Monday, December 17, 2012

Crowdfunding A Library

Before you read this you should know that for this post I interviewed a personal friend, Cassi Elton, whom I have known since the sixth grade (we've come a long way since 1999.) I’ve supported her project financially, so obviously I’m not an impartial voice. However, the purpose of this post isn’t to raise funds for the Antelope Lending Library – it is to take a closer look at the structure of the project. With grants harder and harder to obtain, harnessing the power of the Internet as a community is playing a larger role in taking a project from enthusiasm to reality. Crowdfunding is something that is already being done to support science research, education, and other community projects so I asked my friend to share her experience.

First things first, who is Cassi Elton and what is the Antelope Lending Library? I’ll allow her to explain using their fundraising video:


Elton is a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. She saw a need in her community for a library on the southeast side of Iowa City – located closer to several schools so that students can go there regularly rather than needing parents to take them downtown to participate in events at the main library. As you can see from the video, the people involved in this project are certainly not short on ideas and excitement – or on books. They already have stacks of donated books. What they need is a physical space. So where does the money for that come from?

While there are grants and funding opportunities for educational, community based projects, according to Elton they usually support programming. So, it is a lot easier to find a grant that would support classes for STEM education, than it is to pay for a building to hold them in. This is something that I’ve heard echoed by scientists and researchers as well – not that they need a building, but that getting started is becoming harder and harder because to get a grant for research you need to have already done research. A lot of work goes into getting to the point where a project could compete for a grant. It reminds me of the employment dilemma so many of us are facing today:  to get experience you need to already have experience. To get financial support, you need to have proof that your research or project is worth funding.

So if a grant isn’t an option to fund the physical space needed for the Antelope Lending Library, what else is there? Private philanthropy is a possibility, but the Antelope Lending Library is a small endeavor. These are graduate students trying to do something to make an impact in their local community. Finding a philanthropist willing to give the library $20,000 as a lump sum is highly unlikely, I mean how many people do you know that would give that kind of cash to a library that doesn’t actually exist yet? What is far more probable is that if Elton, along with her fellow graduate students and members of the community start reaching out to their personal networks the sum needed for the library’s rent can be cobbled together from smaller gifts – everything from $10 to $1,000. That’s where the Internet comes in.

The Antelope Lending Library is hosting their fundraising on Indiegogo – which some people who read this blog may already be familiar with, since it is the website used by Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal to raise over $1 million for a museum dedicated to Nikola Tesla. But Indiegogo is just one platform for launching a project like this. Kickstarter is another popular crowdfunding website. For scientists there is also PetriDish, and RocketHub which hosted evolutionary pharmacologist Ethan Perlstein’s successful campaign to crowdfund a methlab (for science, of course.) One of the things Elton says she likes about Indiegogo is the fact that through flexible funding the Antelope Lending Library will still get whatever funds are raised even if they don’t hit their $20,000 goal. Although, with more than $6,000 raised to date the question of what to do in that situation is a complicated one, “It is stressful because if we don’t reach our goal then what are we going to do with the money we get?” said Elton, “Push forward or try to come up with a different project? We’re responsible for these donations and we take that seriously.”

When I asked what the experience of trying to raise rent money through crowdfunding was like, Elton has positive and negative feedback. On the positive side, putting the project on the Internet took the community from individuals in Iowa City, to individuals across the country. “Something really great about the Internet is that the community can extend beyond your physical location,” said Elton, “A lot of the donations are people from all over the country who value books and libraries so it’s great to get their support for a project that isn’t in their town – but that they still value.”

Although, Elton was quick to point out that calling on existing relationships was the first thing they did to start getting the word out about their campaign, “We have gotten donations from strangers – at least they are strangers to me, but the majority of the donations so far have come from people that I or my family contacted,” said Elton.

Another positive (or negative, depending on how you look at it) aspect of crowdfunding the library on the Internet was the ability to make in impression using multimedia. If you watched the video above, you’ll see that Elton shot it herself at home – but even this homemade endeavor is more appealing than a simple block of text. “The multimedia aspect is really great, but it was really intimidating to make a movie,” said Elton. “To make a movie is easy – to make a GOOD movie, that is harder.” Elton says it took roughly two months to get the movie together in part because volunteers balancing timing with other commitments presents a challenge, but also because a video itself is a project and trying to be ambitious and do a great job with it can consume a lot of time.

“The video isn’t the only way you are letting people know about the project, so it’s not the end all be all you are also letting people know what other sites to go to, and the written summary is also important,” says Elton. “Let people know through your own social media, the video is a part of it, but it’s not all of it.”

While incorporating multimedia was its own rewarding challenge, Elton says there are some downsides to fundraising on the Internet. According to Indiegogo it can take seven interactions with a cause before an individual will consider donating. So, the Antelope Lending Library has to get their campaign in front of people over and over to be effective – but they also have to balance getting out there with being overwhelming or annoying. “It’s hard to ask people for money,” says Elton. “With this you have to ask them for it several times that can be a lot.” Elton also says that with a campaign that spans 60 days, building up momentum and continuing to be excited, getting the word out, and keeping those who have already given up to date on the campaign’s progress is a big time commitment.

Another tip Elton has for anyone interested in crowdfunding their own project, is to make sure that when people ask you, “Why are you doing this?” (Which they inevitably will) you have a solid answer ready. It is also important to have an open conversation with other similar organizations in the area. The public library in Iowa City is aware of the Antelope Lending Library and has no opposition to a library opening on the southeast side of town – especially since the public library doesn’t have the resources for a location in that area. “Keep conversations going and stay open to collaborations,” says Elton. It makes it easier for the community to support a project that they know other organizations in their community also support.

Elton also highlighted social media – their website is hosted on Tumblr, they also have Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter pages – for getting the word out about the project. “Ultimately, I think that person to person outreach is the most effective,” says Elton. “As you get people on board, they talk to people so it’s still a one on one interaction but it expands.”

With grants more competitive than ever, I think we’ll see more and more projects like this turning to the public for help. The Antelope Lending Library project is just one example of how crowdfunding can work – if you’ve been involved in a project that used the Internet to raise funds, I’d love to hear about your experience.

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