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Thinking of crowdfunding your science? Study suggests some tips

Thinking small, being engaging, and having a sense of humor don’t hurt. Those are a few of the traits of successful science crowdfunding efforts that emerge from a recent study that examined nearly 400 campaigns. But having a large network and some promotional savvy may be more crucial.

Crowdfunding—raising money for a project through online appeals—has taken off in recent years for everything from making movies to building water-saving faucets. Scientists have tried to tap internet donors, too, with mixed success. Scientists raising funds for the world’s first imaging study of the brain on LSD raised more than $65,000 earlier this year, more than twice their goal. But other teams have fallen short of reaching more modest targets.

To tease out what separates science crowdfunding triumphs from flops, a team led by science communications scholar Mike Schäfer of the University of Zurich in Switzerland examined the content of the webpages for 371 recent campaigns. Four traits stood out for those that achieved their goals, the researchers report in Public Understanding of Science. Successful campaigns tended to:

  • Use a crowdfunding platform that specializes in raising money for science, and not just any kind of project. Although sites like Kickstarter take all comers, platforms such as Experiment.com, Medstartr.com, and Petridish.org only present scientific projects. The study looked at those sites as well as projects on Sciflies.org and a German language platform, Sciencestarter.de.
  • Present the project with a funny video. Good visuals and a sense of humor improved success.
  • Engage with potential donors. Projects that answered questions from interested donors and posted lab notes fared better.
  • Target a small amount of money. The projects included in the study raised $4000 on average, with 30% of projects receiving less than $1000. The more money a project sought, the lower the chance it reached its goal, the researchers found.

Other factors that could not be measured during the page analysis may also significantly influence a project’s success, Schäfer says. Most notably, the size of a scientist’s personal and professional networks, and how much a researcher promotes a project on his or her own, can be important.

Those two factors are by far more critical than the content on the page, says conservation biologist Jai Ranganathan in Santa Barbara, California, co-founder of the SciFund Challenge Network. Crowdfunding can be part of researchers’ public outreach efforts, he believes, and people give because “they feel a connection to the person” who is doing the fundraising—not necessarily to the science. That’s why having a preexisting connection to potential donors is essential, he says, adding that scientists can create such connections through blogging, posting on social media, and giving public talks. Ranganathan compares the crowdfunding process to how public radio stations raise money: First they develop a rapport with an audience through their programming, then they ask them for money.