Blog: Lauren London

How do you make a go of a seasonal arts organization during a recession? Attorney and performer Lauren London, co-founder of The Penny Seats Theatre Company, writes about rainy day survival and the ups and downs of outdoor summer theater.

Asking For It

If you weren't born a truly gifted marketer (and with some notable exceptions, few are), chances are you're afraid of fundraising.  I am.  And, I'd venture to say, I have good reason to be.  It's terrifying to ask people for money.  How dare we?  How presumptuous to assume that people we know will part with their hard-earned cash just because we tell them to.  And our fear turns to paralysis when it raises mindboggling questions:  How great must an arts cause be to merit private funding?  How great must our ideal be?  Which of our plans do we share?  What priorities do we make?  And the showstopper: HOW MUCH DO WE NEED?

So what a comfort it was, two years ago, to happen upon an arts fundraising crutch:  Kickstarter. (and now its somewhat gentler cousin, is all the rage in tiny business proposals right now.  For the uninitiated, Kickstarter is a website where you can post an awesome arts project you want to do, make a video about it that appeals to potential donors, and then publicize it to drum up the necessary funds.  But it's an ingenious, public time-bomb:  at Kickstarter, you state up front the amount of money you want to raise by a certain date, and you go out and try to get it done.  But if you don't meet your goal by the deadline, you get Nothing.  Not one red cent.  No donor's credit card is ever charged, you are overtly hoisted by your own petard, and you don't get to do your project.  It's a way to turn artists into responsible fundraisers and budgeters. And, I suppose, into realists.  If the thing doesn't have legs, after all, you shouldn't be trying to do it.  But the concept sounds a bit draconian.  One pictures the dejected artist whose Kickstarter time ran out on him, snuffling sadly into his sleeve and hanging up his paintbrush with a heavy sigh.

(Alternatively, relating this, I'm reminded of that scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – the Gene Wilder version – when Charlie finally thinks he's won the year's supply of candy and Willy says, "WRONG, sir! WRONG! Under section 37B of the contract signed by him, it states quite clearly that all offers shall become null and void IF – and you can read it for yourself in this photostatic copy – 'I, the undersigned, shall forfeit all rights, privileges, and licenses herein and herein contained,' et cetera, et cetera... 'Fax mentis, incendium gloria cultum,' et cetera, et cetera... Memo bis punitor delicatum! It's ALL there, BLACK and white, clear as CRYSTAL! You STOLE Fizzy-Lifting Drinks. You BUMPED into the ceiling, which now has to be WASHED and STERILIZED, so you get NOTHING! You LOSE! GOOD DAY, SIR!"  Thanks to for that fix.)

Of course, the whole point of the Kickstarter site is to create that dreaded image, and by it, encourage lively donation toward artsy projects.  And it's worth noting that the hard-nosed rule of Kickstarter has been blunted more recently by more forgiving sites like Indiegogo, where you get to choose your type of fundraising:  either you can keep what you raise, no matter what, or you can go the Kickstarter route.  (To die-hard Kickstarter-ites, this "never mind, we'll take what we can get" approach must seem to defeat the purpose.  After all, the yawning precipice ahead is what makes you go out and fundraise in the first place, right?)

Anyway, for a group like ours, Kickstarter was a great first-year fundraising step.  We made a cute little video with us holding lots of signs, and we invited donations. It was fun. And with the energy of our first year, there was no way we were going to fail.  And yes, out of a combination of our own panic and cheerful fundraising efforts, we met our goal in just over two weeks.  That's what happens when you scare an artist.

But the other ingenious thing about Kickstarter is the fact that it boots you out of the nest rather rudely, so you don't get too comfortable.  Lest you rest on your laurels, the minute you get funded at Kickstarter you instantly lose a bunch of your money in the form of fees.  If I have this right, you have to pay 5% to Kickstarter, and another 3-5% to its third-party processor, Amazon Payments.  Ouch.  Indiegogo charges 4%, but if you don't make your goal and choose to, uh, "keep" your money, you owe them 9%.  These numbers can add up pretty fast.  So fast that, for our second year of fundraising, we didn't think seriously about Kickstarter.  Instead, we thought, "we can do better on our own."  And we could.   And perhaps that is the point of it all.

I didn't mean this post to become a love letter to Kickstarter – I really think their fees are pretty high – but I do love the idea behind it.  At bottom, it helps you get over that hump of starting something I talked about last Wednesday.  Once you've gone out and conquered that entirely reasonable fear of fundraising you've always had, you can go out and try the something you really wanted to do.  There's real value in getting kicked out of the nest.