The crowdfunding circle

Last night, Dana Segal shared her thoughts on crowdfunding. Her article was eloquent and deeply felt, not least because I can identify with every word she had to say.

Like Dana, we’ve relied on crowdfunding in the past – and, by extension – on our friends and families, minus a commission paid to the crowdfund websites. Like Dana, we narrowly lost out on an Arts Council funding bid very recently (indeed, Dana helped us to write it and, with almost no bribery at all, she told us it should be the easiest £2k they ever spent). And, like Dana, we’ve got a crowfunding campaign running right now, because where else are we going to get the money?

(By the way, Request Programme opens next Wednesday whether we get the money or not.)

So I just wanted to run through a few thoughts, mostly in parallel or extension to what Dana has already said here.

1. It sucks to be in competition with your friends.
As she rightly points out, crowdfunding basically creates a circle of IOUs. She donates to mine and I donate to hers. Now, that’s better than not donating at all, because in a world where all you hear from the big funders and programming departments is “sorry, no”, you’ll take all the “hey, yes!” you can get. Someone’s got to have your back, even if the net profit ends up being zero. Or less.

But what sucks is thinking about how much you want to promote other people’s campaigns, but worrying about diluting the impact of your own. Thinking – “okay, I’ll tweet about them on Monday, so I can do my own promo today without cluttering my followers’ newsfeeds so much that they switch off entirely”.

You end up trying to mentally formulate what percentage of your social media coverage should be about you, and what percentage should be about other people – people who, at the end of the day, you genuinely want your followers to know about because when you have an audience with broad, eclectic taste everyone. fucking. wins. You end up gaming your friends and collaborators to protect your own projects. That’s really rubbish.

2. The crowdfunding websites are diabolical.
We used WeFund in 2013 when we transferred Dinner and Pornography from Middlesex University to Brighton Fringe. We are rightfully proud that we exceeded our £2k target in under a month. It was a fantastic campaign which worked for three reasons:

  1. We had an enormous (twenty!) team of people who were all 100% committed to the cause. We knew the work was good, we all wanted it to happen, we were all genuinely excited and motivated by it.
  2. It was confidently and optimistically led by myself and Rosanna. It’s nothing new to observe that fringe virginity gives you the kind of optimism to go “this is fantastic! What could possibly go wrong!” We were sensible, but unhardened.
  3. We made use of an extended network of mentors – some of whom were prolific industry figures, others with years of authoritative experience, all of whom went out of their way to share advice, listen to our concerns and champion our ideas.

But none of those reasons has anything to do with the WeFund website. Every single donor was drawn from the company’s extended network (so there being 20 of us was pretty useful here). If WeFund has an engaged audience of arts advocates, we certainly didn’t benefit from it. Despite being a featured project on their homepage. So what did our commission pay for? A campaign page with dodgy HTML and a fancy progress bar? The back end isn’t that great either. So when you take into account the fact that we build our own website anyway, really, on reflection, the fancy progress bar is pretty much all we were paying for.

This time there aren’t twenty of us. We don’t have that big network to tap into. And what’s worse, 90% of correspondence to do with the fundraising campaign was to do with people finding WeFund difficult to use, unreliable, overcomplicated. You have to create 2 new accounts (with WeFund and PayPal) just to make a pledge. It’s a no-brainer, particularly when you’re asking people’s parents for money, that people don’t like putting their details into an unknown website; lots of people don’t trust PayPal, and they definitely don’t want to do it twice. I’m certain that we’ve lost hundreds of pounds because of this.

So, we abandoned WeFund and built a new page on our own website (please help us). Some people have been extraordinarily generous. Sadly, that has barely made a dent on the hundreds of pounds which has come out of my own pocket.

3. We believe in our fucking companies.
Why else would I empty my wages into a show I’m not even directing? It’s nothing new to observe that there’s a huge support deficit for emerging companies. The loss of IdeasTap will only make that worse. But, as I’ve cringeworthily written before and will again and again and again, I am in love with our theatre company. It is literally my favourite thing. (And I have an espresso machine.) I will push it and nurture it until I die of exhaustion, because let’s face it, it’s come from a place with no people, no reputation and certainly no money, so I don’t really see what else could stop me. But you’re not supposed to take advantage of that. It’s not good enough for the government (and, by extension, ACE) to sit back and say – “Ah well, the artists will keep making art and the art lovers will keep paying for it, no matter what we do”. That’s true, but fucking lazy.

Our recent Arts Council bid was, on the whole, a positive experience. It was by far the biggest funding bid we’ve ever submitted, and to be told “it’s fine, we just don’t have any money” stings a bit but it’s not a bad consolation prize for a company as young as us.

But there’s a qualitative aspect to the Arts Council experience which is in many ways just as important as the quantitative funding they provide. As Dana and I have said to each other more than once in the admittedly brief time we’ve known each other, ACE is our nation’s designated facilitator for the arts and as such they have a mandate to place value on the arts and artists in a way a tenner from your mate on WeFund never can or will. All that means is your friend backs you because they’re your friend. The work itself has little or nothing to do with it.

With the caveat that it’s absolutely appropriate to have a robust system which makes sure that the work they support is work that it’s in the public interest to make – because no, it absolutely should not be the case that any Tom, Dick or Harriet can get a grand from the Arts Council to do The History Boys in the church hall – where is the celebration of the companies which, by their own admission, are worth the money if only they had it to give?

If what our rejection letter amounts to is “yes your work is in the public interest, but the competition was just too strong”, then is that really the best they can do? In 2015 it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to have something as simple as a page on their website called “Work We Wish We Could Fund”. Or find £23k a year to assign a development officer to all the Companies They Wish They Could Fund.

Just a teeny bit of qualitative acknowledgement to say – Chin up. It’s not just you and your mum. We think you’re great too.

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