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Science By Donation: Tips for successful research crowdfunding

What does it take to get ordinary people to fund your science? This is the third in a series of posts that will explore the brave new world of scientific crowdfunding from the inside, as I go from launching to, hopefully, funding a scientific project by donation. The previous posts in the series are here (post 1 & post 2 & post 3)


The campaign is over and I’ve sworn off of Twitter until the end of the month. I’ll be honest, I’m done with social media in all forms for awhile. It’s been an intense month. But, it was all worth it. My project funding research of the longest freshwater migration in the world payed off. We raised $5,664, a whopping 214% of our goal, and won the $1,500 challenge grant with 162 individual donors!


My success proves that crowdfunding can work for some people. But, can it work for you? To answer that question I analyzed the data available for the projects in my challenge grant on Experiment. I also gathered survey responses (which are available here) from about half of the participants about their experience with scientific crowdfunding. I also interviewed J. R. Clark, the scientist in charge of the Fish Challenge I took part in. Finally, I interviewed the co-founder of Experiment, Cindy Wu, and Natalie Jonk, the founder of Walacea, two of the major scientific crowdfunding sites.


The following article is a synopsis of what works and what doesn’t in scientific crowdfunding. Hopefully, it will work both as a how-to guide as well as a guide to deciding whether crowdfunding your research will work for you. Read through the prior posts in this series for specifics on what to expect in the beginning, middle and end of a project.


What makes your project Awesome?


The biggest tip for successful scientific crowdfunding is to tap into your ability to communicate what is awesome about your project. Certainly, some projects almost sell themselves. If you study important diseases, really big or uber-cuddly animals, or have pictures of fieldwork in the canopy of some remote jungle you have a leg up. But, you still have to explain why your science matters, and do it in a way that people will pay attention to.


“Projects that do best are the ones where the scientist is able to explain why the science is so interesting. The unique thing about science is that you’re always uncovering something new, scientists by definition are always on the edge of knowledge. Scientists are selling that wonder and curiosity. If you sell what is already known that is fine, but it won’t get you that far.” – Cindy Wu, co-founder of Experiment


If you are having trouble finding that nugget of awesome that will get everyday people excited there are ways to find it. For me, the best exercise was to write a page of text about the goals of my project. Let is sit overnight…then go through and cut out any jargon, or give it to a friend or two and have them circle anything they didn’t immediately understand. Give it another night. Now, cut that page down to a paragraph that condenses the most important ideas about why you are doing your work. Come back the next day and cut that paragraph down to a single sentence that is as short as you can make it without adding semicolons. That sentence is the nugget of why you do your work, what makes it awesome.


Keep referring back to that paragraph and your nugget sentence as you build your crowdfunding page. Staying concise and focused on the reason your research is important is the key to becoming a good science communicator.


“Almost every project has some sort of big picture idea behind it with broader implications, so if you can make it sound exciting/appealing people will want to fund it. For example my project title went from “reproductive behavior in giant sea bass” to “Sex in the sea” and just that simple title change brought so much more attention to it.” – J. R. Clark, Experiment Fish Challenge


This project on sloths is a great example of really engaging scientific communication. This project is also a good example of a concise and well communicated goal testing GMO corn in wild animal diets.


“Your best weapon here is your friends, or strangers. Share your project with everyone you know. You will learn more from the reaction of friends and strangers than you will learn from any guide or book. People will tell you what they understand, what they don’t understand, what is interesting.” – Cindy Wu, co-founder of Experiment.


Remember, scientific communication is something anyone can learn. After all, the jargon we scientists use is a learned behavior, all it takes is some work to learn another way to communicate.


“The way people apply for research grants at the moment, the precise language that is used, that was learned at some point. I think that crowdfunding, if it is a driver of getting funded, it will just mean that people will learn how to hone those [scientific communication] skills.” – Natalie Jonk, founder of Walacea


Set a Reasonable Funding Goal


Setting a reasonable and attainable funding goal is important. Experiment advised us to stay beneath $5,000 based on their experience. In the Fish Challenge the only projects funded had initial goals below $3,600 and my survey of participants indicated that $4,000 was a more realistic upper end, at least for fish projects. I would heed the advice of one of the participants when picking your goal and pick a conservative amount to start.


“This does not work as a typical grant process (i.e. one where you ask for everything you might need plus a little cushion for uncertainty). You are better off having a lower initial goal and then using stretch goals to meet additional funding wants.” – Anonymous Fish Challenge Participant


The plot shows how traffic and donations peek at the beginning and then again at the end of a crowdfunding campaign. In between peaks don’t be discouraged, you are building momentum that will pay off at the end.

Most of the donations and traffic in my project came on the last few days, with a bump at the beginning and a bump each time I published a Lab Note. Things started slow, but once there was a bit of momentum we were able to hit the goal and then fund a few extra’s with stretch goals on the last day. You’ll be surprised how fast things move at the end of the project.


So, think about the minimum of what is really required to properly meet your research goals, then sketch out a couple of stretch goals for things that would be nice to add on. Remember to take into account that the site will take 8% of your money for credit card processing and profit, so multiply everything in your budget by 8%.


What are your goals aside from money?


“One of my visions is that there are a lot of scientists out there doing really interesting things but they aren’t as popular…I kind of like the idea of Walacea helping to create heroic science figures.” – Natalie Jonk, Founder of Walacea.


Yes, scientific crowdfunding is primarily about funding your research, but there is more to it than that. By reaching out to the public, your friends, and you colleagues for funds you are also communicating your science. What do you want to get across?


One high powered scientist I know told me that she would use crowdfunding for a small piece of their larger funding plans simply to maintain their public communication. By finding people who are willing to spend money on your science you are also finding people who are passionate about it and, probably, the same people who might let others know about it.


So, think about what else you are wanting to communicate? Is your study system imperiled and in need of public support? Are you wanting to get your name out there as you move from graduate school into the job market? Do you want to become a better science communicator? There are some opportunities to communicate your science and yourself beyond simply asking for money. It might pay to think about them and utilize the platform to further those goals as well. Thinking about this might also help you target your message to your audience.


Who is your Target Audience?


The key to avoiding unnecessary work in a crowdfunding campaign is to ask people who are already inclined to give you money, rather than asking a bunch of people who don’t care. That seems almost laughably simple, but figuring out who to market to is important. It pays to think about this ahead of time and tune your efforts toward these groups of people who you think might be most interested. After you gather some momentum you can really reach out to a wider audience.


Successful Fish Challenge projects had more success with reaching outside their network to people they didn’t directly know. Unsuccessful projects seemed to falter outside of friends and family.

Successful groups in the Fish Challenge were able to gather donors from beyond their 1st degree social circle, beyond people they knew well. Family and friends were important for all of the projects, but successful projects were able to reach beyond their primary contacts to colleagues, the larger scientific community, and the general public. The further outside your own network you are able to generate interest the better. But, to do that you have to get the right people in your own network talking and sharing your project.


Don’t be surprised if your initial donations are from close friends and family, that is what they are there for, to support all your crazy ideas without question. But, target your efforts beyond your circle of friends. Find the admins who will send out your emails to email lists within your company or university and ask them to forward emails (just be careful not to spamming them or you’ll burn bridges). Ask people in any professional societies you are a part of to include information about your project in newsletters or emails. Think hard about ways to reach lots of people that are tangentially related to you with the least amount of work on your part. This is the time to call in those favors from people who’ve asked you for favors in the past. Comb through your emails for group emails with addresses that aren’t in your address book yet.


Try to start a social media conversation with influential people or groups in your field rather than just blasting your information into the ether.


Try to reach as far beyond your social circle as possible while still staying targeted. Join Facebook groups, email list-serves, sub-Reddits, and Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram feeds related to your research and post things to them. If you can get people interested who are social network ‘nodes’, people that are connected and influential with lots of other people, you can grow much faster…but you have to get their attention and you can’t do that without directly engaging them. If you do it right you’ll see that donations from friends are slowly replaced by people you don’t know very well, and finally by total strangers. These two projects (1 and 2) are great examples of projects funded ~90% by strangers.


Successful projects viewed all the avenues of social media communication as important outlets and used them, while unsuccessful projects utilized fewer avenue of communication. Of these, survey respondents rated email the most important to their donations, Facebook was the second most important avenue for driving donations, and Twitter was a distant third. For me the more personal and direct the communication was the more likely it was that people would donate. Facebook allows this direct, personal communication. Twitter, on the other hand, is fairly impersonal and it’s difficult to make a persuasive pitch in 140 characters. Unless you have a Twitter following already it might be a good way to get the word out, especially since you can easily reach influential people, but it might not bring in a bunch of new donors right away.


Graph of which social media platforms were most important for driving donations on the Experiment Fish Challenge
Email, Facebook, and to a degree Twitter were important drivers of donations in the Experiment Fish Challenge. More focussed methods (Other) were also effective.

Email was very important for all the Fish Challenge participants, so work on setting up a large email list. In my case this was a great opportunity to organize my contact list, I sent emails to almost everyone in my contact list…about 300 people in total. I set up separate email lists for scientists and non-scientists so that I could send different information to each group. This was partially because I wanted to target the public for donations and scientists for helping to get the word out, though it turned out that other scientists were a solid source of donations.


There is another strategy for seeking out donors that doesn’t involve mass communication, but instead being hyper-focused. You can specifically target certain groups that you think would be willing to donate more readily. The Fish Challenge showed that this focused approach can work. One project raised $145/donation from just a small handful of donors, while the rest of the funded projects averaged $27/donor and 120-160 donors each. One respondent to the survey also said that targeting fishing and aquarium forums was a more focused and effective strategy for them than trying to reach everyone in their network and beyond. This project, also fish related, had a 15% conversion rate from targeting salt water aquarium blogs. So, a targeted approach can be worthwhile if you know who to target.

Two strategies emerged for funding in the Fish Challenge. One projects targeted a few donors willing to give more money, while other projects targeted larger numbers of donors with smaller donations.

Record a Great Video


One of the biggest determinants of who was and wasn’t funded in the Fish Challenge was whether the project had a video. Projects with a video had a 75% chance of reaching their goal, while projects without a video were funded only 14% of the time. That said, you don’t have to be Werner Herzog to put together a compelling video.


First, write a script and read it to make sure you are under 3 minutes…under 2 minutes is even better. The shorter the video the more likely people will watch it until the end. There are plenty of free video editing suites out there. I used iMovie but there are plenty for Windows as well. Try to get your nugget sentence in the first 15 seconds. Keep the dialog snappy. Pose questions or describe interesting aspects of your work rather than treating it like writing an abstract. It should be fun and not a lecture. Also, don’t be afraid to directly ask for money, multiple times.


Find a quiet, visually compelling spot to record in. The video quality probably isn’t as big a deal as the sound quality and that you’ve put some time into thinking about the background. I used an iPhone 6 taped to the screen of my laptop, the equipment shouldn’t be what holds you back.



Photography is all about light, especially if you don’t have hi-tech equipment. Try to find somewhere with lots of soft natural light coming in at an angle toward and to one side of your face. Avoid fluorescent light like the plague! I used a hallway in one of the classroom buildings after hours, just as the sun was going behind the buildings, because I liked the architectural shadows in the background and the windows let in lots of light. The sound of people or heating vents can be really distracting, especially with the small mics in phones, and picking a background other than a messy lab or office is more visually compelling. So take some time to think about where you want to record.


I didn’t take the time to memorize my script, and I didn’t want lots of cuts to edit out my blather and mistakes, so I used a free, online teleprompter. Upload your script and play with the size and speed that the text scrolls and you are all set. I noticed that with the camera at arm’s length it was easy to see my eyeballs scanning the text. Taping the phone to my screen and using a small teleprompter window got rid of that problem.


Be Prepared to Put in the Time


“I didn’t realize that I was doing the fund raising — I would not have done it.”Anonymous Fish Challenge Participant


“I think the biggest issue I saw was people didn’t want to put in the effort. Many people took the approach that if they create the page, donors will just come pouring in and of course that is not the case.” – J.R. Clark, , Experiment Fish Challenge

Pie chart showing that funded projects usually spent between 2-6 hours per day on their projects while unsuccessful projects spent less than an hour
You’ve got to do the work to get the money! Projects that spent significant time promoting their projects were more likely to be funded. (responses where equally split between funded and unfunded projects in this graph)

Success at crowdfunding, above almost everything else, hinges on having the time required to do it. Depending on your ability to target donors the amount of time it takes will vary, but you have to be willing to put in some time. Considering the money involved the hours it takes to reach your goal is probably more than the number of hours it takes to write a grant proposal for a small grant. But…with crowdfunding you are in control, you aren’t competing against anyone but yourself while a traditional grant means competition with others. So, if you are willing to put in some time this can be a good way to get the funding you need.


Experiment advertises a success rate above 45% which already is better than the chances of many grants. Putting in the time required gives you a huge advantage and boosts your chances even higher.


How much time should you expect? The survey data on this was pretty variable, but you will definitely need to put in more than an hour a day. From my experience the most work is at the start and end of the project. Write a great project page and recording a compelling video takes some time. Likewise, the last few days of the project are a whirlwind of work trying to get people to donate, putting up stretch goals, and communicating with your donors. Expect to work 8 hour days at the beginning and end of the project. In the middle I was probably working 2-3 hours a day on the project, either writing lab notes, posting to social media, or finding new distribution lists to send out emails.


Get to Know Your Support Team


As I mentioned in my previous posts, this is a new industry and although the sites are very slick there is a lot of manual labor in the background to make everything work. Expect glitches and be prepared by getting to know the people who are making it all happen. Remember, their business model rests on making 5% on the donations you bring in, so they are very willing to help. The team at experiment was very responsive and great to work with. Start things out with a cordial hello…before the inevitable problems arise…and get off on the right foot.


Use Lab Notes to Their Best Advantage


Experiment encourages you to post ‘Lab Notes’ to communicate with donors and to get the word out. They are essentially self-contained articles that can include videos, pictures and text. They stand on their own and don’t include a donation link. You can publish them to the public, or restrict them only to donors for donor only updates. I was very skeptical of their value, but they turned out to be important.


Think of lab notes as a way to self-publish your own informational, medium-form journalism. Think of the types of click-bait style articles you see on Live Science or IFLScience; easy to digest information about some really cool aspect of science. I used Lab Notes to write an informational piece titled “What is a sawfish, exactly” that drew quite a bit of traffic to the project. I followed this up with another pictorial piece titled, “How Cool are Goliath Catfish? Really, Really Cool!”. Both were written with a fast pace, a catchy title, a bit cheeky, plenty of pictures, and a focus on a single element of the project that wasn’t otherwise available in that sort of easily digested format. Being outrageous or quirky can be a good tactic too, have you ever wondered if sloths are kosher for passover?


Posting these lab notes to Twitter and Facebook was a good way to give people more information and a reason to click on the project rather than just skimming the post and moving on.


This feature doesn’t seem to exist in quite the same way on Walacea, but it’s worth writing things like this. I would start a free Blogger, WordPress or Tumblr account and use that for the same purpose. Just make sure that it’s easy for people to click from your article directly to your project with a prominent link.

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