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Crowdfunding helps local dreamers and those in need

posted Sep 11, 2014, 1:08 AM by J Shaw   [ updated Sep 11, 2014, 1:08 AM ]
The news was like a punch to the stomach: Thomas Trainer's dream of going back to school had just hit an $800 obstacle.

His lower back fused during surgery a year ago, the Ocala resident knew he couldn't go back to driving a truck, as he'd done for 20 years. He decided to go back to school, thrilled with the idea of eventually becoming a counselor.

But his elation soon faltered; with $800 in arrears on their books from an earlier time, the College of Central Florida said no. He could not attend until the back-due was paid.

Fiercely self-reliant, Taz — as he's known to friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a Middle Ages re-creation group — turned to Facebook, morosely posting: “Anybody have $800 to help me go back to school?”

A friend in Gainesville saw his plea and set up a GoFundMe campaign. In 10 days, 47 SCA friends anted up the $1,000 goal — $800 for the past-due amount and the rest for processing fees.

“I didn't even know I owed the money,” Taz said recently after his Public Speaking class at CF. “I can't believe this happened.”

Like Trainer, millions of dreamers are turning to what is known as crowdfunding, a sort of social-media, grass-roots way to raise money for dreams, creative projects and even medical assistance. Through these organized online campaigns, people are raising money for everything from overseas mission trips to recording CDs to surgery bills.

One advantage is crowdfunding bypasses interest-laden and fee-heavy traditional sources, making them especially attractive to those with less-than-stellar credit.

Some experts see this as a new norm in financing.

“Crowdfunding is big. Really big. And it's going to get a whole lot bigger,” wrote Catherine Clifford of entrepreneur earlier this year.

According to statistics she cited, crowdfunding could pump $65 billion into the global economy and pony up 270,000-plus new jobs by the end of 2014. By 2020, this trend could contribute $500 billion in funding each year.

At this moment, there are some 150 Ocala-related campaigns on GoFundMe alone — and that's only one of hundreds of crowdfunding sites. Other better-known sites are Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

And many pay off: Campaigns in Alachua County raised enough last year to buy new digital projector systems for the Priest Theatre in High Springs and the Hippodrome in Gainesville.

But not every appeal makes its goal. In fact, most fall short.

Lisa Anderson, of Ocala, hoped to raise $3,300 to publish “The Little Patchwork Girl,” a short storybook illustrated with photos of local people made up to look as if they were hand-drawn. The project would be a mix of Anderson's photography, Jessica Watson's painting and Chad Taylor's writing.

The story revolves around a doll “who lives a depressing life,” Anderson said. “She keeps getting used and having to patch herself up, until she becomes a patchwork doll.

“It has kind of a sweet ending, but it's not really a children's story. It was going to be laid out like a children's book,” Anderson said.

Their Kickstarter campaign ran for 30 days in June and featured video explainers and photo examples of the idea.

It raised $405. “It was pretty disappointing,” Anderson said. But they didn't get even that; under Kickstarter rules, if a campaign doesn't reach its goal, nothing is paid out. Not all the campaign sites have this rule, however.

Through the experience, Anderson said she learned “it's difficult to get people to fund your projects; people would rather buy a cup of coffee than pledge five bucks. People are getting tired of it, always being asked for money.”

Nevertheless, she's not giving up.

“We're exploring some other avenues,” Anderson said.

Currently, crowdfunding campaigns come in four flavors: donation-based, reward-based, lending-based and equity-based. The bulk of campaigns — more than a third — tend to be for social causes, according to crowdmapped.

One of the biggest mistakes people make, according to various experts, is not being prepared to launch a campaign, and then expecting people to fund a project with little to entice them.

Narrow your audience, advised crowdfunding expert Richard Bliss in an interview with forbes.

“More is not better,” he said.

Bliss offered three tips for a successful campaign. “Preparation is the first; you really have to apply some basic marketing principles,” he said. He advised having at least 25 percent of the goal secured in advance ready to be pledged within 48 hours of the campaign start — “so people don't see the empty 'tip jar.'”

“When you hit the launch button, that should be the last thing you do,” he added.

The second tip: “Build a tribe,” a group of people who already support the project and are willing to beat the bushes to rustle up pledges.

And third is authenticity; “Is this real?” Bliss noted. “How many projects have you backed? Can I find you easily?”

Marion County resident Kim Sandstrom can appreciate personal involvement in the campaign. “It's a hard way to raise money,” she said. “More work than folks realize.”

Earlier this year, she agreed to a Kickstarter campaign to fund the copyrighting and recent, revamped stage production of “Damselfly,” a play she wrote dealing with the death of her daughter due to a medical error. It also paid for a butterfly release to launch the campaign.

“It's a tool,” Sandstrom said. “You've got to do the face-to-face; there's no magic, except for the potato salad guy” — a campaign likely to become an iconic Kickstarter story.

In July, a Columbus, Ohio, man asked for $10 to make potato salad. A month later, he'd received more than $55,000 from 6,911 backers.

“Remind yourself that you need a team, that you can't do it by yourself,” Sandstrom added.

She teamed with two young friends, Elizabeth Rockey and Jenny Koch, recent graduates of St. John Lutheran High School who also helped reshape the play. And because they'd not done this before, they opted to use a consultant to help with the campaign.

“It's always scary when you put your dream online and hope people will support it,” said Rockey, now a freshman at the University of Florida. “It was good to have a voice of experience.”

Yet, because they were using Kickstarter, if they had not reached their $5,000 goal, they would have earned nothing, plus they'd still have to pay the consultant for his services.

They made it, thanks to a couple of $1,000 donations, Rockey said. “I spent many days on the phone,” she added.

Sandstrom did the same. “There wasn't a day I didn't get up and make a personal appeal,” she said. “Now that I've done it, I know things we could have done differently. But I have not been convinced this is a good way to go.”

And even though their campaign ended Aug. 21, Sandstrom and Rockey said they still haven't received the money.

“Jenny and I put up the money for costumes and sets,” Rockey said, and are counting on the campaign money to be reimbursed.

Still, Rockey added, she'd do a crowdfunding project again, but then hesitated. “You have to believe in your own project,” she said, “it has to be something pretty close to your heart.”