Choosing which fundraisers to support

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 23, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

These days, I can hardly log on to Google+ or Facebook without being bombarded by a dozen fundraising campaigns. Musicians, film makers, game makers, authors, charities, free software projects, manufacturers, non-profits, for-profits -- everyone seems to be asking for a slice of the crowdfunding pie. I could easily spend my month's income in a morning, pledging money for good causes -- so, consequently, I've been forced to set some guidelines in the hopes of finding a more responsible approach to making donations.
These guidelines are practices I've built up from years of charitable donations. They come, too, from my experiences over the years of hiring people, which has taught me that, although presentation isn't everything, it can be a good indication of what to expect. Add a recovering academic's conviction that you can never do too much research, and these are the questions I ask before clicking the Donate button:

1. Does the campaign fit my core values and interests? I'm more likely to contribute to a cause if it involves feminism, First Nations, free software and parrot conservation and rescue. Not only do I have a chance to judge these causes, but I figure that many people aren't interested in them and therefore that these campaigns are more in need of my support.

2. Is the campaign for-profit? If so, is there a compelling reason I should help a company along? If the campaign concerns entertainment or the arts, I'll help an indie, but not a mainstream artist or producer unless they've exhausted all other sources of funding. In other words, I didn't support the Ubuntu Edge campaign,  because I just can't believe that funding Ubuntu's research does anything for free software as a whole. However, I might have considered the Veronica Mars campaign if it had needed my help, because I know that the producer had already tried all the traditional sources of funding for a movie.

3. Do I know who's involved? Whether a friend or acquaintance is involved in a fundraiser makes a huge difference. Even if I only know someone from online interaction, I have more criteria to judge them by. If someone comes across as trustworthy and decent, and seems able to get things done, their support of a campaign is a stronger endorsement than any celebrity's.

4. What is the swag? In theory, the gifts I get for donating shouldn't influence me, and, most of the time, they don't in practice. In fact, more often than not, I forego the swag. But I examine what's offered because the selections tell me something about the imaginations behind the campaign. If the swag is only pedestrian things like stickers and T-shirts, then the people staging the campaign may lack the mental resources to see the project through to completion.
5. Does the campaign issue tax receipts? This is less of a mercenary a question than it sounds. Give me a good enough cause, and I don't mind that I can't reduce my income tax. If anything, not getting a tax receipt makes me feel better, because I am sacrificing to give. But getting a tax receipt means that I can donate more, because I know that I will eventually get some of it back. Given all the candidates for donations, knowing my money can go further is a serious consideration.

6. What record do those involved in the campaign have? Have they followed through as promised on past crowdfunders? Do they have experience in what they're trying to do? If they're a non-profit, do I approve of their governance, and how they've spent money in the past? In most countries, much of this information about non-profits is a matter of public record; for instance, in the United States, look for a non-profit's annual Form 990 form. If necessary, phone up the non-profit and ask questions. Without being too anal-retentive, I like to know that people who receive my money will deliver on their promise and spent my money sensibly.

7. What similar campaigns are happening? Just because a campaign is the first I've seen with a certain goal doesn't mean it's the only one, or the best one. I want my money to go to those who can make best use of it.

8. How well is the campaign conducted? I'm not a fan of slickness, but I do believe that an effort at professionalism tells me something about how serious the campaign is. People who do a fifteen minute promo video full of talking heads  expounding on their philosophy may have their heart in the right place, but they don't even qualify as aspiring professionals. If they can't pull themselves together for the basics of the campaign, I suspect they won't produce anything that I'd care about. In the same way, I view how they try to stir up interest in the campaign as an indicator of resourcefulness.

9. What do my instincts say? The issue here is not how much I might enjoy the finished project but my impression of my odds of seeing the finished project. If, after investigating all the other questions, I still have doubts -- regardless of whether I can articulate them -- then I'll pass on donating. After all, it's not like there aren't all sorts of other cool projects to which I can donate.

Answering these questions take time -- but that's the point. Just like keeping your credit card in another room from your computer and keeping a minimal balance in your PayPal account, they reduce the possibility of impulse donations. Usually, finding answers to these questions will take a couple of hours, most likely spread over several days, which gives plenty of time for second and third thoughts.

At the rate fundraising campaigns are proliferating, I expect that I'll have to add other guidelines. For instance, I'm seriously thinking of setting aside a certain time each week to make donations, so that I can compare campaigns more and think about them more. Meanwhile, though, I find that these rules make me feel better about giving -- more confident that my money is going to causes I want to support.

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