I hate crowdfunding. But I’m willing to have my opinion changed. Meantime, here’s a warning: It’s going to take a lot for me to stop thinking of crowdfunding as a pathetic plea for money from people who frankly ought to know better.
People will have to stop begging, for one. Because that’s what crowdfunding is; it’s cyber-panhandling. And while I don’t necessarily mind giving a handful of change or a sandwich to the homeless guy on the corner, I do resent being asked, by gainfully employed people, if I’ll help them achieve their personal goals by giving them money.
I get it: You’ve got a dream. You want to make a movie, or open a macramé shop, or write a book. I have a dream of my own, in which people go back to being responsible for launching their own achievement.
Crowdfunding was born of crowdsourcing, a decade-old platform that solicits services and ideas from the public, usually on the Internet via social media — sort of a 21st century version of the 19th century cooperative community model. Crowdfunding is the give-me-money-I’ve-got-an-inspiration-but-no-cash version of that. As an industry, according to Forbes magazine, crowdfunding raised over $5.1 billion worldwide in 2013 via websites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe.
For a while I was willing to give a pass to those gimme campaigns devoted to paying for something necessary by people who couldn’t otherwise afford it. My aunt’s sister-in-law had stacks of medical bills after her daughter was hit by a drunk driver, and I hear people ponied up 10 or 20 bucks toward helping her. But the problem with these genuinely humane crowdfunding requests is they’ve paved the way for truly onerous I’m-a-victim-give-me-money campaigns, like the game-changing GoFundMe campaign for Aaron and Melissa Klein, the Oregon bakery owners who last spring refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. They were fined $135,000 following a legal battle, after which GoFundMe canceled the Kleins’ account and changed its policy, which now states that “GoFundMe will not allow campaigns that benefit individuals or groups facing formal charges or claims of serious violations of the law.”
Well, hurray for that (I’m talking to you, Kim Davis). But so far none of the crowdfunding sites has instigated policies against reckless pleading for cash by people who want you and me to help them buy their dream of opening a tie-dye headband kiosk at the airport or traveling to Europe in search of inspiration for their next watercolor series.
I have to come clean: About five years ago, before I knew what they were or that they were about to become so very annoying, I contributed to a crowdfunding campaign by my friend Mike. He was looking for a new way to publish his 53rd book, and having seen how the publishing industry had changed (fewer books are being published, and author advances have shrunk to nothing, for starters), he decided to offer his next book only to people who paid for a copy in advance of its publication. I admire Mike, who as long as I’ve known him has been about two years ahead of the curve on every trend (by the time sleeve tattoos became a nationwide craze, for example, Mike was already having his lasered off). For 30 bucks, I got a signed, limited edition copy of my talented friend’s new book. If I’d known that crowdfunding was about to become a movement that would morph into terribleness, I’d have asked Mike for a complimentary review copy.
The flipside of Mike’s story is one that makes me want to drink rat poison, and which describes beautifully why I hate crowdfunding so. “At the end of my fraying rope,” writes one would-be author on her patreon.com fundraising page, “I am living daily with facing the loss of hearth and home and would like help with expenses to live for six to twelve months while I craft my story for publication.”
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In other words, this writer (whose offer to share profits with us proves she’s never worked as a writer-for-hire) wants us to pay her bills while she learns to become an author. I had someone like that in my life, 35 years ago, while I was learning the same craft—someone who made the rent and paid the gas bill. His name was Robrt Pela. I managed a record store to pay for journalism school and, when no publications wanted to hire me because I was a kid with no writing clips, I started my own newspaper. With money I borrowed from a bank.
I know. I’m being self-righteous. An old fogey, clinging to tired principles. A mean-spirited bitch. Maybe I should launch a GoFundMe account of my own. For a small donation, I could be insufferably sanctimonious about any subject you can think of. I’ll bet you I’ll make a million before anyone with common sense catches on.
Robrt Pela has been making his living as a freelance writer since 1985.