What’s wrong with crowdfunding for indie theatre?

More and more indie theatre groups are finding crowdfunding to be a way to fundraise that doesn’t require the task of creating and organizing a fundraising event. Crowdfunding gives us the opportunity to get our campaign seen outside of our personal networks and potentially reach new people that we might not have been able to reach before. But most theatre related campaigns don’t do very well, making only a small fraction of their requested amount. Why is that?
Last week, I saw a crowdfunding campaign for an indie theatre project on social media. This was a campaign that I should have  wanted to support. I should have jumped at the opportunity to back it.

But I didn’t. And more often than not, I don’t. Because, to be honest, my indie theatre friends: We’re just not using crowdfunding very well.

Compare the average theatre crowdfunding campaign (look here and here, for examples) to one of the crowdfunding success stores, where a campaign went viral and the organizer just raked in tons of money. What do you notice?

I notice a couple of things: in some cases, the campaigns that have worked have a name behind them. With Exploding Kittens, for example, one of the folks behind that campaign was the creator of one of the most successful webcomics on the internet, The Oatmeal. Others were started by already well known companies or celebrities.

In indie theatre, we don’t really have celebrities to attach to our projects to help boost our signal. But the campaigns above had more than just celebrity names, they had something else going for them that was even more important: perks that people want. Think about the last crowdfunding campaign you excitedly jumped on and backed. What was the first thing you did before you decided to back it? I know what I did: I looked at the perks to see which ones I wanted, and then I looked again to see which ones I could afford, and then I find a balance between the two and backto the campaign. In every crowdfunding campaign I’ve ever backed, its been the same thing: The campaign might be something I really like, but its the perks that make me support it.

When I look at most indie theatre campaigns I see perks that look something like this:

$10: Social Media shout out
$40: Thanks on our website
$75: Thanks in our program
$100: A letter of thanks, signed by the cast.
$125: A ticket to the show.

There are variations of course, and the dollar amounts vary, but the important thing is that none of these perks make me think “Ooh, I have to have that”. Campaigns that look like this are just soliciting donations, and giving practically nothing in return. The problem here is that we’re using crowdfunding as if it was I’m not throwing stones here, I’ve been guilty of this myself when in my past crowdfunding attempts. But let’s be clear, the first three perks here are of no value for drawing in a potential backer, They aren’t something anyone particularly wants and are basicallly things we should be doing anyway for every single backer. In fact, none of these perks have any real value, with the exception of the ticket offering, which is vastly over priced. If I’m offering a ticket to my regular audience for $20, why am I offering it for so much more to my potential backers? These “perks” make it clear that we see crowdfunding as just another way of getting donations. But crowdfunding doesn’t work that way. Crowdfunding isn’t charity. A successful campaign offers value for the backer.

If we’re going to rely more and more on crowdfunding, we’re going to have to start taking our cues from the successful campaigns in other forms of media. And I acknowledge that theatre is at a disadvantage here. We can’t offer a tangible piece of the resulting product. A comic book can offer a digital and a printed version of the final product, a film offers a digital and hard copy of the film, a musician a digital and hard copy of the album they are funding, a game can offere a copy of the game. The only way we can share the final result, is by offering a ticket. Which means that only those who are local, or planning to travel will be able to take advantage of any perk that involves a ticket. As a perk, offering a ticket has limited value, because it can realistically only be offered to local backers.

So what can indie theatre offer as perks? Remember that people want tangibles: buttons and t-shirts should be your starting point. After that, depending on the show, you can find something that’s appropriate. Remember that you want to give enough that someone will have find the balance between the perks they want and the perks they can afford. In the campaigns I’ve backed, the perk I usually select is around the $50 value, and always because there’s a perk at that value that I want. Yes, tangible perks that people will want costs money, but having great perks is the cost of crowdfunding. Good perks will keep your campaign going through the having a successful crowdfunding campaign. But imagine what could happen if most of our backers, instead of giving $10 or less, were averaging $50, because we were offering perks that had value to them.

Maybe we’ll never be the next Exploding Kittens, but we can learn from those wildly successful campaigns, and start making crowdfunding really work.

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