Almost three months ago I posted my thoughts on Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, and I hinted at the end that The Saint John of Damascus Society would be trying its own hand at crowdfunding. We unveiled the project on 16 April, and I’m happy to be able to say that when the clock ran out at 11:23am on 16 May, this is how things looked:
Many thanks to all who pledged; there is much more to come where this project is concerned, so if you want to support us as we go forward, you most certainly can — just click here for SJDS’s PayPal button. If you don’t want to do it electronically, that’s fine too; send a note via this form and we’ll work something out.
To share some observations about the campaign that hopefully others might find helpful —
We really learned a lot by just muddling through on this one. The original thought was, hey, let’s make pledging as economically accessible as possible. We want lots and lots of $1-$50 pledges, not a smaller number of $100-$1000 pledges, and we structured the pledging rewards along those lines. The first video was also basically just my disembodied voice presenting a Keynote slide deck as though I were doing a grant proposal. There were a lot of issues that I felt we had to overcome; we’re a new organization without any kind of a built-in audience or name recognition, so we’ve got to sell who we are, we’ve got to sell the project as a whole, and we’ve also got to explain the breakdown of the phases and exactly what is being paid for when. Also, we don’t have any rights to any musical excerpts ourselves, so we seemed limited to what we could do visually. Anyway, I made the snazziest slide deck I could, narrated it as clearly as I could, converted it to QuickTime, and hoped that it would speak for itself.
I got some criticism on the video; too long, too dry, no one’s going to watch it, you pause waaaaaaay too long in between composer names, you sound like Seth Rogen(!), etc. I also got some praise on the video; it’s really compelling how you lay it out, you say everything that needs to be said, etc. The lines seemed to be somewhat age-based; in the end, we went with it.
We launched the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. That was actually really tricky; we were ready to go by the end of March, but we had some administrative hurdles to clear. We decided to launch on 16 April so that we’d be going after tax season — then the bombing happened. We couldn’t really delay any longer because we need to start making arrangements for the fall, so we went with it, and we acknowledged the bombing in our launch blog post. Well, okay, but then the bishops in Syria got kidnapped, which has (appropriately) captured a particular segment of Orthodox social media. All we could do was do our thing, acknowledging that things were happening in the world as it was possible to do so, but I’d be lying if I said that I thought it didn’t hurt us; and, yes, I feel terrible for even acknowledging that. There are things far more important than Kickstarter campaigns.
Regardless, we had a good first few days. We passed $2k in a week, which was ahead of the clock. The trouble was, then we plateaued. We had a few days where we got barely $300 in pledges total. Uh oh, I thought to myself. What’s wrong here? Well, maybe a few things, a friend of mine suggested. The video needs music, the video also needs a face since people give money to a person and not an idea, and you need higher pledging reward levels. Yes, fine, having accessible pledging levels is good, but you don’t want people who want to give more to feel like you don’t want their money. Okay, points taken. With Holy Week coming up, I thought that perhaps we could come up with a new video to reinvigorate the campaign after Pascha; meanwhile, Cappella Romana was kind enough to grant us permission to use some musical excerpts, I restructured the pledging so that there were some higher reward levels, and I also happened to take this picture:
The combination of the pictures and the higher pledging levels got us another $1,000 of the way there or so, then it was Holy Week. We announced a pause during Holy Week, and posted only links to hymns appropriate to the given day of Holy Week, in various musical styles.
Meanwhile, I was thinking, how do I make a new video? Like, physically and technically, how do I do it?
This turned out to be a question of knowing what I already had. Turns out you can get an attachment for under $20 that makes your iPhone tripod mountable, and the iPhone 5 isn’t a half-bad portable video camera. Also, I found out that iMovie is pretty easy to use, all things considered. So, I got some of my board members on camera at my Paschal lamb roast talking enthusiastically about the project, devised a Theodore-centric framing device, and on Bright Monday I put up the new video, with ten days left to go in the campaign. Within two or three days, the campaign had picked up considerable renewed steam.
There were other issues, though; we got some very puzzling reactions, as well as non-reactions, in certain circles. Some people really wanted to make sure their special interest would be represented before they pledged. “Promise me that one of your composers will include some prostopinije and I’ll pledge, otherwise no deal,” one person said; needless to say, there was no deal to be had, since that’s a creative decision that isn’t up to me, but rather to the composers. (I will say there were a couple of prostopinije partisans who asked very pointed questions; anybody who says Byz chant folks are myopic has never talked to these guys!) Some people didn’t understand that this is intended more as a concert piece than something for liturgical use; other people understood very well that this will be a concert piece and thought that Orthodox composers had no business being involved in such things (one particular jurisdictional music representative said to us, in a nutshell, that the very existence of this project violated most of everything that he had tried to tell people about sacred music over the years, and he saw no good reason to support it), others really didn’t understand why we would bother with the whole science-faith thing, etc. Then there were those who either just completely shrugged it off or who were broke and for whom even $1 was simply too much. It’s possible that we underestimated just how many people for whom this is true who might otherwise be interested in what we’re doing; I’m not sure. In any event, trying to raise awareness in two major avenues of contact for Orthodox musicians produced a certain amount of verbal goodwill (and even there less than perhaps might have been expected, given that the people involved in the Psalm 103 project are largely longtime friends of these groups) but relatively little in the way of pledging.
(Also, I got into a discussion with somebody who was formerly a mover and a shaker in one of the Orthodox music organizations that has been, shall we say, regrouping for a while; this person was in the main supportive, particularly once it was made clear that this work was intended paraliturgically, but did raise the issue that, if we had the resources to start the Saint John of Damascus Society, why couldn’t we have directed those resources to revitalizing an organization that already existed? Alas, as I explained to this person, we actually tried that route quite early on, only to get diddly squat in the way of any kind of interested response.)
What ultimately really worked was when all of our people figured out how to better leverage their own social networks; mine only got us so far, as I expected, but when our board members started directly engaging their own friends and family, it generated a lot of momentum. By the last couple of days in particular, it had become a real horse race, and the drama seemed to produce a number of pledges all on its own. We finished off the campaign with three $1,000 days in a row, and we still got another $400 in pledges in the 12 hours after we hit the goal. By that point, people wanted to back a winner.
So, what are the lessons here? I could make a number of observations, I suppose — for example, the people with a direct, active interest in your project are not necessarily the ones with the resources to support it, and even if they do have those resources, even minor philosophical divergences can be enough to keep them from giving. Thus, you need to be able to sell the idea to people with a more casual, indirect interest. To do that, you need, frankly, a gimmick, you need to not be boring, and you need routes through your social network to reach those people.
Also, acknowledgment goes a long way. In our higher pledging levels, very little of material value was promised as a reward; it was more a question of how far along in the life of the project will somebody continue to be recognized. While our topmost couple of reward levels got no pledges, we got a surprising number of $500 pledges, and that recognition is the main thing they’ll get.
Judging by the number of notes I got last Thursday saying “Wow, congratulations! I didn’t think you’d make it!”, we’ve gotten some attention as a result of successfully getting funded, and that attention is worth something. The thing is, the next couple of phases after this composition phase are going to be exponentially more expensive than this one. We perhaps could have raised the money through more conventional means, but what we wouldn’t necessarily have on the other side is the 143 people we have who now have an active, vested interest in seeing this project develop, progress, and succeed. Those people will be able to help us raise at least some of the money for the next phases, and we’ll be able to point to them as a built-in audience when we’re trying to sell the project to bigger donors and granting agencies.
Anyway — I’m glad it worked out one way or the other, and I’m glad to have a counterexample to my more pessimistic assessment of crowdfunding. If there’s a way what we learned during the campaign can help others launching these kinds of projects, so much the better.
Onward and upward; we’ve got a lot of work to do now. Thanks again to everybody who supported this!