Fundraising for Free Software and Free Culture

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 24, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I've spent December and January watching the fundraising campaigns of several free software and culture projects. I'm involved in fundraising for two mainstream charities, so the efforts of others is directly interesting to me. Also, increasingly, free software and culture projects are looking for ways to make their efforts pay, so what works and what doesn't is becoming an important community issue.

I admit that I watch the progress bars for fundraising with considerable fascination. I look, for example, at least once at day to the Free Software Foundation's site to see how much of its target of $300,000 is left to raise, or nose around to see how Wikipedia's latest personal appeals are aiding its campaign. For me, it's like watching a slow-motion horse race. However, at the same time, observing fundraising quickly becomes an education.

So far as I can see, the most successful -- and least stressful -- way to raise funds seems to be through year round donations and associated services.

For example, the ebook manager calibre is funded partly by its DRM-free portal Open Books.

Another arrangement that I would be interested in learning more about is Linux Mint's revenue-sharing partnership with its default search engine, DuckDuckGo. Because they receive funds for services delivered, projects like calibre and Linux Mint might become less reliant on the generosity and patience of supporters.

However, a surprising number of projects continue to rely on the classic fundraising campaign. Fair enough, I suppose, although I wonder why they persist in launching their campaigns at the end of the year.

Traditionally, the logic is that people are making their last-minute donations for tax purposes in December. Unfortunately, though, that also means that you are competing with every other good cause for donations.

Add the fact that people spend less time than usual on the Internet between Christmas and New Year, or that many people feel caught between holiday expenses and upcoming taxes in January, and I wonder why more projects and charities don't choose another time of year. The conventional marketing wisdom is that you don't launch a new product in December or January, and I suspect that applies to fundraising campaigns, too.

Yet despite this timing, some recent fundraisers did succeed. This year, Wikipedia raised twenty-million, while the Free Software Foundation looks likely to raise about 85% of its goal -- not ideal, but perhaps not too crippling, given that the organization has other income sources.

Other projects (that I won't name, because I have no interest in branding them as failures) will probably be lucky to raise 30-40% of their goals. In each case, the outcome seems directly connected to the strategy chosen.

Three Strategies for Fundraising

Nobody's asking me, but based on my experience and observations, I suggest that fundraising success depends on which of three basic strategies a project chooses for its campaign -- and how suitable the choice is to its situation.

The first basic strategy is to run a creative campaign, which attracts donors through novelty. Instead of offering routine testimonials or an invitation to a fundraising event that only those nearby can actually attend, a creative campaign tries to capture everybody's imagination by any legitimate means: witty advertising, unique thank-you gifts, street or Internet theater -- anything out of the ordinary. To an extent, every project's first fundraiser is a creative campaign, because it is the first chance to donate to that particular cause.

However, after the first fundraiser, a creative campaign becomes harder to run. First time donors become jaded, and persuading them to donate again becomes harder.

Moreover, creative campaigns require more planning, and can cost more as well. In addition, many people in free software and culture have a distrust of hardcore marketing techniques, and feel uncomfortable working with them.

Even worse, creative campaigns are more likely to go wrong; one unintended innuendo or accidental slight, and both the campaign and the project can be in trouble.

For all these reasons, most fundraisers prefer another a strategy. Many prefer a community-based campaign, partly because they see successful projects like Wikipedia do well with the strategy.

However, if I can be recursive for a moment, to run a community-based campaign, you need a community. If you haven't been making efforts all year round to increase the active community around your project, and to clearly present your message to outsiders, then you are soon in the position of constantly asking the same people to donate -- and many of them will soon tire of your endless requests. Should a project not develop beforehand a large enough community to support it, then its community-based campaign is likely to falter.

Still another alternative is the targeted campaign. In a targeted campaign, the appeal isn't made to everyone, but to carefully chosen corporations or individuals who are likely to support the project for whatever reason.

The advantage of a targeted campaign is that you need fewer donors to reach your goal. Sometimes, you might need less than half a dozen if you are lucky or can build a strong case for their support. For those who lack broad community support -- if only because their project is new, a targeted campaign can be the logical alternative.

However, like a creative campaign, a targeted one requires brainstorming and  planning. Often, it requires the personal touch, working one on one with donors to persuade them. And, when the number of potential donors are fewer, you need to select them with more care.

Also, if you are aiming at corporations or philanthropists, you are also expected to provide quality thank-you gifts, either adding to your expenses or requiring you to find an artisan willing to donate the gifts. Another alternative is a dinner or artistic event with carefully selected guests, each of whom is handed a donation card as they arrive.

Sometimes, strategies can be mixed. In particular, small creative touches can be effective in any campaign. Usually, though, the criteria for success and the potential problems associated with each strategy keeps these campaign more or less distinct.

The need for the right decision

From these descriptions of strategies, you can make some shrewd guesses about why some campaigns succeed while others fail. No one would call the Wikipedia campaign creative, but it didn't have to be. With its daily users numbering hundreds of millions, all Wikipedia needed to do was keep reminding everyone that it was collecting donations.

Similarly, could the likelihood that the Free Software Foundation will fall slightly short of its goal reflect a lessening of its community support? I couldn't say for sure, but possibly.

As for those projects that fail massively, what makes them worth watching is tactics they use to compensate for a poorly chosen strategy. Some of these tactics -- personal appearances, online advertising, celebrity endorsements -- seem as desperate as they are ingenious.

But while there is always a chance that such efforts will go viral, and save the formal fundraising campaign through word of mouth, these on-the-fly responses usually only mitigate the disaster. Once a campaign's general course is set, altering it to any extent seems next to impossible.

That's why some brutal self-assessment is needed before your fundraising campaign starts. Regardless of whether you choose rightly or wrongly, your project is going to be living with the consequences of your choise of fundraising strategies for a long time to come.


  • FSF update

    I'm happy to say that I was wrong about the Free Software Foundation. As I write, it's only $228 from its target, having managed a last minute rally that seemed unlikely last week. It may help that the FSF has all sorts of ways to donate.
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