Blog: The crowd goes wild

Crowdfunding logos

22nd September 2017
Post by Josey

Crowdfunding, when people contribute to a single project and make it happen through their collective funding, has changed the way things receive backing. Because of it, many products, services and campaigns that wouldn’t otherwise have existed, can be found in the world today.

A quick search of the biggest crowdfunding platforms reveals everything from independent films to fold-away canoes, from cancer treatment for sick animals to innovative new music. What crowdfunding essentially allows is for large numbers of people to share the risk of a project failing. This is a change from pre-internet days, when big-budget projects would usually be reliant on a smaller number of people investing a lot more. This increased the risk for those individuals; making it less likely that they would commit in the first place.

Nowadays things are different. With crowdfunding, it doesn’t matter if that life-size waxwork model of Donald Trump you’re funding never gets made as your total investment may only have been a tenner!

Cowdfunding can allow creative, innovative things – things perhaps considered outside the mainstream – to happen. An event to showcase, for example, an obscure cuisine from Mongolia, might never take place without the possibility of crowdfunding. This event might go on to eventually contribute, or even directly lead, to wide-scale adoption of the dish within domestic diets…all thanks to crowdfunding; it’s the potential that crowdfunding opens up that makes the concept so exciting.

Three's a crowd

An example of crowdfunding success in the charity sector comes in the form of Greenpeace’s iconic eco-ship Rainbow Warrior III. In 2011 (before crowdfunding was mainstream) Greenpeace asked their supporters to help fund the construction of the vessel, which replaced the ageing Rainbow Warrior II. Examples were given of what different gift amounts would pay for in terms of the ship’s engine, interior and fittings... and it worked. This successful campaign, and others during the same period, helped usher in a “new” way to raise funds and soon a successful crowdfunding campaign was near the top of many NGOs’ wish lists.

Rainbow Warrior 3

The irony for the charity and NGO world though, is that we’ve actually already been doing crowdfunding for decades, we just never called it crowdfunding. There are countless examples of charities calling on their supporters and others, either by post, phone or email, to help fund a particular project or specific area of work. This could be building a school in a developing country, research into a new cancer drug, or a campaign for the human rights of an individual to be respected. Free Tibet's examples of this usually focused on political prisoner cases. In all instances, a large number of people gave (usually) small amounts of money, to something specific….aka crowdfunding! This still goes on today, outside the buzz-fuelled world of online giving platforms. We just call it fundraising.

A mixed blessing?

To get technical for a moment, most fundraising that NGOs do – Free Tibet included – falls under what’s known as ‘unrestricted income’, i.e. money that can be spent wherever the need is greatest. The only fundamental difference with crowdfunding is that money raised is ‘restricted income’ meaning the money has to be spent on the particular project in question. This can sometimes be restrictive for organisations like us that need to respond reactively and quickly to events on the ground. As the situations change, so may our priorities for where money should be spent. However, it’s also an opportunity to ensure big pieces of work, that wouldn’t otherwise be given the go-ahead due to internal financial restraints, become a reality. It’s also a great way for supporters to let us know what they think is important.

The restrictions mean that it’s absolutely essential that any crowdfunding we do is of maximum use to our organisation and its goals. Once the money is raised for that particular project, there is no going back. In 2016 Free Tibet sat down to decide what it was we most needed to achieve our aims, but that was beyond our reach financially. We decided that we needed a better understanding of public perceptions on Tibet and, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, we were able to commission a ground-breaking piece of research. We now have detailed analysis of public understanding in four major countries. One of the key things we learned from that analysis is that we need to be better at outreach and education on Tibet, so our 2017 crowdfunding campaign responds to this need with a plan to produce an animated short film about the Tibetan struggle.

The way funds are raised is shifting, particularly as the internet becomes more sophisticated and apps allow for it’s use in more refined ways. However, crowdfunding simply formalises the techniques long-enshrined in the fundraising strategies of charities and NGOs. Useful certainly, but nothing new.

You can find out more and contribute to Free Tibet’s latest crowdfunding here

About the author: Josey joined Free Tibet as Fundraising Manager in 2015. When he's not raising money to support Free Tibet's work, he enjoys walking, playing the guitar and spending time with his family. He first became aware of the human rights situation in Tibet during a trip to India in 2008 which coincided with the Beijing Olympics and widespread protests in Tibet.