Learning from Larry, part two: what crowd funding looks like from the donor’s perspective

February 11, 2011 · by David Campbell · media economy, photography
My postman brought an envelope from Larry Towell this week. Sent from Canada, it contained the 6×4 inch photograph (above) offered to those who pledged US$25 towards Larry’s “Crisis in Afghanistan” project. Personally captioned “International Committee of the Red Cross, Kabul, Afghanistan 2010” it was also personally signed. In my original post reviewing Larry’s Kickstarter-funded project on Afghanistan I said I would periodically report, from the contributor’s perspective, on how the project seemed to be progressing. This is my first follow-up to the original post. At the outset I want to be clear on two points. First, this is not about harassing Larry! Given that its early days for crowd funding I think it’s worthwhile for photographers contemplating the approach to appreciate what the process looks like from the other side of the fence. Although I’m drawing my points from Larry’s project, I don’t want to personalize this. Perhaps I should refer to “Larry,” putting him in quotation marks to emphasize that this project is an example from which we might draw some lessons. The second point is that this is a review about a particular form of crowd funding, namely how it looks via Kickstarter. In the original post I discussed crowd funding in theory and then in practice, and Kickstarter as a crowd funding platform is just one example of the practice. Nonetheless, I think there are general pointers that emerge from what I have seen so far. When you contribute to a Kickstarter project, what happens? Well, nearly all communication is via automatically generated emails.  The first arrives after you make your pledge:
You are now a backer of Crisis in Afghanistan by Larry Towell. If funded, Larry Towell will send you a message to request any info needed to deliver your reward (mailing address, etc.) Please help Larry Towell spread the word! http://www.kickstarter.com/e/ahKZP/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan —————————————————————————————————————— Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.
While a project is seeking funding, the person behind it can offer updates on Kickstarter, and distinguish between updates available to all and those that can be accessed by backers only. The latter also come to your email inbox if you have made a contribution, and I received “Project Update #6 on the final day of the pitch:
Dear Everyone The time is almost up and I have made more than my goal, thanks to your generosity. I have been in communication with my contacts in Afghanistan recently and am beginning to plan, looking at a departure date in March. I’ll be sending things off asap. For those receiving prints, I’ll be in touch personally about your selection. Thank you again for making this happen. Larry
There haven’t been any further project updates for contributors. Once the deadline for pledges passes, and assuming the project is funded, another email arrives:
Congrats! Amazon will now charge your credit card and transfer the money directly to Larry Towell. http://www.kickstarter.com/e/DRFaj/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan —————————————————————————————————————— Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.
Shortly on its heels, the Amazon Payments system issues an email confirming it has taken your money and completed payment, in this case to the Magnum Foundation who handled Larry’s finances. With the money paid, it was then a matter of waiting for the promised personal communication about the print selection. Only the communication wasn’t personal, and there wasn’t any selection involved. The Kickstarter platform sends an email asking you to complete an online “survey,” which means entering your name and address on their site so the print can be sent.
Larry Towell has created a survey to request info needed to deliver your reward: “A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.” Respond to this survey on Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/e/uPMqE/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan/surveys/174274?at=b6f04baa8f8ebd36 —————————————————————————————————————— Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.
Once that is done, the contributor then waits for the reward. Was it a “personal thank you”? Not really – it’s a photo I’m happy to have and the pencilled caption and autograph is fine. But is there anything that marks it out as a “thank you” for a project that is ongoing? No. Was there anything about where the project is currently at or what the next stage is? No. What one gets as a contributor – at least at my minor level – is automated, impersonal and far from engaging. I don’t mean to sound petty or whiny about this; I’m just trying to judge the process in terms of what the Kickstarter system said was forthcoming. The discussion here is also no criticism of Kickstarter – it’s a very efficient fundraising process. It’s just not a platform for community engagement around a project (nor does it claim to be). As a contributor interested in the substance of the project I was hoping for more. I’d love to know more about where the project planning is at, what is going well and what problems are being faced, not to mention some idea of where and when we might see the end product. To that end I did post a comment on Larry’s Facebook page but that didn’t elicit any response. At the moment it seems my role as a minor contributor came to an end once my credit card was charged. To my mind crowd funding, if it is to fulfill its potential, has to do much more than that. It has to really engage the contributors. But let’s wait and see if Larry’s backers get more updates in the weeks ahead. I will let you know.

13 Responses to “Learning from Larry, part two: what crowd funding looks like from the donor’s perspective”

  1. Thanks for your insights David. It’s been interesting to see Kickstarter, ahem, kick off, and now to read what it’s like in operation (especially from the backer side). Are you thinking about a “part three” to your writings here? I wonder how folks like “Larry” – and organizations like Magnum for that matter – can address the points you raise and if they will do so in a way that advances the crowdfunding potential you allude to. Or will new models/methods/means develop to match this new resource? One can only wonder…

    • Jesse; there will be a part three on “Larry” of there is more to say about that specific project, but I have a sense that there may not be many updates from the project for a while. But I will certainly be writing more about the ethos of crowd funding and how I think it might be done better. (For example, having looked at Ashley Glibertson’s and Bruce Gilden’s current Kickstarter pitiches I would say that many of the issues discussed re “Larry” apply to them as well). Also, when emphas.is launches and we see the details of how they are operating that will also be another opportunity to develop the debate. So watch this space!

  2. Yes, really, you are sounding petty and whiny about this! What do you expect for your 25 bucks? In marketing this would be termed a rate fence. Spend more and get an engaging reward. First class passengers do have to get what they paid for. And you booked economy, so no champagne for David Campbell! As I argued before (part I) on your blog here, your reward is rather to make this project happen then to get some personal kickback. After all what could you buy more than a personally signed postcard for your small money? When you buy one beer, do you expect the bartender to entertain you all night long? Duh, shame on you! Better, you would have spend more money, so you could probably tell another story here. At least this is my experience with bartenders when I’m the ‘Big Spender’. I’ll treat you for some beers, when you’re around ;)

    • Hey Thomas, I’m looking forward to those beers when you are shouting a round! At least I will come to the bar forewarned that you will carefully calibrate our talking time with the amount of money I’m prepared to put on the counter! That’s the problem with the marketing perspective really – if crowd funding is just to be marketing and fundraising then, of course, paying little means you get little. Perhaps those paying more got more, but I don’t see any evidence in “Larry’s” pitch details that suggest this.

      I think that crowd funding, at least in principle, is so much more than one-way marketing. By giving to a project I’m not actually looking for a “personal reward”. I’m looking for engagement with the project. As crowd funding develops, I think practitioners using this approach should be focused on developing a community around the project. In your marketing terms, even the ‘economy’ passengers should be part of that. Of course, there can be more and better rewards dependent on what you call the ‘rate fence’, but I think if people are prepared to fund at any level they should be counted as valued members of the community around the project. I think that offers real benefits for a practitioner and a their project, and I will try and detail more about that in future posts on this topic.

  3. Hope you don’t mind, but I had already a beer, and that’s probably why I cannot keep my mouth shut. Even it would tactically better in this debate to wait for what you promised to come up with: real offers which will benefit both parties, the photographer and the backers.

    To me your view of ‘community’ is rather romantic -though I might be judging too early here. Well, you will tell us more about your concept of community in the context of crowd funding…To me the term ‘community’ is rather functional. It’s a community of backers. Full stop. As such it needs to be treated in certain ways, and again marketers would refer to customer relations management – if you like community relations management. Marketing likes to see everything in the light of exchanging values, I see Mr. Kotler nodding, so the question is, what value does the photographer exchange for the different segments of backers. The segments defined by the amount of their pecuniary value, since there is no other way to differentiate them. A basic approach would be to give more value to those who spend more, less to those spending less. What would happen, if we would treat them all equally? I should say, nobody will consider to give more, when one gets it all for the minimum. You might of course experience that a bartender will have an ear for your story of life, even you just had one single beer, but that’s an exception and as the owner of the bar I would consider to fire him -I am that cruel, you see. OK, back to reality.

    What is the photographer to exchange with those who spend more? Now he has to offer ‘engagement’, little by little more depending on the value of the segments. Let’s have a look to the most demanding segment, those who spent the most to get the spectrum of exchanged values under control. What can this segment expect to receive in exchange to their hard earned dollars? Maybe access to timely information of the process of the funded project. Maybe emails from the photographer’s diary (really personal and heart felt, ya know). Maybe some (low resolution!) pictures… Hey, I guess, I am doing your job here.

    My point, finally, is, can the photographer engage the community of his backers to a degree, that they would have influence on the outcome of the project? Maybe in the form of a survey/poll/discussion? Should I shoot pictures of person A rather than of person B? Not really, I think. Whatever the photographer is planning to exchange with his most valued customers, he cannot give up his autonomy and his control over the project. Eugene Smith would never forgive him this. If he would do so, not just one nasty editor but a whole bunch of amateur (including sometimes professional) editors would try to use him for their own sake. Apologies to all backers, who feel offended here, but anything else is romantic dreaming, we cannot change the world – taking the best pictures here – based on the average of everybody involved. We need somebody who takes the driving seat – that’s the photographer in this case. Ok, now I see, what I want to say very clearly -thanks for bearing with me- the only real engagement the photographer can offer, is the engagement in the result (sic!) of his project, the common goal. Everything on the way is just good marketing.

    Next round on you, David, will keep silent,


    • What do you mean next round on me, Thomas?! You had your beer and didn’t shout anything! That wasn’t very engaging…

      Seriously…you raise a lot of good issues and questions but I am going to defer them for the time being. I have been planning a detailed post on ‘community’ and what it means, and I want to think more and prepare that, linking to the debate both here and on the original “Larry” post. I hope to demonstrate its a very practical notion, and one the draws together a range of themes related to what the web has made possible for creative practitioners seeking backing for their work. So watch this space…

  4. Thomas, are you being tongue in cheek or just offering a surprisingly short term view?

    If you want a repeat customer then you get them to hand over the cash and make sure afterwards they are happy with the product.

    David might be ‘petty’ and ‘whiny’, or he may be reflecting what many other people who bought into this project for $25 are feeling. Underwhelmed. That’s important feedback.

    The question we should be asking is not how do we get people to buy into our projects, and then disappear, but how do we get them to buy into them and stay engaged. An engaged audience will be the strongest ambassadors for your work after-all. And if your work actually has more purpose then to be celebrated by the scene that celebrates itself, maybe thinking about the audience is not such a stupid thing to do.

    But then you seem to be suggesting that photographers don’t really need to think about the audience in their work?

  5. Hi there.. just read through the posting and comments, also part 1st. Some interesting points.

    Communication might indeed be different at different levels, I for one have had direct mail contact with Mr. Towell. Best, Eva

    • Thanks Eva, and its obviously good you’ve been able to have personal communication. But the issue here is the responsibility to communicate with all backers once a photographer has entered the public realm to raise money for a project. It would be good if that was more frequent.

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