Crowdfunding in Academia
The concept of patronage as a means of supporting scientific or artistic research has a long history. From William Shakespeare to Leonardo da Vinci, the relationship between patron and patronised has produced some memorable pieces of scholarship. Today, whether couched in terms of the global economic slowdown, the credit crunch or simply that your own particular piece of research does not fit comfortably into a prescribed box, finding funding can be a difficult and sometimes tortuous process.
I am currently a part-time student at Manchester Metropolitan University, and originally was a part-time student at the University of East Anglia from 2004 to 2007 before opting to suspend my studies and work for a charity. When I decided to return to complete my work and in order to help finance my studies I decided to look into the options available to fund a PhD other than the fiercely competitive routes such as an Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) grant. I’d applied for one previously and been awarded a ‘1b’ – with the grading running from ‘1a’ to ‘7’.
To begin with the process was relatively straightforward: I put my C.V. together with a speculative letter explaining my research in an e-mail. Eventually I wrote 123 of these e-mails, and they were aimed at organisations I thought either would, should or may have an interest in my research. In the end I had to build a spreadsheet to keep track of organisations, contacts addresses and phone numbers.
Some e-mails went unanswered, even after three attempts (once a week to ensure that they were not missed in volume of other e-mails that might have been arriving in the same inbox). Some replies were perfunctory, stating simply they did not fund individuals; others were more generous and included encouragement to complete my research with their refusals to assist. Others provided links to other organisations which they thought might be able to assist, and these were dutifully followed up – though to no avail.
The whole process left me feeling frustrated and just a little confused. I had a published track record including books and journals, I had worked on a BAFTA Wales-nominated TV history series both in front of and behind the camera, and I was a regular contributor to radio programmes in both English and Welsh languages. In addition I knew my research was worth pursuing as I could stand in a room with my peers and relate my findings – from whom I invariably received the question “You honestly can’t find funding?!’
So I needed a next step. In order to publicise my research to a wider audience than my interested friends and family and people who had heard me speak, I decided to start a blog. I posted links to it on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, with the blog statistics for the first few months showing that this was a worthwhile venture and that I should continue with it. In order to find out more about why there was no UK government funding available for PhD students, I wrote to each of the members of the Welsh Government directly. Those who replied said that this kind of funding did not fall within their remit and there was no legislation which was in place which required them to supply it.
Having realised that there was unlikely to be any funding forthcoming from any traditional sources, I realised that I should look at other, perhaps more unconventional sources. One option, and one which I had seen advertising a wide variety of projects, appeared to be crowdfunding my research. After researching the different crowdfunding platforms that were available and looking at the rules and regulations for each one I eventually decided to use a company called ‘gofundme’.
Setting up the website was straightforward. I entered the details of my research and posted links to my blog. Things began slowly at first, but within three months I had raised enough through the kindness of strangers to pay the fees for my first term. I’m not going to say it was an easy process. In order to keep the blog fresh I wrote a post every Sunday and used Facebook and Twitter as well as my Academia.edu and LinkedIn profiles as publicity outlets. The use of social media showed the strengths and weaknesses of different platforms. Twitter proved to be a very effective method of informing people that I was posting a weekly blog and Facebook allowed me to expand on the contents of each blog post in an attempt to introduce new readers to it. Academia.edu and LinkedIn let potential collaborators see my research in context with my employment history and published academic work.
A regional newspaper read about the story and ran a half page profile on my research and from a potential daily audience of 10,500 or so copies, I received one donation. Whilst I might have struggled with print media, digital media was a much successful option and I’m glad I put the effort in to maintain an audience through my blog.
Crowdfunding your research can work, but it isn’t easy. Although there is no strict ethical code which binds me to how I spend the donations I am strict in that anything I’m given stays in my Pay Pal account until it is time to pay an instalment of my course fees.
I’m yet to reach the 50% mark of my target but I’ve made new friends and introduced people to my particular research interests, so you have to balance one ideal against the other. Are you more important than your research, or is your research more important than you?
Spencer Gavin Smith
Manchester Metropolitan University
Image: Image of Caernarfon Castle, Gwynedd, Wales. Photograph by Spencer Gavin Smith.
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