Since Kickstarter launched in 2009, everyone from indie bands to technology developers to non-profit organizations has asked themselves, “Will crowdfunding work for me?” Libraries, which often turn to more civic-minded crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo and Fundly, are no exception. But the question remains: does it work?
Cassandra Elton got the idea to establish the Antelope Lending Library in a well-traversed mall on the Southeast side of Iowa City while she was working at an after-school program in a local elementary school. Elton found that her students—primarily from low-income and immigrant families—did not have access to the literary culture for which the city is known.
“We talked to the public library about it and they said, ‘Oh we serve the Southeast side from our downtown location.’” Elton disagreed. “I said, ‘We need to do more.’”
Elton sought to raise $20,000 to lease a space for the library for a year. She initially looked at Kickstarter, but found that running a library “didn’t really fit with the terms of service.” Kickstarter explicitly states that a project is “something with a clear end” that can “eventually be completed” and prohibits raising money for “causes.”
“And so we found out about Indiegogo, which functions just like Kickstarter, but you can do non-profit endeavors,” Elton said.
Non-profits, including libraries, can be found on Kickstarter, but it is most effective for art projects and technology development, according to a recent infographic in the Economist. Indiegogo goes the extra mile to provide non-profits with an additional network of donors by allowing visitors to the site to browse “Causes” with subcategories like “Education” and “Religion.” It also permits continual fundraising for the same organization.
One Indiegogo campaign, a few road-bumps, and several helping hands later, the Antelope Lending Library is set to open as a book mobile in June.
The library ultimately did not reach the fundraising goal it set on Indiegogo; the campaign only raised about $13,000. But this did not deter the project. By the time the campaign was over, circumstances had changed, the goal had shifted, and, most importantly, the project had found new local collaborators.
The option of “flexible funding” is a key reason why alternatives like Indiegogo and Fundly appeal to libraries, which also generally have local investors beyond their online crowd campaigns. Kickstarter, which has an “all-or-nothing” policy, returns any money raised to donors if the full fundraising goal is not reached within the set time frame.
Elton said she was frustrated, however, by how much of the money raised on Indiegogo was taken as commission. If a campaign doesn’t reach its full fundraising goal on Indiegogo, the site takes a nine percent commission, whereas, if it is reached, it takes only four percent. Across all fundraising platforms, donations made through PayPal sacrifice an additional three percent of the money raised.
Still, Elton said she would use Indiegogo again (albeit with a more moderate fundraising goal).
“You can’t really learn about it until you do it,” Elton said, “because every project is different and you don’t really know how it’s going to work out.”
There are, however, some insights to be gleaned. For one thing, short-term projects and new projects may benefit most from crowdfunding.
Last year, the Santa Cruz Public Library ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund its participation in a global art project called Inside Out. Project facilitator Mariah Roberts had received a green light from the city, but no money.
In addition to raising the $5,000 required to print the large-scale portraits of community members that would adorn the facade of the downtown library branch for four months, the campaign also raised the profile of the project, which brought future opportunities.
“[Kickstarter] is a great publicity format,” Roberts said. “For example, we had folks from the paper who were able to get an email saying, ‘Check out the Kickstarter,’ and then they watched the video and, all of a sudden, they had something to ask us about. It’s just an easy way to start a conversation and buzz around your project.”
SCPL’s Inside Out is now about to run for a second time. This time, the Santa Cruz Arts Commission has agreed to fund it.
But Roberts emphasized that crowdfunding still takes a lot of work. “It’s not magic,” she said.
Even the best publicity only goes so far when the fundraising goal is very large.
The small town of Shutesbury, MA, wanted to build a new library, and had to raise $1.4 million in order to receive a $2.1 million matching grant from the state government. After failing through more traditional funding methods (a proposed tax levy), proponents of the library changed course.
A volunteer filmed adorable local children holding signs stating why they needed a new library and set it to a catchy ukulele tune. The two-minute video achieved the ultimate goal of any campaign: it ‘went viral’ and hundreds of donations poured in from all over the world.
Mary Anne Antonellis, Director of Shutesbury’s current library, said that in addition to using Fundly and social networks like Facebook and Twitter, they sent the video out to a few library bloggers.It was picked up first by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing, then by influencers like Oprah and Neil Gaiman, and then by the press.
“It was a really heartwarming, wonderful experience,” said Antonellis.
Yet, in spite of all the attention, the new Shutesbury library remains unbuilt.
The town’s fundraising endeavor brought in about $250,000, which the library has kept in a fund it hopes the Capital Planning Committee will grow until the next grant round comes up in a few years. In the meantime, Antonellis said she believes the fundraiser attention helped garner broader support within the community.
Elton said that Indiegogo was helpful when no one knew about the Antelope Lending Library yet, but that her goal is also to transition to relying more on traditional, local funding sources.
“In the future, once we’ve got the Antelope Lending Library up and running, the people in the neighborhoods will know who we are and it will be easier to fund-raise closer to home in tandem with online fundraising,” said Elton, “which I think would be the most effective way to fund-raise.”