Why we join with total strangers to fund other total strangers’ projects online.
Some friends and I have been working for the past three years on a book project exploring questions of faith and politics, specifically libertarianism. We recently opened our project up to the world through an Indiegogo campaign. As a crowdfunding platform, we are asking the world to donate to our efforts to help us promote the book when it comes out next year, and they have the option of getting the book as a perk. We were prepared to be ignored and to quietly take the project down and pretend like nothing happened. We were prepared with talking points to respond to criticism and backlash. What we did not expect, was to find community.
In the last month and half, we’ve met hundreds of people who are asking the same questions as we are in our book. They have encouraged us, prayed for us, and funded us. In preparation for this effort, I had studied crowdfunding academically, but through this experience, I’ve been interested in uncovering the spiritual side as well.
In the last half-decade, crowdfunding has been used increasingly by entrepreneurs, businesses, and nonprofits that are discovering its advantages as a means of raising funds. Not to mention the hobbyist raising funds for his new game or the group of friends trying to sell their new book.
In 2010, early crowdfunding adopters raised $880 million globally. Compared to $16 billion in 2014, and this year (2016) crowdfunding is expected to raise over $30 billion. This is a significant threshold for the industry as it means that crowdfunding is going to raise more money for projects than venture capital.
Indiegogo, the platform that I’m using to run our campaign, reported that in 2015, “more than 2.5 million people from 226 countries and territories contributed to 175,479 campaigns, ranging from innovative technology, to creative film and entertainment, to social impact.” People who study these things are seeing the emergence of two new personas of funder – the presumers and the custowners. Presumers “love to get involved with, push, fund, and promote products and services before they are realized” while their close counterparts, custowners are “consumers who move from passively consuming a product toward funding and investing (if not owning a stake) in the brands they buy from.”
Addressing these two kinds of consumers, there are two kinds of crowdfunding sites on the rise, some that bring in donations and some that connect with investors. The former are vastly more popular, and sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter both fit into this category. The latter is populated by smaller sites that aren’t trafficked by the same kinds of users.
From a spiritual perspective, these sites are helping create a platform for something much more significant than investing. In his excellent talk about “A Spirituality of Fundraising”, theologian Henri Nouwen defines the work of raising money as an invitation:
Fund-raising is, first and foremost, a form of ministry. It is a way of announcing our vision and inviting other people into our mission. Vision and mission are so central to the life of God’s people that without vision we perish and without mission we lose our way (Prov. 29:18; 2 Kings 21:1-9). Vision brings together needs and resources to meet those needs (Acts 9:1-19). Vision also shows us new directions and opportunities for our mission (Acts 16:9-10). Vision gives us courage to speak when we might want to remain silent (Acts 18:9).
Fund-raising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission. Fund-raising is precisely the opposite of begging. When we seek to raise funds we are not saying, “Please, could you help us out because lately it’s been hard.” Rather, we are declaring, “We have a vision that is amazing and exciting. We are inviting you to invest yourself through the resources that God has given you— your energy, your prayers, and your money—in this work to which God has called us.” Our invitation is clear and confident because we trust that our vision and mission are like “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither” (Ps. 1:3).
What a great platform crowdfunding has made for inviting others into your vision and giving them a clear role in accomplishing your mission. For entrepreneurs, this invitation has breathed life into products that may never have seen the light of day, such as the Coolest Cooler, a portable cooler which included a blender and stereo. They wanted to raise $500,000, but over 62,000 investors accepted the invitation to join their quirky vision and raised over $13 million.
Crowdfunding also invites others into your story. From the written pitch to the video, potential funders want to know how they are going to help make the world a better place by helping your vision come to life. As some friends of mine discovered in one of their campaigns, this storytelling can make or break your campaign. Nouwen also addresses this saying the following:
Fund-raising is also always a call to conversion. And this call comes to both those who seek funds and those who have funds. Whether we are asking for money or giving money we are drawn together by God, who is about to do a new thing through our collaboration (see Isaiah 43:19). To be converted means to experience a deep shift in how we see and think and act. To be converted is to be clothed in our right mind, to come to ourselves the way the younger son did when he was starving far from his true home (Luke 15:17-20). It is a shift of attention in which we set our mind on divine things (Matt. 16:23). “Do not be conformed to this world, As a but be transformed by the renewing of your form of minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and ministry, perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Fund-raising as ministry involves a real conversion.
If fundraising is an invitation to join a mission and vision of something better for the world, and a conversion for us to be transformed through the renewing of our minds, this is arguable one of the greatest ways we can give of ourselves to our neighbors. It’s not just giving of our money, but a giving of our energy and our cares and our prayers. We are buying into the small slice of this project and believing that God can use it to bring about better flourishing and a tiny, proximate experience of the good life.
We do this when we donate to the obviously helpful and heartbreaking causes, like the GoFundMe pages for victims of crimes or natural disasters. But we also do this when we give to our friend’s book, a new game, or an inventive new cooler.
Crowdfunding has opened the door to this kind of community to all of us who may never be venture capitalists or major donors to causes. As someone in the position of raising funds, this community has proven to be an immense blessing. For my coauthors and I, we’ve spent the last three years writing a book we didn’t know if anyone would read. We are mentally and emotionally invested in this project that has absolutely exhausted us. But by opening our project up to the world, sharing our story and our struggles, we’ve been richly rewarded with a community. We’ve been able to meet others who have asked the same questions. We’ve sold hundreds of copies of our book before it’s even gone to the publisher, and we’ve heard countless times from our backers that they can’t wait to give our book as a gift.
If fundraising is an invitation to participate in a vision, crowdfunding takes it one step farther and invites both the backers and the project owners to join a community.
You can connect with Jacqueline Otto Isaacs on Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads. Elsewhere on the internet, you’ll find her blogging about faith and economics for the American Enterprise Institute’s Project on Values and Capitalism, reviewing recipes and restaurants for Cloture Club, reviewing books for the Conservative Book Club, and occasionally opining about early career advice for SingleRoots.com.