Lessons from the Data Rescue Crowdfunding Campaign

The Caledon Institute was pleased to announce last week that we exceeded the $20,000 target to support the production of Welfare Incomes. It was our first foray into the crowdfunding world and we had no idea how well – or not – this method of financing would work. Our inexperience was made all the more intimidating by two factors.

First, we were informed that this method of financing had never been employed to solicit funds for a piece of social research. It typically is used for raising money for causes that are more concrete and well defined. These include scholarships (such as those for a scholarship nursing student) or special treatment for an individual with a disability; support for a health-based charity; bike rides or other community events to raise awareness about a problem like hunger or homelessness; and international development projects, such as digging a well for a village in Africa.

So our campaign to raise money for Welfare Incomes, a national publication about which many people had never heard, was a big question mark from the get-go. Would it work?

caledon_instituteThe second concern related to the very public nature of a crowdfunding campaign. Many groups approach funders or governments with requests for support. But if their application is refused, the disappointment is shared solely or primarily with Board members and the staff of the organization. There is no visible tally of your progress and no audience checking the status of the fundraising effort.

Donor psychology also presents a real challenge in any public campaign. If the race gets off to a slow start and appears to have few supporters, then the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy kicks in. Few people will bet on a horse that can’t make the finish line.

If, by contrast, contributions come in on a regular and substantial basis, then prospective donors are encouraged to get on board and support the project. After all, so many donors can’t be wrong if they are willing to bank on – and bankroll – a given cause.

There are many lessons that we learned from this recent effort but here are just a few highlights.

Lesson #1: Trust your instincts

Our cause of saving Welfare Incomes was actually part of a larger mission to rescue various sources of national data. The bigger story is a complex one and not easily explained in a two-minute video.

It was possible that this focus would not interest many viewers. It would have been easier to focus on the poverty story linked to an inadequate welfare system in this country. But we decided to take a chance on the more difficult message. The loss of vital national data is a story that must be told. In fact, we are now working on a larger project called the Canada Social Report, which will present a range of socioeconomic and program data as well as major social policy developments at all orders of government.

Lesson #2: Have faith in your supporters

Because we were focusing on a national concern that does not easily arouse passion, our story needed to be powerful in its telling. We considered a wide range of formats for our video presentation. At the end of the day, we resisted the temptation to convey an angry or overly dramatic message. We had faith that our current and future supporters would understand the significance of the identified problem.

Lesson #3: Choose your battles

We learned that crowdfunding is a financing method that must be carefully and sparingly used. We will not be able to go back to supporters on a regular basis with a plea for our next product. We are conscious of donor fatigue and will have to pick and choose very carefully any subsequent issues. (Note readers can still make donations to Caledon for the Canada Social Report through Canada Helps or cheques to the office.)

Donor fatigue is not the only concern. Tremendous time and effort go into launching and maintaining a crowdfunding campaign – even though it may appear that you just sit back and watch a running tabulation. It is essential to stoke the fire on a regular basis and keep alive the flames of the effort right up to the finish line. (Note to self: Keep an up-to-date mailing list.)

Lesson #4: Respect donor preferences

We learned that not all donors want to become part of a social network. The crowdfunding platform that we employed for the Data Rescue campaign is predicated upon the creation of a community of donors and their engagement as active contributors to a range of worthy causes. Many of our supporters did not want to sign up for anything. They just wanted a simple way to make a financial contribution to the campaign and chose instead the “old-fashioned” route of writing a cheque and placing it in the mailbox.

Lesson #5: Say thank you

We heard from many of our long-time supporters and we reached many new people throughout the duration of this 30-day campaign. We very much appreciate every single contribution. No donation was too small. Equally important to the financial contributions we received were the many messages of encouragement and support for our work on behalf of the public good.

Thank you.

Sherri Torjman

Editor’s Note: This blog originally appeared on the Maytree website. It has been reposted here with permission from the author.

The War on Poverty or the Weapon of Choice?

Musings on Our Crowdfunding Campaign

CrowdfundingThe 150-second challenge turned out to be only the start of the tough decisions in our crowdfunding campaign.  In 2.5 minutes or less, we needed to make a video that would introduce ourselves, explain our issue, convince others that it should be of concern to them and ask them to take action on behalf of the cause.

This challenge would be tough under the best of circumstances.  But it is harder when the purpose of the campaign involves a complex public issue.

As it turns out, we were trying to explain two important problems at the same time: the war on poverty and the weapon of choice in this tough battle.

The war on poverty involves rallying around the fact that welfare recipients − typically the poorest of the poor − live on incomes that are drastically low.  The Welfare Incomes report calculates these annual amounts and compares them to major poverty measures and income measures.  Both of these comparators give a sense of adequacy – or serious lack thereof.  Welfare incomes fall well below poverty rates in all parts of the country and are only a fraction of the average incomes of Canadians.

The data and evidence in Welfare Incomes that point to the huge gaps in adequacy comprise the weapon of choice.  This information helps us make the case for why we need not only to bolster the incomes of welfare recipients but also to fundamentally reform that program, which entails dismantling welfare and replacing it with stronger and more effective income security programs.

This crucial information was slated to be lost forever with the federal dismantling of the National Council of Welfare and all its work.  No government department would be taking up the slack.

So should we ask viewers to pool money to fight the war on poverty?  Or should we ask them to help rescue the words (and figures, tables, charts and graphs) that comprise its foremost weapon?

Even with their struggles are government is trying to ensure that there are strict measure taken when it comes to a simple buy bulk ammo online. It may have been preferable to focus on the war on poverty.  It is easier to understand and rally people around this pressing need.  But we chose instead to highlight the #datarescue challenge with its more subtle message.

So why make this crowdfunding task more difficult than it already is?  Why take the risk of having our campaign confused with a serious computer malfunction (the more typical interpretation of our campaign hashtag)?

Because the prospective loss of Welfare Incomes is only the thin edge of the wedge.  There has been a steady decline in the number of diverse sources of national public data that help us understand poverty and trends in labour market participation, levels of earnings and income inequality.


Caledon Institute is a social policy think tank

We are strong as a social policy community only to the extent that it is possible to make a clear, informed case for action on poverty and the reform of income security measures that can help fight poverty.  And we are strong as a nation only to the extent that we can make a cogent and articulate case for paying attention to the well-being of all citizens, especially those who live in poverty. We will be neither in the absence of solid and  trustworthy information.

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The 150-Second Challenge

If you think the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter is tough, try taking the 150-second challenge.  That’s basically the amount of time you have to make your case in a crowd funding campaign.

giveeffect logoSo I was advised by Anisa Mirza from Giveffect with whom I met when the Caledon Institute decided to try this method of financing.  You need to tell a compelling story in 2.5 minutes or less.

In our case, Caledon is trying to keep alive the war on poverty, not exactly an easy sell.  And while we know the subject matter very well, we had never tapped into a crowd for this kind of support.

Oh and there’s more.  Within those 2.5 minutes, you need to say who you are, why you are launching a crowd funding campaign, why your issue is of concern to viewers and what you would like them to do on your behalf.

And don’t forget.  When you tape the video, you need to be serious but funny − or at least approachable.  You need to be authoritative but folksy.  You need to be confident but relaxed.  Could we seriously pull this off?

After the production, you need to bank on your social capital.  It is crucial to muster your forces − in this case your networks − to help spread the word as quickly and as widely as possible in order to generate interest in your campaign.  After all, that is the art and science of crowd funding.  Small amounts of funds contributed by large numbers of people can add up to a substantial sum.

So what is our cause?  Here’s the story and why we need help.

I met Ken Battle (currently President of the Caledon Institute) in 1986 when he was Director of the National Council of Welfare, an advisory body to the federal government.  He hired me to work on a study of welfare in Canada.  Its purpose was to explain this hidden, incredibly complex, program and to figure out welfare rates across the country.

Despite opposition from some who didn’t want the welfare system explained, we were able to develop a methodology for calculating welfare incomes that is still used today.

The initial study was called Welfare in Canada: The Tangled Safety Net.  It spawned a series of reports entitled Welfare Incomes that have been published on a regular basis since 1989.  These reports are the only way to track the amounts that provinces and territories pay welfare recipients, the poorest of the poor in Canada.  They are often seen as the ‘undeserving’ poor and receive incomes that fall well below poverty standards.

In 2012, the federal government announced that it was dismantling the National Council of Welfare and cutting all its work, including Welfare Incomes.

After much deliberation, we decided at Caledon that we needed to keep alive this vital source of information.  We had developed the original methodology and knew how very difficult it would be − and how long it would take − to reconstruct credible numbers. Naturally this additional work costs money, and so we have decided to try the crowd funding campaign.

But Welfare Incomes is only one example of a larger problem. Access to crucial information drawn from, among many things, the Canadian long-form census is no longer available. There will be more to come on this vital issue and a broader solution, the Canada Social Report, on which we are currently working.

Welfare Access

Why Welfare Time Limits Never Flew -The Tyee

In the meantime, we are seeking help to keep alive Welfare Incomes, which provides the objective evidence to make the case for decent incomes and for welfare reform.  We need to preserve this powerful weapon in the war on poverty.

Editor’s note: See how Sherri pulled off her first crowd funding pitch by visiting their Giveffect campaign page

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