Community, Crowdfunding & Incentives

©Mark Wickens

Over the last few weeks there have been several interesting posts about crowdfunding, and in general a high level of buzz. It’s been encouraging to see some critical analysis from the likes of David Campbell, Tomas van Hourtryve and a few others.  The skeptic in me thought that most of commentary on crowdfunding would gloss over some of the challenges in favor of touting the virtues of the shiny new form of funding.

Yes, it is certainly an encouraging development with plenty of potential but it’s still very untested and I think anytime we can step back and examine how the model can be refined will only make it more viable in the long run.

As I’ve been reading these articles and thinking about it, I keep returning to a couple of fundamental aspects of the crowdfunding model: building a community and providing valuable incentives in exchange for pledges.

©Missy Prince

The Importance of Community Building

With the rise of crowdfunding, I think the the importance of building a community is starting to dawn on many more photographers.  The only way these crowdfunding projects really work is if the artist has a strong community they can tap into and count on to assist in promoting.  While some projects might have a compelling enough theme or idea to spread organically, most will likely count on funding from a dedicated number of followers whom are familiar with the artists work.

Many photographers who have ideas about going down the crowdfunding path might soon realize they hadn’t done enough work in building a community over the years, which will make it difficult for them to reach their funding goals.

For me, this is one of the key reasons why it’s important for photographers, especially documentary and fine art photographers, to start building their communities as soon as possible.  In the past it may have seemed like social networking was little more than a vanity game, but now we’re seeing exactly how photographers who’ve worked for years to build a loyal following can leverage that to help them achieve their artistic goals.

I don’t want to sound like I’m saying the only reason you should build a loyal following is because you could potentially ask them for money later.  Naturally it’s more important and valuable than that.  Besides, these days when so much social capital depends on transparency and authenticity, it’ll be hard to really pull one over on most audiences.

It all starts to tie together: transparency, authenticity, community building, collaboration, funding.  Suddenly those thousands of Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr, Blog followers don’t seem so trivial.

When you decide to turn to the crowd to fund your next project, will there be a large enough crowd to support you? Are you pitching your project from a podium, or does it come up in a passionate conversation amongst peers?

©Noah Kalina

Valuable Incentives for Pledges

Clearly part of the appeal of pledging toward a project is that you receive something in return.  Sure there will be some projects where people might just want to pitch in to help someone complete their project, but for the most part donors want something for their pledge.

What incentives a photographer offers for pledges is an area that can lead to some friction, make or break the funding, and for me, ultimately lead to some innovative approaches toward executing projects.

For the most part, you’ll see some fairly standard incentives: exclusive access to blogs, prints, books, dinners, etc.  These are all fine but aren’t necessarily that imaginative.  Joerg Colberg also makes a very good point about over emphasizing physical incentives (emphasis mine):

Money, of course, is the big issue for all those small donations – if you want to raise money you can’t afford to spend $9 on every $10 donation. That’s where exclusive websites or emails come in – in terms of money, they’re very cheap. In terms of what they really do – namely to involve the people who are generous enough to donate money – they’re priceless.

I agree with this sentiment.  I’d much rather receive exclusive content than a small print. But beyond that, and here’s where it could really get interesting, I’d like to participate in the project.  It sounds sort of crazy. Why would you pay to participate in a project?

There are many ways you can participate though. For example, with work in progress, a photographer could elicit opinions from valued supporters about the work. The supporters could put together small edits, voice opinions about the photographs, brainstorm about potential subject matter, provide research about a subject, etc.  A good example of this in action is David Hurn’s recent exhibition at Third Floor Gallery in which he had the members of HCSP pair together photographs from his archive.

This is right up the path of Clay Shirky’s ‘cognitive surplus’ as well.  I think people will pay to contribute to exclusive projects. Naturally, this could get complicated but with clear rules about what a donor receives for their pledge, there shouldn’t be too many problems.

For photographers, setting up incentives that encourage donors to participate can open up some exciting possibilities for collaborative projects.  This could be especially true for social documentary type work where donors are not only invested in the art, but in the cause.

While providing physical objects as incentives is important, I don’t think photographers should discount intangibles like participation & exclusivity because they could end up as the most valuable part of the project, for both the creator and the donor.