Saturday, April 6, 2013

What a Kick !!  (starter)

Project funding in a time of Crowdsourcing opportunity

By Stephen DiCerbo  

 “Crowdsourcing is a process that involves the outsourcing of tasks to a distributed group of people.” Wikipedia

     For more than a decade, I had a dream to visit the motherland. 

Japan, that is, birthplace of Gyotaku.

 As a science illustrator with a bent towards Ichthyology, it was probably natural selection for me to venture down the path of Japanese Fish Printing techniques. While traveling that path, I met Sensai Mineo Ryuka Yamamoto and, with his guidance, I became dedicated to refining my own style of Gyotaku within a vastly expanding genre of piscatorial printmaking.

     When an opportunity came for me to travel to Japan, study and explore advanced printing techniques with Master Yamamoto, it looked as if my dream might be realized. But the cost of the journey was way out of reach. I began to look toward conventional artist stipends and travel grants. The county arts council offered some government sourced funding in the form of a stipend, but the award was not much of a solution to the problem. Looking for ideas, I turned to home. I posted an email on the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators’ Sci-Art email listserv, asking for suggestions to alternative funding sources.

     The Sci-Art email listserv, although a relatively finite group, can be a powerful crowdsourcing tool. As a subscriber to the email list, I could broadcast a query to a group of potential problem solvers in the form of an open call for solutions.

    The feedback from my email query ultimately became the solution to my problem. The solution would come, not in the form of a grant, but a relatively new resource: crowdfunding.


      In 2006 an entrepreneur named Michael Sullivan launched “FundaVlog”, a platform to launch videoblog projects and is credited with coining the term “crowdfunding”. FundaVlog was ultimately not successful, but the term crowdfunding began to be widely used a few years later, when Kickstarter came onto the scene.

     Crowdfunding evolved from the crowdsourcing concept, and refers to a network of individuals who collectively contribute monetary pledges to efforts or projects initiated by other people, usually through the Internet. Using this approach, funds can be raised in small increments received from a large number of contributors, rather than relying on large sources of monetary support. At a time when traditional forms of grants are disappearing, crowdfunding may well be the answer for individuals looking to launch creative projects.

      Today, there are over 500 possible crowdfunding platforms, and project authors will need to do some due diligence to ascertain which one best suits their fundraising needs.

     Everything from disaster relief, general charities and nonprofits, to business startups and individual creative projects, can be crowdfunded. If there is a need for financial backing, there is likely a correlated system that can be used to address that need. Currently, the two most popular and well known platforms designed for artists and creative entrepreneurs are Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. In both platforms, transaction fees are taken from the pledges, amounting to 4-5 %, so you would need to figure that in when setting a target fundraising goal. With Kickstarter, credit card pledges are processed through, and the pledges are held and not charged to the “backers’” credit cards until your project is fully funded. If the project does not become fully funded within its selected window of time, none of the charges are processed, and you will not collect any support funding. IndieGoGo, on the other hand, allows you to close the project before full funding, and collect your pledges, but their transaction fees will rise accordingly, from 4 to 9%. In addition to transaction fees, your project is responsible for the cost of the credit card transaction fees, and through Amazon, will cost an additional 4-5 %, so your total operational costs may run 10-14% of your pledges.


    From my inquiry on the Sci-Art email listserve, I received one suggestion that ultimately made the pursuit of my goal a success. It came from GNSI member Lynette Cook, known to most of us for her illustrative renditions of the expanses of outer space; but Lynette has a wide range of other subject matter that motivates her, particularly in fine art media.
Lynette Cook in her Studio

      In 2011, Lynette was preparing for a showing of a group of her acrylic paintings she called the “Praesentia Series”. Looking to defray the cost of framing and shipping the collection of work to her alma mater, the Mississippi University for Women, she turned to a crowdsourcing opportunity that she had heard and read about: Kickstarter. She told me that she had had success with her project, which she named “Get These Paintings to the Show!”, and suggested that I investigate this fundraising route instead of hoping to find funding through artists’ grants. I took her suggestion, and after a cursory review of the Kickstarter website, I decided it was my best option. Kickstarter provided a proven vehicle and infrastructure which would allow me to construct and run a fundraising effort through internet crowdsourcing.

     The learning experiences that Lynette and I had during our Kickstarter funding projects were both similar and dissimilar.

      In order to set up and run a Kickstarter project, you must first pitch your fundraising plan to site administrators. Kickstarter allows creative projects in the worlds of Art, Comics, Dance, Design, Fashion, Film, Food, Games, Music, Photography, Publishing, Technology, and Theater. They do not allow charity, cause, or "fund my life" projects You will need to set up pledge levels for your project, and for each of those denominations, you will have to choose and offer a “reward” to be given to your supporters. Kickstarter stipulates that the value of the rewards should roughly equal the value of the pledge.

Lynette: “Think through your awards carefully. You need to find that sweet
spot where you neither emulate public television by offering a $10
tote bag for a $100 pledge nor offer so much that you lose your shirt

in thank you gift costs or time. Be sure your rewards are clearly described. Think through what you're going to do if someone asks for an alternate reward.

      I agree with Lynette about carefully thinking through the rewards you offer and how you offer them. When she had offered her backers a “choice” of images, some requested other works of hers that they desired. For myself, I chose to offer a hand tinted reproduction for one of the most popular contribution levels that was, effectively, an original. The hand tinted works came out wonderful, were well received by my backers, but were definitely a backers’ value at that particular pledge level. The original hand tinting added a lot of time to the reward process. The remainder of my reward offers were commensurate with their respective pledge levels including some etchings, which carry a higher intrinsic value but had already been printed, and did not delay my reward process.

"Beckoning Light", acrylics , Lynette Cook
     While setting up your project with Kickstarter, you will also need to choose a time span, the beginning and ending dates for the pledge period. This too can be a challenge. Too long of a time period and pledge procrastination might occur, or pledging momentum might be lost; too short, and you may not have enough time to establish that momentum.

Lynette: “Choose your fundraising period carefully. Somewhere I read
that 30 days is a good time frame and I went for that. It worked well.”

    My fundraising period was 50 days; I wish it had been longer. Though the effort did languish through the middle portion of the time period, it accelerated in the last five days. That being said, if I had been more familiar with accessing different internet groups, 30 days would have been plenty of time.
In regard to knowing your target group, Lynette has these thoughts:

Lynette: “Have (or build) a large network of friends, family, colleagues, Facebook friends, associates, acquaintances, etc. The more people you know, the more likely you'll enjoy a successful outcome. Expect your closest circle to provide most of the money. In my experience…the bulk of the funding came from people more familiar to me”.

     Selling your project to your backers demands some creativity. Initially I set up my project with static images, but it soon became evident, especially when viewing other people’s projects, that use of a video as a selling tool would be essential.

Lynette: “A video really helps get the word out and make your project more personal to the viewers. It's better not to depend on still images only for your visuals.”

     The decision to use a video had its own implications. The most compelling projects had videos that were extremely creative and entertaining, drawing the viewer into the heart of the project. Not being much of an entertainer, I was hoping to adequately describe my desire to travel to Japan to share in the cultural exchange of Gyotaku techniques. I had a video camera, but there was still a learning curve ahead: script, lighting, diction, editing; it may have been a good idea to get some assistance in making the video.

    When my fundraiser was approved by Kickstarter and it was launched, another GNSI member who viewed the project commented that the video might have more impact if it included some of my Gyotaku images to help present the subject of the project. It made sense: I reworked the video. Another technical learning curve: find and access a video editing software program and learn to use it well enough to add some still images to the video. I finally had something that did a reasonable presentation of my call for funding.

Author's hand tinted Kickstarter rewards

      Before your project can launch, you will also need to set up an account with so that they can process the credit card pledges. This will take a little bit of time, and you should expect to be providing them with personal information so the IRS can keep tabs on income. Expect that some of your backers will not want to give credit card information online, and you will want to accept their support, but you will need to plan how to deal with this. You can have them send you their pledge directly and manually track them for their rewards, but then their pledges will not be integral in meeting your goal — which is of utmost priority so that you may collect all of your pledges.

Lynette: “Have a plan in place for people who wish to pledge but aren't willing to do so online. Several of my backers were willing to send me a check but refused to make an online payment. Kickstarter administration keeps an eye on the pledges and will cancel your project if it seems you are pledging money to yourself in order to reach the goal and get funded.

       I worked diligently at getting the word out about my fundraiser, accessing my Facebook friends as well as the pages of the GNSI and the Nature Printing Society, email lists for fishing groups, and any other online connections to friends and acquaintances.

     During the whole process, I was hoping to discover the best way to reach previously unknown groups of people. On a weekly basis, the Kickstarter site features their favorite projects which would open up exposure to your project for a huge waiting group of donors who are looking for projects to believe in. But figure on working without this heaven sent boost of exposure; the featured projects are their selections, and they do not respond to requests. Try to know how your social media works. Whenever I posted on Facebook, I asked people to “Like” my post; it would have been better to ask them to “Share” the post instead. That way, all of the folks on their friends’ lists would see the link to the Project. If you know anyone who has a high traffic website, blog, or Twitter following, ask them to help spread word about your project. Remember, a large number of small donations is the object. Pledges are likely to occur in unexpected ways. Don’t take it personally if folks you had expected to respond do not do so. Some folks you don’t even know may well offer some of the higher pledges you receive.

Author's "Fish Bridge to Japan" Kickstarter Project banner

      My Kickstarter project was a wild roller coaster ride of turn of events and unexpected trends. I had resigned myself to the fact that the trip to Japan would not happen, right around the 3-day mark before the end of the project period. But as the end got near, the pledge action on my project site picked up in faster and faster, by leaps and bounds, and it was as if I were watching a neck and neck horse race. Nearly hourly updates of how close we were to full funding seemed to help drive to the finish. In the last three days my project went from approximately 30% to 100% funded! Folks that were possibly procrastinating jumped in the pool! Sixty-two backers pledged $3,248 and saw me off to Japan.

       If you should consider funding your project with a crowdfunding platform, allow plenty of lead time, put in your due diligence, and believe in your project. Over the 50 days of my project, the pace of contributions was unpredictable, and variable. So stay optimistic and keep pushing right to the end of your project period. And good luck!

Bless those of you reading this who participated in my crowdfunding project, “The Fish Bridge to Japan”

This article was published in the Spring 2013 Journal of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators

To see the author’s “Fish Bridge to Japan” funding project, visit:

For a look as some of the author’s Gyotaku images, go to:

To see Lynette Cook’s “Get These Paintings to the Show” funding project, visit:

For a look at some of Lynette’s fine art go to:

For more information about Kickstarter and how it works, visit:

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