Leesa Harwood: The crowdfunders are a threat, but a good one

People are taking hold of their own narratives, but charities can make a narrative of their strengths: accountability, professionalism and strategic oversight

Leesa Harwood
Leesa Harwood

Back when large charity fundraising campaigns were the dominant channel for giving, a popular formula dominated fundraising. A personal case study would highlight the impact of a social injustice or problem through an individual child, adult or family. A close-up image, personal story and micro-narrative combined to "bring the charity’s work to life" by distilling a big problem down to the personal. The charity would aggregate the resulting funds to address the bigger cause behind the individual’s plight. Micro-narratives generated funds for macro solutions. Personal images generated income for big brands.

Then, in 1997, the band Marillion inadvertently shook the micro-narrative fundraising formula out of its complac­ency by starting what was arguably the first modern-day crowdfunding appeal. They created a blueprint for future crowdfunding sites by launching a "Tour Fund" to raise $60,000 to finance a US tour. Through crowdfunding, ownership of the micro-narrative drifted away from the big brands towards the people in the close-up photographs.

But the truth is that charities never really owned the micro-narrative. They borrowed it from people who believed they would benefit from lending their stories to charity. People who know that a charity is acting in their best interests to resolve their specific problems will continue to lend their
stories. But many are now taking ownership of their own narratives. Overtly optimising the plight of someone we define as a victim has become less palatable, even with the consent of those concerned.

Many charities still cling to the micro-narrative formula, but it is becoming
increasingly difficult when people can tell their own personal stories to raise funds online. Micro-giving campaigns by people, social entrepreneurs and communities are challenging charities at their own game. With fewer overheads and less complexity, people and communities are taking back their narratives. Crowdfunding and other digital platforms enable direct emotional and personal links between the funder and the funded.

Charity leaders say crowdfunding has inadequate governance and less accountability. Charity professionals claim that people raising their own money don’t use it as wisely or strategically as the experts, diminishing impact and sacrificing the strategic solution for individual benefit. In a difficult financial environment, there is resentment of individuals who fundraise for themselves or their communities instead of the bigger charity claiming to act on their behalf to solve their problem. But it is inappropriate for us to complain about those who want to take back their stories and, empowered by technology, fund and create their own solutions. It is wrong for us to criticise and patronise the people who financially support them.

If charities feel that their strength lies in their accountability, professionalism and strategic oversight, they could create a narrative out of that. It unapologetically and transparently builds a different kind of narrative about the value of the organisations in our sector. It might not tug at the heart strings or deliver the wide-eyed vulnerability of a borrowed close-up, but it illustrates how bigger charities can ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There is a sense of integrity about a charity that gives people their narratives back. There’s a sense of honesty when a charity campaigns on the basis of leveraging its size and influence. That’s real transparency.

Some say that crowdfunding is not a threat to traditional fundraising. I disagree. It’s a threat to one of the most ubiquitous and established fundraising tools in the business. I blame Marillion.

Leesa Harwood is a fundraising consultant

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