me get beyond those squeamish feelings. Half of me wants to call Ethan and tell him I’m sorry because he was right. Or that, at the very least, we’d almost be there by now. Half of me wants to push ahead.

But you must use caution in forging ahead. In an effort to drum up donations, you can’t blast too many emails, tweets or Facebook posts. I’m being especially cautious with ERD’s email. Our open rate is between 18% and 25% and we lose 1 to 5 people on each email we send. We’ve been steadily adding people as well so that number is fairly consistent. But you can turn people off on Facebook. We’ve tried really hard to not just email and post “give to our campaign” over and over again but to come up with amusing or earnest expressions of thanks to funders.  This was tricky during our dead week. I don’t have a lot of time for social media so I try to make it count. Aimee did things like post a video of a song on Facebook with a different theme each day and we noticed an uptick in donations. Ethan was good at evaluating when we were getting traffic and then helping us know when to post.

I’m astounded by the fact that we’ve had 92 funders give to our campaign. I’m genuinely grateful to all of our funders both on this campaign and at previous times. It’s been a real vote of confidence to see the numbers go up. We’ll be able to pay for some things on both productions we haven’t had previously and we’re trying to grow. We became a real-deal not-for-profit this year and are starting our free Brecht in the Park series. We’re sending our first show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Both seem to have people excited about our work.

We’re in the final days of the campaign. As I feel the pressure build, I’m trying to allow myself to let go and not make the world crazy with asks. Ethan crafted a direct ask email for part of our email list that did not open the last email. This will either help with donations and interest in our projects or result in more unsubscribes. I imagine it will do a bit of both. Either way, we’ve scored a victory on this campaign.

In figuring out what kind of company we were going to build with Elephant Run District, we wanted to give back and bolster the indie theater territory. I hope this gives an idea of what you are up against if you haven’t done a crowdfunding campaign and a bit of comfort for those who have.

And, you know, if you have an extra $5 or $10 there are worse places to put it than here.

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