October 30, 2015

Crowdfunding has become a decent line of revenue for fact-checking websites.

The new Brazilian fact-checking site Aos Fatos (To the Facts) recently launched a crowdfunding campaign. It aims to raise R$ 30,000 ($ 7,700), to upgrade the project from its current pilot phase.

Aos Fatos joins a growing group of fact-checking operations worldwide that have used crowdfunding to finance part of their work. This year alone has seen successful campaigns conducted by Full Fact, PolitiFact, Pagella Politica, Chequeado, and FactsCan.

External fact-checking, like many other journalistic endeavors, is still developing a new business model. Most of the 30 fact-checking organizations interviewed prior to a conference in London said they covered the majority of their costs with support from grant-giving foundations. While the sustainability of such a model varies from one context to the other, institutional donors often expect grantees to diversify their revenue streams.

Fact-checkers have therefore turned to offering paid services, such as training or ad hoc content, and to raising funds from their communities.

Let me be clear: no crowdfunding campaign for a fact-checking site has been a blockbuster. Whether this is because of a lack of ambition or because fact-checkers cannot promise exploding kittens as a reward will be the topic of another post.

Nonetheless, the most successful of recent campaigns, conducted by Full Fact in February, raised £33.094 ($51,000). It is a considerable sum, particularly given that from the survey mentioned above it also emerged that 50 percent of responding fact-checking organizations had a budget of $200,000 or below, with 30 percent reporting $50,000 or less.

I spoke to Mevan Babakar, Full Fact’s Communication Officer, about their crowdfunding and what it could teach other fact-checkers.

Start with the target amount, which the British fact-checkers originally set at £25,000. Full Fact reached a decision on the figure looking at what similar campaigns in the field of accountability and politics had collected in the UK, then dividing that ballpark figure by the numbers of their community. The average donation they were predicting seemed reasonable, so they set the target. Nonetheless, Babakar says she was “incessantly worried that we would not hit our target, even when it was inevitable”.

Choosing a pitch for a fact-checker’s crowdfunding campaign is equally hard, if not harder. As Babakar explains it, “Unlike crowdfunding for a for-profit company, or product, where the natural conclusion for an “investor” is to own the product or become a part of the company, we were tasked with getting people to donate to an intangible cause.” Moreover, fact-checking is “quite an abstract issue to communicate”, without the immediacy of other social causes.

Full Fact’s solution to this problem was dual: launch the campaign about 100 days before the British general election, so that minds were already focusing on the importance of truthfulness in politics, and pitch something as concrete as possible. Rather than ask for funding to do “more of the same”, Full Fact asked for support in setting up a special “Election centre” where they would move operations to during the final six weeks before voting.

Hearing Babakar recount the campaign, it is clear that Full Fact’s campaign was not just well planned but also methodically executed. Among the many practical tips she shares with me is:

  • Holding a soft launch of the campaign (with friends and supporters) to reach about 10% of the goal before sharing the campaign with the public.
  • Launching close to payday, when people are readier to spend, also helped.
  • Celebrity shout-outs yield results; three that helped Full Fact particularly were science writers Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh and rapper Scroobius Pip
  • Finally, Full Fact worked hard to turn donors into advocates; when following up with thank you notes, the fact-checkers would also provide donors with the tools to promote the campaign with their friends.

So how does crowdfunding compare to other sources of revenue? With the same effort, it “yields a much more likely lump sum of income, with the potential to turn these supporters into regular donors.” Crowdfunding is also “an incredible marketing opportunity. I didn’t realise it at the time”.

With this campaign successful, Full Fact looks likely to turn to crowdfunding again the next time it will have to scale up operations, whether for an election or a referendum. “Crowdfunding allows us to do that”, says Babakar.

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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