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Students turn to crowdfunding site to bankroll projects and organizations

Kickstarting Student Projects
March 13, 2012

Thaddeus Bouska, a sophomore film student at Emerson College, had a problem familiar to both students and independent filmmakers: he needed money.

Bouska was preparing to produce “Break,” a short film he wrote for an intermediate film course at Emerson. “Break” is about a soldier facing a moral dilemma in the fog of a nameless war. The college loaned Bouska and his crew a camera, some basic lighting equipment and three rolls of 16-millimeter film. Raising cash for props, permits, insurance, extra film and other necessities was up to the student filmmakers. The point of the assignment, Bouska says, was to teach students not only the skills to craft a film but also the resourcefulness to get their film made.

In the past — and still today — students turned to the usual campus fund-raising tropes. “I’ve seen people do bake sales, they’ve thrown parties, they’ve called up grandparents, all sorts of things,” says Bouska. Claire Andrade-Watkins, an associate professor of visual and media arts who has been at Emerson for nearly three decades, says she has seen students max out credit cards and take on debt making their films.  

Bouska went a different route. He created a profile page for “Break” on Kickstarter, a popular website that enables independent artists to broadcast their fund-raising pitches to a network of fellow artists and armchair philanthropists. The goal was $900. The “Break” crew embedded a brief video describing the film and making their plea. They set up a series of incentives for each tier of donor (those who give $25 or more would get a signed copy of the script, among other goodies). Then they posted and e-mailed the hell out of the link, hoping the money would come together before their scheduled filming date on March 19.

It did, with time to spare. “Break” has pulled in $1,061 to date via its Kickstarter page.

Bouska is one of a number of Emerson film students to tap Kickstarter to raise money for their film projects. He and his classmates are also part of a larger subpopulation of the social fund-raising site, which has become a resource for students looking to raise money for their student organizations and pet projects without going through the rigmarole of applying for funding from cash-strapped student governments or long-shot outside funding agencies.

Dance Oregon, a student dance troupe at the University of Oregon, raised $4,500 to help defray the cost of going to an American College Dance Festival conference. Chris Connolly, a biology student at Southern Oregon University, raised a quick $100 to create Khan Academy-like tutorials in anatomy and physiology. Students at the Savannah College of Art and Design raised nearly $5,000 (after setting a $3,000 goal) to start a fashion, art and culture magazine.

Kickstarter, founded in 2008, allows any adult U.S. citizen to post a project so long as it conforms to the site’s guidelines (i.e., no causes, no projects with indefinite timelines, no "fund-my-life" welfare). Once the project is approved, the creator sets up a business account with Amazon.com, which processes the payouts for a small percentage. (Kickstarter also takes a small percentage of the funds raised. Anecdotal evidence suggests Amazon and Kickstarter combine to take about a 10 percent cut.) The creator sets the fund-raising goal and a time period not exceeding 60 days.

If the goal is met, the project creator gets the money; if it is not, the donors are not billed and the creator gets nothing.

Kickstarter made waves last month when it projected that it will route $150 million from donors to artists by year’s end — more than the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), whose annual operating budget is $146 million. (Films are the most popular projects on Kickstarter, accounting for a third of all funds raised, according to the company.)

That is especially significant for undergraduates, who in general are not eligible for funding from the NEA or many foundations, says Andrade-Watkins, who teaches classes about the business side of modern media at Emerson. And when they do qualify, those channels can often be a dead end.

“They’re cumbersome,” Andrade-Watkins says. “You have a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of paperwork, and they’re very competitive… It’s always difficult when you have students doing smaller projects for [bachelor’s in fine arts degrees].” Most are stuck raising money they way they have done since childhood, she says: selling treats and soliciting relatives.

Student organizations sometimes find petitioning student government treasurers to be just as tedious and futile as student artists find grant-writing to be. Marquette LaForest, a senior at Centenary College and the station manager at KSCL 91.3, the college’s radio station, did not want to bother asking the student government for money to buy screen-printed KSCL t-shirts to give away to students. “We could [have], but honestly it’s a hassle,” LaForest said.

Instead, LaForest set up a Kickstarter page with a mock-up design for the t-shirts and a fund-raising goal of $500 — enough to not merely commission the shirts, but actually purchase equipment so the station could print them itself. The project reached its target in three days.

And half of the 26 donors were strangers. “A very, very small minority were students,” says LaForest. “It was, by and large, people in the community.”

Whose Network Really Matters?

But students who turn to Kickstarter should not expect an automatic payday. Not every project gets funded, first of all. The Kickstarter backlogs are full of underfunded student films, by students at Emerson and elsewhere. One can also find pages memorializing failed attempts to kick-start student organizations. Your magazine, a prospective magazine at Emerson “focusing on the lifestyle of an urban college student,” last fall raised only $43 from four backers after setting a goal of $2,000. (The magazine seems to have gotten seed money from some other source; its website suggests a functioning publication. The magazine’s founder did not respond to requests for comment.)

The notion of raising cash more easily by broadcasting one’s project to Kickstarter’s vast network of suggestible benefactors may be, in many cases, an illusion. Overall, Kickstarter attracts a great deal of traffic — it is the 443rd most popular website in the United States, according to the Web information company Alexa.

But just because a student makes a fund-raising page on Kickstarter does not mean strangers will find it. More likely, it will serve as a convenient link for project creators to share with their existing networks.  

“I think all of our backers are people that we know on a personal level,” says Matt Minardi, another Emerson film student, who raised more than double the $500 goal for his film by sending the link to his Kickstarter page to friends and family (and having his crew do the same). “I don’t know a lot of people getting people they don’t already know donating to their film,” Minardi said.

The Tupelos, an a cappella group at Wellesley College that raised nearly $3,800 toward recording an album, relied heavily on donations from people they would have solicited anyway — parents, relatives, and former members of the group.

Still, the group's Kickstarter page allowed its members to make a stronger pitch by including a video and listing incentives for various tiers of giving, says Darcy Kupferschmidt, a senior and president of the group. Kupferschmidt says she thinks the ease of paying online might have drawn contributions from some more casual donors.

There are ways to get exposure with Kickstarter’s broader audience. The Kickstarter staff picks especially cool projects to “feature” on its landing and discovery pages. The Centenary College radio station’s screen-printing bid got a small editorial boost from a staff member at Kickstarter, which explains why half its donations came from strangers. Re: magazine, the start-up at the Savannah College of Art and Design, also got a modest bump from the site's editors.

But for the majority of projects, success on Kickstarter may depend less on the strength of the website’s vaunted network and more on the strength of the project creator’s personal network.

Bouska, the Emerson film student, says that before “Break” was a Kickstarter success story, it was on its way to being a dud. For a while, the film’s profile page went largely unnoticed, or ignored. “We weren’t making it,” Bouska says. Until a member of his crew sent the link to her father, who forwarded it to his colleagues. Suddenly, the donations started rolling in.

“It’s [about] who you know and who you forward it to,” he says. “Instead of reaching out to new people it’s more about consolidating it in one place and then passing it out to people you know.”  

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