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Some things we learnt when crowdfunding

Posted by Amanda

We asked Charlie Phillips, Marketplace Director of Sheffield Doc/Fest about their experience of raising money through crowdfunding. This is when lots of people give a small sum of money to support the ideas and ventures of individuals or organisations. Doc/Fest is an international film festival which runs for five days in Sheffield each June. It also offers pitching opportunities, discussion panels and filmmaker masterclasses. Here’s what Charlie told us…

“Thanks to the generosity of 350 of our best friends, fans and supporters, Doc/Fest has just raised nearly $28,000 on IndieGoGo (a crowdfunding website) for our 20th anniversary festival. It was very hard work though, so I thought I'd spread some useful tips on what worked and what didn't and how to make it succeed.

Why we did it and what we got from it…
The fact we hit our target was obviously great. Though our target of $25,000 is quite typical for a crowdfunded film, it was an unchartered amount for an event, especially a UK one. The motivations for someone to contribute to a film (where it feels like the team behind it are poverty-stricken and deserving) and a festival/event (where at least we have jobs and there's a perception for some that we're rolling in public money) are very different, so in retrospect it was quite ambitious, but that makes it even more awesome that we managed to do it.

It was also great publicity for us as innovators and supporters of creative work. I've been touring the world for the last three years preaching the wonderfulness of crowdfunding, so it was necessary and very pleasing to try it ourselves, put our necks on the line and prove that it can work. There's an inherent accountability and transparency to crowdfunding, which tallies perfectly with our festival ethos of being democratic, transparent and DIY.

It really proved to us how devoted our community of Doc/Fest-goers are - you need a set of obsessive people to make your campaign work and the 351 funders we got comprised lots of people who had got deals and jobs through Doc/Fest, or who had just had a really good time here. Obviously we don't do those things on the basis that people owe us something back, but it's so lovely to hear from our people how much they feel we've enriched their lives. Forget the money, feeling that love from those people and the amazing comments they sent us was the most triumphant and inspiring thing.

What we learnt…
In terms of what didn't work: firstly, it is so much hard work. A few of us spent day after day writing and phoning people and reminding them to contribute. You need to keep plugging away and you need to be shameless about asking for help. That’s hard and you have to overcome a psychological barrier of not wanting to ask for assistance. It worked in the end, but it was impossible not to get disheartened when we were a long way off with a few days to go. With crowdfunding, the money rolls in right at the end, but it doesn't half give you a heart attack.

Secondly, not all of our perks proved popular (people who pledge money can receive a perk or reward for their donation) as it's so hard to know what motivates people. Even though I've always preached the gospel that you offer contributors something that money can't buy, I realised that it’s hard to know for sure what individual contributors regard as being special. It's not monetary value and it's not necessarily an experience such as a tour of Chatsworth or a firewalk. What people seemed to like was the random Doc/Fest merchandise and general 'money can't buy' ephemera. If you have old t-shirts, catalogues, bags, posters and other stuff from past years that's great. People like vintage items and things that aren't on sale anywhere, so think about what you have to hand that's unique. Think also about who you have in your circle of patrons, friends, customers who have something to offer - that could be a famous person signing a book, or someone you know who does hot air balloon rides, or a season ticket for a football team.

Strangely, pulling in our celebrity contacts had little effect - almost none. So tweets from Stephen Fry, Joan Rivers and Michael Moore brought in very little compared to our own tweets to people who'd been to the festival. This is not normally the case for crowdfunded films where a celebrity endorsement is golden.

Crowdfunding tips…
If you're an organisation who wants to launch their own crowdfunding campaign, my biggest tip is simple - plan ahead! Be very clear about who you will be contacting and who will be contacting them. You need to write individual emails to a lot of people, and those need to be people who you have a long-term connection with. So in a way, you're preparing for your campaign for years beforehand! Make lists of people to contact, using your mailing list, press, partner organisations, whoever. Make a schedule for who will write to them and when, when that person will follow up, what you expect from that person you wrote to.

Think deeply about who you've helped in the past and what you can say to motivate them to respond to that feeling of gratitude. In particular, you can stimulate that feeling if you're seen to contribute to others' crowdfunding campaigns, or even just help promote them. Tit for tat works. Also if you're seen to have been an innovator in the past rather than just picking up the crowdfunding baton for the sake of a bit of money, then that's good - people will always respond to your willingness to try new things.

Plan the words of your call for contributions very carefully. Make it fun and persuasive; don't make it worthy or vague, especially when you talk about what the money will go towards. The more specific you can be the better. We were funding for our 20th anniversary and wanted to do some special events to mark the occasion, like a screening in a cave. You could argue that even that wasn't quite specific enough, but the more you can offer people something tangible, above and beyond their normal expectations of you, the more they're motivated. No-one wants to see their money disappear into a general slush fund, so make the money as ring fenced and specific as possible.

Make your video fun and something people will want to share. Ours was very silly, but people loved it - you saw us talking directly to camera, you saw the office, you saw our general sense of humour. Do that and people won't even need to read your words, they'll just want to help these loveable people on screen to do more loveable things.

And finally…
So, that’s what worked for us. It was very hard work but it was fun and it raised the money that we needed. To find out more, you can take a look at our campaign here:

Charlie Phillips, Marketplace Director