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Science by Donation: Escaping the crowdfunding doldrums means creating your own breeze!

What does it take to get ordinary people to fund your science? This is the third in a series of posts that will explore the brave new world of scientific crowdfunding from the inside, as I go from launching to, hopefully, funding a scientific project by donation. The previous posts in the series are here (post 1 & post 2 & post 4)


The crowdfunding effort is well underway and by all accounts seems to be doing well. That isn’t to say that its rolling along smoothly on its own though. I’ve discovered that running this type of social-media driven campaign is like sailing a ship. When the wind is at your back all is well, but when the wind isn’t blowing you have to make your own breeze. Or, in my case, hitch the boat to a goliath catfish or two.


Overall, I still think that the biggest predictors of success in scientific crowd funding seem to be reasonable expectations, a developed social network, and above all a charismatic species or study location. But…these can be overcome with creativity and with lots of social media work.


Maintaining Momentum


After the first burst of donations, which I found mostly came from my own social network, things died down significantly. This is to be expected, according to They encourage the use of “Lab Notes” to generate interest and social media clicks. Lab Notes are essentially short articles or announcements that are attached to your crowdfunding page but separate enough that they stand alone. When you post one it automatically goes out to your prior backers and it has it’s own link so it can be shared on social media.


I was skeptical that Lab Notes would have much affect, but I was wrong. The chart below is the analytics I can see as the one leading the campaign. The two bursts of donors after April 17th were both spurred by the release of a Lab Note. Neither was a call for donations, instead they were informational pieces about the species we’re studying, first about sawfish and then about Amazonian goliath catfish. The Lab Notes focused on the cool and interesting aspects of the species and relied heavily on images. The writing is informal, even cheeky, and meant to keep people’s attention…think clickbait in the style of IFLScience or LiveScience.

Analytics from my project show the affect of Lab Notes in driving traffic and donations.
Analytics from my project show the affect of Lab Notes in driving traffic and donations.


Of course posting isn’t enough, this is a social media game and the doldrums are no fun. So, to create the breeze the project needed the lab notes were posted to Twitter and Facebook as many times as I dared without alienating my friends. I also posted two of the lab notes as links to the Marine Ecology and Fish subreddits, which added a bit of visibility and discussion.


Another bump in donations came when we announced, via Lab Note, a partnership with the international non-profit Ecologists Without Borders. I think it adds legitimacy to the project, which helps people feel comfortable donating, but it’s also a great new collaboration that will help us in the future. I imagine it would be hard to engineer this type of occasion for all scientific crowdfunding proposals, but highlighting your collaborations seems like a worthwhile thing to communicate.


This sort of constant struggle to keep momentum can become addicting though. I had to force myself not to constantly check my donations, I was starting to act like I did when I first discovered Facebook! Instead, I have tried to post to Twitter or Facebook about the project every time I get the urge to check the donations…I can’t say my behavior is healthy, but at least I’m directing it in a positive direction!


The Challenge Grant


Because we are part of a challenge grant I’m not just aiming for full funding, but also trying to maximize the number of donors. The search for donors in kicking into high gear because the challenge ends Wednesday at 3:00PM (PST). Whoever has the highest number of individual backers wins a $1,500 prize, so searching out donors is becoming important.


To that end I let go of my unwillingness to ask other scientists for money, at least to a degree. I asked the department secretaries in the three departments that I work within to forward a short email to faculty, staff and students asking for donations. I made clear that the amount of the donation didn’t matter, that instead I was aiming for everyone to donate.


“Just a dollar” has become my rallying cry. After all, we’re close to being funded (81%) and $1500 would secure not only the funds we’re asking for but funding for another sampling trip or funds for instrument time to do the analysis. We’ll see if this strategy pans out.


I have had a few people outside my social network donate after this effort to get the word out within the University, so I think it’s a good strategy. Unfortunately, it’s a channel that has to be used judiciously. Unlike your Facebook and Twitter friends, you can’t spam the University email lists too many times before people start to get annoyed.


What’s Working Across Groups


Because we are part of a challenge grant with other similar projects it’s been interesting to keep up with what is working and not working across all the projects. Because all the projects are similar in their focus on fish the comparisons seem easier to make, perhaps, than looking at all the projects listed on Experiment.


So, what’s working and what isn’t? The chart below shows all of the projects in the Fish Challenge, plotted by the number of backers and the percentage of the funds they have raised. The size of the circles represent how much each group is hoping to raise, with that amount listed inside the circle.


This chart shows the trends in number of backers (X-axis) and Percentage of Funding (Y-axis) with circles sized by the amount of the project goal.
This chart shows the trends in number of backers (X-axis) and Percentage of Funding (Y-axis) with circles sized by the amount of the project goal.


Several things jump out immediately. First, some projects just haven’t attracted many backers. Fully half of the projects have yet to attract more than 5 backers. I would be very interested to talk to all the project leaders and get their reactions to why their projects have or haven’t taken off. But, there also seems to be a relationship between the amount asked for and the progress made. There is a big separation between the projects above and below $4,000 dollars.


The plot below shows the same information, but the bubbles are sized to correspond to the average amount per-donation for each of the projects.


This chart shows the relationship between the number of project backers (X-axis) and the percentage toward the project goal (Y-axis). The circles are sized by the average size of donations for the project.
This chart shows the relationship between the number of project backers (X-axis) and the percentage toward the project goal (Y-axis). The circles are sized by the average size of donations for the project.

At some point I read that the average donation for projects on Experiment is around $100. If that is the case then clearly fish don’t generate that kind of donor excitement! The average donation across all projects in the Fish Challenge is just below $50. With the exception of the project on rockfish (which apparently make excellent taco’s according to the project leader!), all projects that attract the highest number of backers, not the highest donation amounts, are doing the best.


So, what can we glean from this information? First, while Experiment indicates that most successful projects are below $5,000, this data indicates that around $3,000 is a more comfortable amount…at least so far…we do have 11 days left.  


Finally, aside from picking a reasonable budget for your project, it pays to pull in as many backers as possible. This makes sense, the more people who donate the more people there are who you can reach out to directly with Lab Notes, and the more people who will share your project on various social media. Again, it comes down to working your networks to the best of your ability.


The Language Barrier


Because my project research is going to take place in the Amazon basin, I wanted to reach out to the people who are most affected by the plight of migratory catfish and sawfish. I have a few friends in Brazil, but I wouldn’t say my network is strong. Also, the project page is all in English, limiting the reach of my efforts.

When I saw another successful and interesting project on tree sloths had included Spanish subtitles on their video I thought this was a great idea!

The magic of the internet made the process fairly easy, even for someone like me with Spanish and Portuguese skills equivalent to a toddler. YouTube will automatically convert the soundtrack of your video to English subtitles (if the soundtrack is clean it works better). Then, YouTube will automatically translate these subtitles to other languages thanks to Google Translate. Of course, auto-translation can be absolutely horrible…so it pays to ask your native speaking friends to look these over and edit them. Finally, YouTube has a clunky system for subtitles, people have to turn them on rather than allowing you to turn them on automatically. So, I had to use a free, open source program called VLC Media Player to burn the sub-titles directly into the videos.


I’ve been sharing them with Brazilian friends on Facebook as well as pushing them to Brazilian sources on Twitter. While they haven’t driven a huge amount of traffic yet, it is a great method of outreach that I think is important. We’ll see if they can be used to drive a bit more traffic to the project in the next 11 days.


In conclusion, the middle of a crowdfunding campaign is a slog. It feels like you are constantly trying to get the ship moving again, turning the sails into every breath of wind, and hitching it to whatever will tow it a few more miles out of the doldrums. But, if you are slow and steady…and creative in using your social networks on and offline, you can continue to make progress toward your goal. I look forward to posting another update after the results of the challenge grant are announced on Tuesday afternoon.

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