Joel Carter, Just for Kids Law’s youth projects manager, gives practical tips for how to run a successful fundraising campaign.
Let Us Learners who are not eligible for student loans may be thinking of turning to crowdfunding to raise some or all of the money for their studies. A few young people have done this successfully, and are now studying for their degrees as a result.
Be warned, however. Successful crowdfunding is hard work. The more planning and preparation you can do, and the more time and effort you put into the campaign before and after it is launched, the greater your chances of succeeding. Crowdfunding is certainly not an easy option, and may not be the right solution for everyone.
Don’t assume money will just roll in once you have set up your site. It won’t.
The simple part is setting up a crowdfunding site; the hard bit is drumming up interest and turning that into donations. Do not make the mistake of assuming once you set up a crowdfunding page, the money will just automatically roll in. That. Will. Not. Happen.
The internet is littered with the corpses of social media campaigns which crash-landed, without ever having left the ground in the first place. Of the petitions posted on the UK government’s website for three months, 43 per cent attracted five (or fewer) signatures. In your case, you are asking for money, rather than just signatures, which makes the job of generating supporters that much harder.
These are some of the things you need to think about before embarking on a crowdfunding campaign.
The more planning you do in advance, the greater your chances of success. Do not press the button on your crowdfunding page until you have done as much preparation as you possibly can. You should heed the words of Abraham Lincoln, an American president who did actually know what he was talking about: “If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my axe.”
Emmanuel (see article further down) planned his campaign for six months before launching – and even then he says, in hindsight, he was under prepared. Fittingly for someone destined to shake up the world of chemistry, his campaign involved a scientific level of planning from the off, setting out key data on spreadsheets and trying to anticipate every possible eventuality. That kind of forensic approach might not suit you, but do try to drum up as much support and interest in advance as you can, both among people you know and more widely.
These are some of the issues you will need to consider when planning your campaign.
Choosing your platform
There are umpteen crowdfunding sites now. Do your research to choose the best one for you. Are the names of supporters visible? How easy are they for donors to use? How much commission do they charge? How long do they allow campaigns to run for? How successful have other users been? Will they help with promoting your campaign?
Writing your sales pitch
You are asking strangers to donate money. This is no time to be shy!
You are asking strangers to donate money to enable you to continue your education, so it is worth devoting as much time and effort as you can to crafting your copy. This is no time to be shy!
Try to tell your story in a clear and compelling way. Think about using pictures or short video clips. Can you get a supportive comment from a school teacher, part-time employer, or your pastor (with their permission)? Ideally, you should give a breakdown of how the money you are seeking to raise will be spent – i.e., how much will go on fees, accommodation, living expenses, etc.
Give a breakdown of how the money will be spent and think about the incentives you can offer bigger donors.
If you are working to save up towards your fees, make sure you mention how much you plan to contribute from your own funds. People are more likely to want to support you if they can see how hard you are working on your own behalf. Make it clear you are not looking for a handout, but a helping hand to get you on your way.
Have you ever appeared in the media? If so, can you include a link or pdf of the coverage? Do you have a picture of you receiving a school prize or taking part in a school play? You need to convey how passionate you are about your subject, and convince people who do not know you that you are serious and committed.
Try to make the copy as compelling and relevant to you and your subject as you can. If you want to study art or design, make sure the page looks really attractive. If you want to study English, make doubly sure your copy is well written and free from any obvious spelling or grammatical mistakes.
Do you want to offer rewards for donating (some sites allow you to do this)? Think carefully what these might be and how you can make them interesting and personalised. If you are a budding designer or illustrator, how about offering larger donors a pen-portrait from a photo, or a hand drawn postcard?
Emmanuel offered rewards which reflected his passion for his subject, but also his outside interests.
See Emmanuel’s site for some of the ideas he came up with, which tapped into both his passion for science and his outside interests in music and DJ-ing.
What minimum donation do you want to set? Keeping it low (£5 or £10) makes the campaign accessible, but you will need an awful lot of fivers and tenners to reach a target of several thousand pounds, so you also need to encourage higher donors to come on board as well.
Creating momentum before you even start
Before your site goes live, make sure you have some donors lined up ready to pledge money straight away to get you off to the best possible start. People are more likely to support a campaign that looks as if it has momentum and is going to be successful. If you have lots of people waiting in the wings to donate, it may be worth trying to stagger the timing of contributions, holding some of them back for times when there is a lull in other donations to keep activity on the site going.
If you have some savings, consider donating these to yourself (maybe anonymously) once the campaign is launched as a way of showing the world that you have support for your campaign. The crowdfunding site will charge commission on your own donation, but it may be worth taking that financial hit if it encourages other people to support you.
Drumming up support
If you are seeking to raise thousands of pounds for your studies, you will most likely need to tap into every single network that you are part of that you can think of.
This is likely to include: friends, acquaintances, close family, distant relatives, colleagues, ex-colleagues, your old teachers, neighbours, the family you used to babysit for, teammates, choir members, your congregation, your hairdresser, optician, and many, many more. Use whatever is the best method for contacting them: face-to-face, Facebook, email, a note dropped through their door, Twitter, etc. Try to generate some kind of support from everyone you contact. If they can’t donate themselves, can they forward your information to others who might be able to? Could they put a poster up on their work notice board?
Bear in mind that while it’s great if your friends and contacts tweet and retweet about your campaign, you need donations if you are to succeed. You will need to ask them directly to make a donation – and don’t be surprised if you have to contact people multiple times before they actually get around to donating. Be prepared to be politely persistent.
Getting busy on social media
Every donation you receive is an opportunity to remind others about your campaign, so make sure you thank donors on social media and encourage more people to follow suit. Post regular updates and keep these upbeat: “A week into my campaign and I am already 20% of the way to achieving my goal!” “I visited my old school today to tell them about my campaign.” “3 new supporters today!”
Generating media coverage
Press coverage can help your campaign reach way beyond your own networks. Try to get some lined up before you go live and keep at it all the way through your campaign. Try contacting your local newspaper to see if they will write about you. If you have secured support from your old head teacher or church leader, make sure you mention that as it gives it more of a local angle. If there are key journalists who cover the area you want to study in – whether in the national or specialist press – tweet them directly and ask them to retweet. Is your subject suddenly topical – say, because new statistics have been released about the shortage of women in science, or showing a fall in the number of state school-educated students at Oxbridge, or because you want to be an astronaut and a film has just been released about a trio of African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1950s? If so, try contacting the journalist who is writing about the topic and ask if they would be interested in writing about you. Even if they say no, you can ask them to tweet about you, if they have a big Twitter following. Be creative!
Contacting public figures
People in the public eye are a potential source of funds, but also of publicity if they are sympathetic to your campaign, say by retweeting or sharing the information in other ways.
There is probably little point in contacting well-known figures at random, so think about who might be interested in supporting you and why. Try to find a connection which will pique their interest. This could be that they are: associated with the university you want to attend, come from your home town or country of origin, are well known as a leader in the subject you want to study, or have always been an inspiration to you for some reason. Which former pupils does your school boast about that have gone on to do great things? What about your local MP, or members of the House of Lords with a particular interest in your field?
If you do get support from someone well known, ask if they mind if you share that on social media or mention it to any journalists that you are contacting.
This should all be done in the planning stage, and continue with it after launch.
Keeping at it
Running a successful crowdfunding campaign is likely to take up all of your spare time, particularly if you are working as well. Try to find some time every day to spend on it, whether writing letters, updating your Facebook page, tweeting, etc. Do not underestimate the amount of effort you will need to put into it making it work.
You are aiming to raise a lot of money, so expect it to be a lot of work. Most of the people you are targeting will be working all year, five days a week, to make the kind of sums you are asking for. Keep some perspective. Even if you fall far short of your target and say raise only £1,000, that is still a significant sum, which would be difficult for you to accumulate any other way.
A word of warning
If you are increasing your presence on social media or being featured in the press, there is a chance you may generate negative comments from ill-informed people. The best advice always is to ignore these. Mute such people on Twitter and don’t try to engage them in conversation. The same is true of below-the-line (BTL) comments on news websites. However, there is always a chance that some people may post positive suggestions about organisations or individuals you could approach for donations, so it might be worth asking a trusted and thick-skinned friend to read BTL comments for you and pass on anything useful.
‘It felt weird asking friends for money at first’
Emmanuel Opoku crowdfunded over £26,000 and is now studying chemistry at Imperial. Here’s how he did it.
I selected Hubbub for my campaign after compiling a spreadsheet of the top 10 crowdfunding sites of the time and comparing them in terms of their specific ways of operating, i.e. checking whether they had a ‘safety net’ system, or used an all-or-nothing approach.
Once I did this, I then went about checking out what campaigns had been successful on the site and emailing the people that set them up for advice. Not many got back to me. A stroke of luck meant that Baljeet, a colleague of my solicitor at the time, said she was quite good friends with Jonathan May, the CEO of Hubbub, and said she could arrange a meeting for us.
I went with Just for Kids Law’s Joel Carter to meet him, and he basically gave me a masterclass on how to run a successful campaign. He said: “Follow all of this advice, and you will be successful.” His main thing was to plan for every possible scenario.
I got in touch with journalists, polished my story and spent about three months putting together a document to serve as the blurb for the crowdfunding page. Altogether, from the inception to the final day, it was six months.
Make sure your crowdfunding page looks good and tells a compelling story.
I also told a lot of people that I was going to do it and got them to agree to help with promotion once the campaign was up. I created a separate Twitter page for it and came up with a hashtag that I used for every post and I tried to get it in the media as much as I could.
Once it was picked up, the rest took care of itself. I had exhausted tier one of my network. Tier two was companies and people who were influential in the field I wanted to get into, as well as philanthropists. I made a spreadsheet of all these people, too, and emailed or sent letters, depending on the best way of contacting them.
The hardest thing was keeping up the social media posts without becoming boring. I also created a reward system to incentivise people to donate to the campaign. It was hard because I felt weird about asking friends and family for money at first but after it took off people were giving without being asked and work was really helpful, too, as staff would spread the news to other teachers who were obviously passionate about education. [Emmanuel was working as a teaching assistant at the time at his old school.]
I was very lucky as I managed to get my story in the Independent newspaper, which triggered a massive influx of donations. It also led to me being contacted by a benefactor who donated a large sum to effectively close off the campaign.
I wish I had known exactly how hard it would have been because I would have spent more time planning. To be perfectly honest I didn’t think it would be possible, mainly because donations slowed to a halt after a while. I think this was because I focused everything on London, rather than on a global scale.
I would advise anyone thinking of crowdfunding to think big and aim to reach as many people as possible. Not just their friends but future employers, everyone they have ever had a conversation with, and basically live and breathe the campaign, because otherwise it can be very challenging.
The most important thing I’d say was the planning and the support I had around me to do so effectively.