Is Crowdfunding Ever “Wrong?”

Approximately two hours after Patreon launched in 2013, people began messaging me to ask when I was going to do a Patreon.

“I can’t,” I said. “I already did a Kickstarter. I’ve used up my lifetime Ask Friends For Money card.”

It took me a while to figure out that my friends and followers were asking me when I was going to do a Patreon because they wanted to be a part of my next project.

I held back for two years, though. If I was going to do the crowdfunding thing again, I wanted to make sure I had something worth offering. I also wanted to make sure I had my 1,000 True Fans, as it were. I still felt like I had used up my Ask Friends for Money card on the Kickstarter, and when I did my Patreon, I wanted the majority of supporters to be people who were fans of my work.

I am lucky to have so many supportive friends, but to succeed in this business you also need the support of people who have never met you; the people who are there because you’ve connected with them through your writing or music or art. My Kickstarter had been about getting a little help from my friends. My Patreon was about making something for an audience.

And yet it didn’t quite turn out like that. I launched my Patreon to support my novel The Biographies of Ordinary People in July, and at this point over 50 percent of my patrons are people with whom I’ve shared a meal. I use that designation specifically because it includes both the close friends whom I invite into my home as well as the people I run into once a year at conventions. A lot of people read my work, and message me on Twitter or Tumblr to tell me how much it resonates with them. But it’s the people who have connected with me on that more personal level — who have literally broken bread with me — who are most likely to provide financial support.

So. We had the question earlier today about the ethics of crowdfunding to support a sick family member (and, in many cases, to support the caretakers who will be helping the sick person). Our commenters asked us to write about the ethics of fundraising in general; is it right to ask for money for a vacation? For an adoption? To pay that month’s rent?

Here’s my answer: online fundraising is, more often than not, connection-funding. “Friendfunding” is too specific and “crowdfunding” is too broad. Most of us have that little bit of hope, when we launch our funding request, that we’ll be the one that connects with everybody — the viral hit — or that our story will compel a few strangers to donate. But I think we know that most of our support will come from people with whom we are already connected.

I’ve donated to a lot of crowdfunding campaigns, from the friends who needed help moving to the newlyweds setting up a Honeyfund. I’ve donated to sports teams and families dealing with illness and friends raising money for animal shelters. I’ve donated to help people pay rent. It’s always been the personal connection that has prompted the donation.

What does that have to do with ethics? Well, the connection acts as a filter. When one of my friends says they need money, I have good reason to believe that they actually need it. This is also why I donate to the animal shelter my friend is supporting rather than some other shelter, even though I know on an intellectual level that nearly all animal shelters need money. The connection draws my attention and prompts my donation.

It’s nearly always the person with whom I only have a tenuous connection — that Facebook friend I met once, years ago — that draws the “well, why are they asking me to solve their problem with my money?” reaction. Crowdfunding feels unethical and spammy when you aren’t actually connected to the person doing the funding.

I’ve also pulled back on friendships when I feel like the person involved is always asking and never giving back. Crowdfunding can strengthen connections, but it can also weaken them. (This is another reason why I waited so long before starting a new crowdfunding project. I wanted to give a lot before I asked for something new.)

I have never crowdfunded for anything that wasn’t related to a creative project. But if I became ill, or if I were suddenly desperate to pay rent, I probably would. I’ve helped other people, and it would be my turn to receive help.

After all, if my friends knew I needed money in that way, they’d message me to ask when I was going to set up the Indiegogo.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.