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Volume 49 Number 2
Edited by Greg Townley and Alicia Lucksted
Crowdsourcing Mutual-Help Research Funding
Written by Christopher R. Beasley, Washington College (firstname.lastname@example.org), Crystal N. Steltenpohl, DePaul University, and Emily Stecker, Washington College
Although federal support for health research has begun recovering since Great Recession reductions, financing has continued to decline when these contributions are adjusted for inflation (FASEB, 2016). Further, funding is often directed toward research aims of federal administrators and organizations with lobbying resources rather than those of communities. Crafting research toward these goals may limit intellectual flexibility and creativity.
One potential solution for overcoming these barriers is crowdsourced fundraising, or crowdfunding, for research. Crowdfunding is “a collective effort by people who network and pool their money together, usually via the internet, in order to invest in and support efforts initiated by other people or organizations” (Ordanini, Miceli, Pizzetti, & Parasuraman, 2011, pg. 444). This paper discusses crowdfunding, previous applications of it, potential for mutual-help research, suggestions for such fundraising, and a mutual-help research crowdfunding initiative. Crowdfunding has been used in for various social and research needs. For example, an organization raised over $3,000 to renovate a food pantry serving communities in the poorest congressional district in the United States (Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development, 2014).
Crowdfunding has been used for mutual-help purposes as well. The Oxford House (OH) system of mutual-help addiction recovery homes, which has raised over $32,000 of $100,000 needed to host their 2016 annual convention, and community psychologists have used crowdfunding toward opening the first Oxford House in Bulgaria. This funding was obtained after just one week of solicitation. Lastly, researchers are also beginning to use crowdfunding. One successful Kickstarter campaign focused on urban youth addressing societal issues using scientific inquiry raised $10,242 of its $10,000 goal (H2O Productions, 2014). Some are students funding dissertations, participation in research programs, or conference presentations (Desalu, 2014; Rose, 2015). Lastly, Map Evansville, an LGBTQ asset mapping project, raised $5,323 of its $4,349 goal (McKibban, 2015) toward a software package for its interactive database and map, a mobile app, window decals for business partners, and website maintenance.
There is need and potential for crowdfunding to be applied specifically to mutual-help research. These social support networks involve people experiencing a challenge in life helping other people with similar challenges. While some groups are small and/or newly formed networks, others, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and OH, are well-established. Although research has been conducted on these organizations, research goals are typically decided by academics and funding organizations. While this may not be a significant challenge for other types of organizations that lobby for their interests, mutual-help groups often have a mission hyper-focused on individuals’ challenges, not on promoting a research agenda. They also gravitate toward selfsustaining initiatives rather than reliance on government and other organizations. However, these groups do have assets that can facilitate self-sustaining mutual-help research to further their agenda. They often identify strongly with the superordinate goal of the challenge they are experiencing. This salient identity and established social networks have the potential to form a foundational crowd for crowdfunding. Such a campaign could be centered on mutual-help members, alumni, friends and family of members and alumni, and those in the general public who support the organization’s mission.
As with any research, the first step in mutual-help crowdfunding is to identify the study’s goals, which may require objectives closely aligned with the intended crowdfunding audience, so that they are more likely to financially support the campaign. Community-based participatory research (CBPR) models closely align with this goal and can be used as a foundation. For example, an upcoming crowdfunded study uses CBPR for OH research. Its initial goals are to obtain an accurate depiction of OH residents and answer basic research questions. The study has formed a community advisory board, which will provide guidance on fundraising, data collection, data analysis, and communication of results.
After these initial steps, crowdfunding managers should develop key assets to promote crowdfunding efforts. A strong internet presence is essential. Effective websites provide information on the project and/or organization, its history, mission and values, goals, previous media coverage and/or publications, previous successes, and contact information. Ideally, it also describes the key research team and community members involved in the project. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter allow organizations to interact directly with followers, share relevant articles, answer questions, and post photos of related activities. Both the website and social media presence should be established before creating and promoting the campaign.
Once a presence is established, crowdfunding managers will need to choose a platform that fits with the CBPR team’s goals. Popular platforms include Community Funded, FundAnything, Fundly, GoFundMe, IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, Rally, RocketHub, and YouCaring. Some platforms, like Kickstarter, strongly encourage or require some kind of product; others only focus on nonprofits; others still will host any kind of project. Additionally, platforms generally operate on two different funding mechanisms: “keep it all,” where the project receives all donations come its way, and “all or nothing,” where if the goal is not met by a certain date, the campaign receives nothing. Others offer either option. Although an “all or nothing” model is useful when raising small amounts of money with conservative goals, “keep it all” models are better suited for larger campaigns with uncertainty about reaching their goal. Given the novelty of using crowdfunding for research, we recommend “keep it all” models for most projects. Some colleges and universities also have their own internal donation platforms and may prefer the use of their own systems for tracking and accounting purposes. From an institutional standpoint, this is one of several challenges researcher may encounter with this new funding mechanism. For our Oxford House research, we are currently working to implement accounting and accountability processes that were not in place before this work began.
After determining a crowdfunding platform, it is important to gather a number of key elements. Crowdfunding websites offer sitespecific advice, but regardless of platform, potential supporters will want to know what the project is, its goals and plans, project leaders’ experience, a timeline, and a budget. Most importantly, you are telling a story. This means two things: everything should flow coherently, from goals to anticipated results; and, unlike many academic publications, the campaign should speak to non-academic audiences. Simple, effective language is critical. Do not assume everyone knows the literature or the problem’s importance, but do not flood the reader with too much information. It may be helpful to think of your campaign like a cross between prose and an executive report: purposely short, but lively. Images and videos about the research team, organization, and goals can be particularly helpful.
After creating the campaign’s page but before going public, it is useful to utilize personal and professional relationships to solicit a few donations, so potential supporters are not viewing an “empty pot,” so to speak. This is similar to the practice of placing money in a restaurant’s tip jar to encourage tips. Utilize these relationships to promote the campaign as well. For example, the planned OH crowdsource campaign will initially solicit funding from the research team and advisory board members’ close social network before going public.
After initial funding, campaigns should seek publicity through traditional media and social media. They can send a press release to various university, local, and national news outlets. If you have access to resources in media relations, utilize them to produce a press release. Campaigns will also rely on social networks to promote the campaign. For example, the planned OH crowdfunding campaign will utilize an extensive Oxford House Facebook presence to reach out to members, alumni, family and friends of members and alumni, and supporters of the organization. The campaign will also reach out to the larger AA online network, including social media and an extensive network of forums and websites.
Lastly, we suggest communicating with backers during and after the campaign. For example, we recommend thanking backers for their support and letting them know fundraising results. We also recommend regularly sending project updates, where appropriate. This includes information on press coverage, presentations, publications, successes, barriers, and future directions. Your backers have literally invested into your project and should be included in any major developments. In a sense, they are now a part of your project.
While federal funding has been declining and may not promote the agenda of mutual-help organizations, crowdfunding is an opportunity for research focused on mutual-help organizations’ needs while adhering to their values. Such methods have been used extensively and have potential for meeting research needs. For successful campaigns, we recommend using a CBPR model with community advisory boards to facilitate collaborative research, access to social networks, initial funding. We also recommend a strong internet presence and development of supporting materials such as images and videos to communicate essential information with a community audience. We further recommend publicizing the campaign through traditional as well as social media outlets. Lastly, we recommend ongoing communication with funders throughout the study’s life. The Oxford House crowdfunding study discussed is an effort to apply this emerging research finance model to collaborative mutual-help research.
Desalu, J. (2014). Creating Optimal Health in the Black Community. Retrieved from https://www.gofundme.com/futuredrdesalu
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. (2015). Federal funding for biomedical and related life sciences research: FY2016. Bethesda, MD: Author.
McKibban, A. R. (2015). Map Evansville: A collaborative community project. Retrieved from https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/242651176/mapevansville-a-collaborativecommunity-project
Ordanini, A., Miceli, L., Pizzetti, M., & Parasuraman, A. (2011). Crowd‐funding: Transforming customers into investors through innovative service platforms. Journal of Service Management, 22(4), 443-470. doi:10.1108/09564231111155079
Rose, I. (2015). Isis’ Field School in Piste, Mexico. Retrieved from https://www.gofundme.com/isisfieldschool
Silverman, P. R. (2011). Mutual Help Groups: What Are They and What Makes Them Work? Oxford Handbooks Online. doi:10.1093oxfordhb/9780195394450.013.0028