November 6, 2015

The Good the Bad and the Ugly in Crowdfunding: How Two Museum Projects Measure Up Differently.... Featuring The Tesla Science Center and the Museum of the Bible

Abdul Halim Attar with daughter, Reem
Image Credit: Joshua Abu al-Homsi/Twitter
Most people who have spent any time surfing the web in the last few years have heard about crowdfunding.   Newspapers are full of feel-good stories of individuals raising thousands of dollars for uplifting causes.  Some, like last summer's campaign, which raised $130,000 for the family of Abdul Halim Attar -- a displaced pen-selling Palestinian-Syrian refugee from Yarmouk in Syria, help struggling families when life throws them a curve ball.  Others give inventors much-needed start-up capital to carry a drawing board concept through to market fruition. 

Donation-based crowdfunding is pretty self-explanatory. Almost anyone can post a cause or an idea on a relevant crowdfunding platform and ask for donations to help make something happen.  Sometimes, but not always, those who donate receive a special perk in exchange.  In the case of start-up companies, project backers sometimes receive beta-release versions of the product under development; an incentive that works well for cash-strapped technology-entrepreneurs. 

With the onset of internet based crowd funding its now easier and relatively hassle-free for anyone to ask a large number of people each for a small amount of money.  That in turn has made crowdsourcing an appealing tool for museum organizations.  Instead of writing a lengthy 100 page grant proposal or fronting the money for expensive charity dinners in the hopes of attracting wealthy philanthropists, art and museum administrators and fundraisers can now turn to crowdsourcing as a means of generating much-needed cash to carry out missions and projects. 

The Power of the Crowd

Turning to the internet, flamboyant cartoonist Matthew Inman launched a crowd-funding campaign via the Oatmeal to buy the property of Nikola Tesla’s former laboratory, located in Shoreham, New York.  His campaign needed $850,000 and raised $1.37 million in six days with the help of 33,000 Tesla-loving backers.   Further assisted by a grant approved by the state of New York for an additional $850,000 the fundraisers were able purchase the inventor's lab property, yet still needed more capital to accomplish their goal of building the museum in honor of the savvy engineer.

Not to be discouraged, Inman publicly asked Canadian-American business magnate Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, to donate one million dollars in a Tweet.  Accepting the gauntlet thrown down, Musk accepted and challenged Tesla-loving Oatmeal followers to again dig into their own pockets to raise the difference needed in order to make the museum a reality. 

Using the Indiegogo platform Inman started a Buy a Brick, Build a Museum campaign spurring internet-savvy donors to come up with the additional funds.  The result?  He raised a whopping $518,566 towards the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, a sum more than two and a half times his original goal.

The power and value of crowdfunding, as these examples clearly illustrate, has changed the speed as well as the way individuals charitable contributions can be accessed.  

Organizations now have the ability to quickly and easily raise necessary funding in safe, secure crowdsourcing portals and at nominal costs to the fundraiser.   Some organizations have even gone so far as to build professional grade crowdfunding platforms into their own websites circumventing the overhead fees charged by most crowdsourcing portals.   

Anyone and virtually any cause, anywhere, can now tap into this type of funding.  No project is too big or too small.

But while giving small dollops of money to help someone who is less fortunate or to a good cause, like the development of a new museum, is commendable, people should carefully consider who they are funding and make sure that they donate responsibly to reputable persons and organizations so as not to fall prey to fraudulent or irresponsible fundraisers.

Just because a group is a bona fide charity doesn't always mean that a contributors' funding will be used wisely or in line with the donor's wishes or ethics. 

On October 7, 2015 the Museum of the Bible started its own in-house “One Million Names, Be One in a Million” campaign asking one million donors from around the globe to declare their belief that the bible should be celebrated by contributing to the funding of the yet-to-open Washington DC museum. With a crowdfunding campaign embedded into the Museum's own website with a matching video campaign on Youtube donors are being asked to contribute $20, $50, or $100 to the museum "where needed most."  

The Museum of the Bible's fundraising webpage states that donations "will become part of your personal legacy … a perpetual testimony of your commitment to this great Book." In appreciation, the fundraiser declares that the museum will permanently memorialize the donor's name on a wall in the museum, which is scheduled to open to the public in 2017. 

What is missing on the fundraising page though is a statement on just how the Museum of the Bible's "where needed most" funds might be utilized.   Will they go towards building the museum itself? Will they fund the employment of highly trained museum staff so that the MoB can avoid any more unpleasant surprises when importing antiquities without proper import documentation for the museum's collection?  Or will "One Million Names" donors contribute to sponsoring "hundreds of Christian student leaders to Israel" as part of the Covenant Journey project Tim Smith, the Museum of the Bible's Chief Development Officer, writes about here.    

Smith's blog post says, in part, that (the)

"Museum of the Bible is a founding sponsor of Covenant Journey because it furthers the Museum’s goal of inviting all people from across the world, from all backgrounds and religious affiliations, to engage with the Bible."    

What exactly does being a founding sponsorship entail?  

If one looks a little closely, Covenant Journey seems to be established and run through Liberty Counsel or at least the website URL registration and contact telephone numbers are the same for both groups.  Liberty Counsel is managed by Mathew Staver and the business in Florida is listed as "a legal organization that specializes in evangelical Christian litigation and public relations."  In contrast, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has listed Liberty Counsel as an anti-LGBT and hate group.  How does the Museum of the Bible relationship with the founders of Liberty Counsel support Covenant Journey's own mission?

In the last three years, the Museum of the Bible is reported to have received more than $230 million in tax-deductible donations.

The ethics of charitable giving in a time of crowdsourcing

The NonProfit Times, a business publication for nonprofit management has reported that crowdfunding has hit $5 billion US dollars annually, with close to a third of that funding going towards potentially worthy charitable causes.  According to their estimate, that's a substantial $1.5 billion per year, much of it managed through major portals like Causes, Kickstarter, Razoo and Indiegogo. 

As crowdsourcing gains traction the benefits of reaching individuals via the internet as a tool for funding in art and heritage projects are easy to see.  But before hitting the donate button, contributors should be sure that the organization they intend to contribute to actually does the things that it tells its supporters it does in its donation solicitation. 

By adopting a “truth in advertising” approach, potential donors who love science and modern alternating current electricity or religion and the bible should not be afraid to demand a breakout of how their donations will being put to use.  Charitable organizations have administrative costs, but those who subscribe to the basic tenet of ethical fundraising and accountability should be willing to provide their donors with a breakdown of how much of their donation will be used for the specific cause advertised and how much will be used for other ancillary things. 

Before giving even small sums, donors should start out with a healthy dose of skepticism and look for signs that the organization dedicates its funding in ways that are consistent not just with the museum's fiscal needs but with the donor's own ascribed ethics.  If a donation request comes from a group claiming to care about heritage or the world’s cultural history, a first and simple step might be to spend some time searching the internet to see what the group represents itself to be and who it is affiliated with.  

If your search turns up concerns or questionable ties, and if there is a chorus of people saying there are problems with the organization that need to be addressed then it's probably best for the donor to give his or her $10 to someone they know is truly needy and not just harnessing the potential of the web. 


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