May 26, 2016

There was a point, three weeks into Poynter’s first crowdfunding project, when we wondered just what we’d gotten ourselves into. Coming off a week with few donations, nine days to go and $6,000 short of our all-or-nothing goal, we asked ourselves why we had taken such a public risk when we knew the project could fail this spectacularly.

When Katie Hawkins-Gaar and I launched Poynter’s campaign in April — called 40 Better Hours, a project to improve newsrooms in small but meaningful ways — we had planned for months but remained unsure about what to expect. We did plenty of research, reached out to successful funders and read everything we could find on the internet.

But, like with most projects, we learned the most by simply trying it.

Two days before our deadline and just a week after I took that moment to wonder where we’d gone wrong, 40 Better Hours reached its $10,000 goal. Here are the most important lessons we learned from those 30 days.

You have to care about the project. Like, really care. If you’re not willing to delve into the subject matter and become a de-facto expert on it, you’re not going to make the connections necessary or sustain the energy to fund your project.

Personal connections are key. Just under 75 percent of our funding came from friends, family or coworkers. Of our 166 total backers, 104 were personal friends or family. We lined up many of them before the campaign started so we’d have a strong start, and deployed more later when times got slow. In that vein, the same people shouldn’t run a campaign more than once every few years. Otherwise they’ll alienate all their friends!

Crowdfunding campaigns are better for word of mouth than for raising money. Ultimately, the effort required to get someone to donate even $5 is not worth the time required — but it becomes an increasingly better value when people become evangelists for your project. Our average donation was $64. But having 166 people back our campaign — and magnitudes more sharing our message — was worthwhile. We know we’ll be able to count on those people when we launch the finished project in September.

Know that failure is an option. Big pushes happened at the beginning and end of the campaign, but the middle was brutally slow. As mentioned, we were barely at 40 percent by the halfway mark. At one point, we only raised $60 over a one-week period. Those times will test your mettle. Expect them. And understand that crowdfunding, especially on all-or-nothing platforms, can fail. And that’s OK.

Choose the platform carefully. Do you want to do an all-or-nothing campaign, which might encourage more people to donate, or one where you’ll get paid even if you don’t reach your goal? Kickstarter is the most popular platform, but its journalism category is hollow. Beacon, the platform we used, is specifically for journalism projects, but it’s much less popular and offers comparatively slim functionality. Make sure you understand the positives and negatives of each and plan accordingly.

Planning is everything. Identify times when you’ll be busy and prep for them. Between trips to Atlanta and New York, the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, four webinars and plenty course-building and planning in-person teaching, Katie and I were plenty busy over the 30-day funding period. For the most part, we planned out social posts, Beacon updates and emails beforehand, knowing we’d be out of pocket.

Get honest feedback as early as possible. We ran the project by colleagues before launch, but halfway through, when things got tough, people were more open about ideas that would have better served us early on. Next time, we would encourage colleagues to be as honest with us as possible at the beginning without fear of hurting our feelings.

Crowdfunding is better with a partner or dedicated team. Having an “accountability buddy” to hold you to deadlines is a great way to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. And since a decent amount of contributors will be personal connections, having two or more people involved the campaign doubles your potential connections.

Make sure the benefits of the campaign are clear to funders. Most people don’t contribute to lofty ideas. They contribute to something that has tangible rewards. Make sure it’s obvious what you plan to offer to make that happen. We tweaked some early language to make it clear that our main deliverable was a video series and immediately saw more traction.

Ask for money in a lot of different ways and a lot of different places. Crowdfunding projects are all about soliciting small donations from as many people as possible. Social is great for this, but it’s also flooded with others doing the same. Use graphics to stand out, hone your pitch for different networks and focus on a different message each week. On Facebook, understand that you’re grappling with the algorithm — finding creative ways to post the same page using different links is key. Reach out to people personally via phone, email or in-person, whatever works best for them, and take advantage of any and all in-house resources you can get.

And, when all else fails, try live-streaming a cute puppy. We reached our goal with two days to go, and spent the remaining time trying to have fun. So we live-streamed our coworker’s dog, Ollie, for almost two hours. We wound up soliciting more contributions with him than we did on an average day. Novel ideas can only help.

Katie Hawkins-Gaar contributed to this article.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
Ren LaForme

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