The first time I learned about direct ask fundraising was at the 2010 Creating Change conference (America’s biggest annual LGBTQ conference) where the facilitator led us through the steps of asking people on the phone for donations. I recall the 90 minute session as being one of mostly fear and anxiety because 10 minutes into it, we were informed that we’d have to make a phone call by the end of the session to ask for money. I was 21 at the time and a junior in college, but had never called someone to ask them to donate money. Sure there were times growing up when I’d organize a yard sale, lemonade stand, bake sale or even–according to my mom–made trips to neighbors doors with my scribble drawings in hand to sell them in exchange for quarters. But never had I personally asked someone, “Hey, I’m calling to see if you’d be willing to donate your money to ___ cause?” I knew friends at college who called alumni to ask for donations as part-time work, but I never thought I could do it. So while the Creating Change workshop left my hands sweaty and my heartbeat in my throat as I called my best friend for a donation, it was also an empowering lesson that helped me facilitate a workshop later and phone bank with fellow Kizuna (the Japanese student group at Swarthmore) members after the 3/11/11 earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan for which we raised over $3000.
The most lasting message I took away from the workshop was that there were three kinds of people that would donate money to our causes in our direct ask campaigns:
- people who believed in us
- people who believed in the issue
- people who believed in us And the issue
Furthermore, we were encouraged to let our passions outweigh our fear of asking, to tap into the power that people have to give (the notion of scarcity has power over us only if we let it!), to stop apologizing (because that undermines the value of our work), and to not make assumptions about who can or can’t give.
I’ve included some of the sketches, notes and handouts from that workshop at the bottom, but now I want to talk a bit about how this ties into the Indiegogo campaign I just completed.
For those of you who may not know me or my current situation, ever since graduating from college in May 2012 and completing a Watson Fellowship in August 2013, I’ve been continuing to travel, make art and be in community with an extremely meager amount of money. I’m obviously not proud of how little money I have but it’s an important fact in my personal story of why I decided to crowdfund. The fact that I’ve been moving so much has made it difficult to find a stable job of course, but it’s also true that after spending 14 months traveling around the world working on a project that I was passionate about, it’s harder to imagine working full-time for someone else, despite all of the stability that such a job promises. I suppose it’ll happen one day, but for now, I feel like I need the flexibility of doing things based on my own schedule.
Some people might say that my current lifestyle is selfish, and that I should just settle down and get a “real” job already, but I think that we should encourage people to live in ways that challenge the status quo. There should be alternative ways of contributing to a society even if that very society tells us we’re only “useful” if we’re working a 9-5 job or paying rent. I think we should recall how before consumerism and capitalism flooded our lives, people didn’t work all that much and would instead spend lots of time with friends and family, cooking real food and making beautiful art and music together (okay that may be my overly idealistic image of the past, but still).
I’ve spent my time in different cities finding opportunities to volunteer and learn new skills such as helping folks learn how to fix bikes at the Bicycle Kitchen in Los Angeles, weeding at the Wilshirecrest Elementary School garden or attending a People of Color writers’ retreat at the East Bay Meditation Center. I’m very conscious of how much I’m relying on people’s help for example to live rent free (because I’ve been staying with friends) and I look forward to the day when I can help others do the same. In the meantime though, I’ve been taking random part-time gigs, sporadic art commissions and donations for talks and zines which give me enough to pay for groceries, cheap megabus tickets and the occasional splurge of some vegan dim sum 🙂 And as the author of my favorite zine mentions, this kind of life is not about being “a cheapskate, being frugal, living in poverty or scamming people to get stuff for free. It’s about letting go of the belief that money is essential to get anywhere, and being open to the abundance of nature. It’s about sharing everything you have, and allowing yourself and others to reach their full potential.” I also mention in this illustrated post that I believe in highlighting the richness of our creativity rather than our fear. Which is a perfect segue into why I decided to take the leap and crowdfund for my yoga teacher training.
As much as I love “living an amazingly adventurous life for close to $0 a day“, I knew that there was no way I could attend a yoga teacher training with the money in my bank account, despite my burning desire to take advantage of my flexible schedule and take my yoga education to the next level. Despite having read this article and feeling like crowdfunding was an exhausted resource, I ultimately decided to give Indiegogo a try. I was ready to tell the world that I believed in the quality of work I do for communities, the perks I was going to offer in exchange for contributions, and the long-term benefits of me having a yoga teacher training certificate. (Fun fact, when I was interviewed for the Watson Fellowship, they asked me what I would do if I didn’t get the fellowship. I answered that I would raise the amount via Kickstarter and do the project anyways ;))
The first few days were exciting because in just a couple of days I had raised $500 out of my $3500 goal. But after that initial rush of donations, I hit a dry spell. When I asked for advice from my good friend who often fundraises, she told me without skipping a beat that the solution was easy: I needed to call people. How were people, especially in the early stages, going to feel the urge to give if I hadn’t personally reached out to let them know? So I cracked my knuckles and thought back to how I once felt at that Creating Change conference, channeled all the positive feelings that I knew direct asks could provide and started calling my friends, one by one. Once I got over the initial awkward stages (although that came back depending on who I was asking), it became clear that people were generally very happy to hear from me and excited to pitch into something that meant a lot to me. They had also seen the work I had done in the past and felt that supporting me would help me continue my work (Example below of a Facebook post helping me share my campaign with folks).
Of course, not everyone responded with such positive enthusiasm, and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about the unreturned phone calls and emails, the mixed feelings and rejections. As one friend put it, she tended to donate “to help fund goods and services for which there is a demand, but which are generally not well-received by traditional backers.” One friend expressed concerns about feeding the “yoga machine” as she put it, which pushed me to write about it in my Yoga and Colonization: Let’s talk about it piece. Yet another friend said that they would feel more comfortable donating if it were purely for charity or if I would be putting in as much as I was asking, out of pocket. Another close friend told me that there had to be cheaper ways of getting my yoga teacher training, and did I have to go to this expensive program? These were all valid points, and I’m not about to criticize them here. However, as Dan Pallotta urges in his TED talk, “too many nonprofits are rewarded for how little they spend — not for what they get done.”
Before people get offended because they think I’m calling myself a nonprofit organization or that I believe my yoga teacher training campaign is more important than other crowdfunding campaigns by nonprofits or causes that never get funded, I’ll state it clearly here that I have no intention of doing that. I recognize the frustration that many nonprofit organizations may feel when they’re not getting enough funding but then see a “passion project” individual campaign like mine receiving funding. And I certainly want to open the floor up for discussion about this too (I encourage you to comment below)! But I also want to emphasize the importance of investing in people’s dreams, and allowing for abundance and growth in diverse ways. If we always live in the frame of mind that if one worthy organization isn’t getting enough funding, then a smaller organization or someone doing things differently should not get funding, then we’re squashing out the possibility of change. What if we all worked together to make sure that the folks with successful “passion project” campaigns could pitch in and give to the worthy organizations without enough funding?
Anyways, I’m not sure if I’ll be running a campaign again any time soon but I learned a whole heck of a lot in this month of fundraising. I saw how people felt like they had a stake in my future, my art and activism, and I saw how many people really loved and supported me and the work I do. It was an invaluable experience, and despite the Indiegogo and Paypal fees, I’m pretty satisfied with Indiegogo’s easy-to-use interface. I was pushed to create new content frequently (you can see the series of art and writing I did for it here) so that people would continue to be excited and informed about my campaign, and to make sure my thoughts were clearly articulated. I’m also a bigger believer in the strength in numbers now! In the end, I had 103 funders with an overwhelming amount of people contributing $25 each, which, when mixed in which a few $100, $50 and $10 contributions, brought me to the total of $3762! I had initially created $250 and $500 level donation perks, thinking that those were the amounts that would get me to the finish line, but I had to recognize that most of my friends just weren’t earning that much money 😉
And while I had an incredible amount of support from many people when I applied for the Watson Fellowship, the feeling of having 103 people financially support and invest in my education (plus countless others who supported in other ways) completely trumps the feeling I had when I received my fellowship prize from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. I’m not surprised it makes me feel this way, because rather than feeling grateful to a deceased white man’s foundation, I can express my gratitude to the community that I’m serving in the first place!
Okay, I think I’ll stop now because I can sense myself start to ramble…but let me say thank you once more to everyone who cheered me on, gave me advice, shared the campaign with their friends and supported me all the way. There were many days when I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but all of your kind words and encouragement made me keep pushing. Thank you!
Direct ask resources and notes. Click on the image to enlarge 🙂