Last week I chaired an RSA Event about crowdfunding on the day we launched the RSA’s area on Kickstarter. Here, Alex Watson, RSA Catalyst Programme Manager, reflects on the talk and why the RSA are getting involved.
We’ve heard much about the benefits of crowdfunding. Here, RSA Fellowship Council member Ed Whiting extolled its virtues and noted the projections for its growth. But as is always the case with RSA Events, last Monday’s panel debate with commentators, successful crowdfunders and crowdfund-platform-builders helped identify and articulate some of the threats to, hidden-biases within and trends of the sector. Matthew prompted the panel to ask “what is the one biggest thing that could stop the momentum of crowdfunding or turn it in the wrong direction?” Here were some of their answers and I’ve added to include what we the RSA think we’re doing to counter them in using crowdfunding to tackle social problems.
Scams and frauds. Whilst crowdfunding had its first public failure in the UK – “a victim of the economic downturn” – further failures, particularly those where bad intentions are involved, could undermine trust in the ideas that go up on crowdfunding platforms.
We knew before we chose them that Kickstarter have a rigorous process for verifying identity. But in addition, the Fellows that we’re selecting all have a donor history with us and people can only become Fellows in the first place if we approve or select them for their professional achievements or potential to achieve, or they are selected by other Fellows.
People not delivering. Bobbie Johnson, who successfully ran a campaign that raised $150,000, admitted that despite raising more than his target, 18 months on he is still struggling to deliver some of his rewards. He said that failure or delay to deliver on rewards, through lack of ambition to go for a target that was really needed to deliver, or through failing to foresee the hard-work and barriers to follow-through could also burn the hands of those first-time crowdfunding backers.
There is a no doubt a reputational risk when encouraging RSA Fellows and the RSA’s wider audience to back projects on our curated area. But in addition to the above selection of our Fellows we have two extra factors to increase the likelihood of successful delivery. Firstly, the Fellows up there have a track-record of delivering with either a grant or non-financial support already awarded through Catalyst. In addition, we ensure that Fellows looking to run crowdfunding campaigns hear from other Fellows with experience of running a successful campaign and then delivering, as well as others who help assess the feasibility of what is proposed.
“Could you crowdfund Wonga?” The panel debated whether crowdfunding will be used for funding highly-profitable business that doesn’t serve much social good (e.g. Wonga) or ideas with social impact that need ‘the crowd’ because they can’t prove to existing investor that there is already a market. Our curated area will only be putting up ideas that tackle a social problem. But we’re also doing our best to encourage those backing a project to shout about it. This public (micro-)patronage is another reason why we’re more likely to get people to back projects they think will help, not hinder, others rather than make them a quick buck.
How democratic is “the crowd”? Even among the ideas that profess to have a socially-beneficial aim, one panellist said that you have to invest quite a lot of time on Kickstarter to “spot the breakthrough ideas [vs] someone getting support from one of their friends.” Social media is not immune to bias and those campaigns that get a tweet from a celebrity friend might not be the best ideas.
We hope that by putting the ideas that Fellows come up with to our 27,000 Fellows we can get some early momentum behind ideas that have real potential. Fellows aren’t all friends with one another, but we hope that they have sufficient ties to be able to get them interested-enough to take a look.
I am writing this post in snatches on the slow and beautiful train journey from Belfast to Derry/Londonderry City. Every few moments my eyes are drawn to the windows and views of rolling countryside, sandy beaches and slate grey sea. Fast changing skies, one moment blue and sunny, the next dark and rainy, add to the experience.
Two thirds of the way through the year and with the biggest events having passed, much conversation is turning to the question of legacy. The long term impact of an event can be divided into the ‘mechanical’ and the ‘moral’. The former legacy refers to things like facilities, infrastructure and regeneration; the latter to values, relationships and intentions.
The 2012 Olympics seems to have scored pretty highly on the former but disappointingly on the latter. There may be many reasons why an Olympic impact on ways of thinking, connecting and behaving has proved elusive, not least that the whole idea of a social echo from major one-off events may be more based on hope than likelihood. But things for London were certainly not helped by the ambivalence of politicians before the Games. So widespread were worries about organisation, security and UK sporting performance, so loud had been the critics and pessimists, that political leaders were worried to say the Olympics might stand as a national statement of values just in case that statement turned out to be tarnished by failure.
Of course, since the success of the Games there have been innumerable attempts to claim a moral legacy. But applying a post hoc rationale or seeking to bask in reflected glory often looks like exactly what it is – contrived opportunism. So if Derry’s year – which clearly is a success – is to leave a moral legacy then the time to articulate that is surely running out. Political and civic leaders need now to develop credible but ambitious accounts of how the spirit of the cultural festival can be carried into 2014 and beyond.
An important part of this story – and for this, my second point, I am grateful for the insight of RSA Fellow Kevin Murphy from VAI – must surely be about how a vital part of the year has been about the discovery and promotion of the cultural energy which already existed in and around Derry and which can be recognised and nurtured when the year of culture bandwagon has moved on.
A powerful example are the flute bands. For so long associated in the minds of outsiders and republicans with sectarian Unionist politics, the year of culture has included a community wide celebration of the Apprentice Boys band. In an article for the event I am attending, Kevin describes his dawning realisation of the scale of flute bands and the role they play in civic cultural engagement and in providing a route into musical participation for youngsters.
Northern Ireland is still a deeply divided and largely segregated community and, as the violent flag protects in Belfast earlier this year underline, resentment and the potential for violence simmers not far below the surface of everyday life. Yet a better future surely does not involve the suppression of distinctive community culture, much less its cynical use as the soundtrack to conflict, but its celebration as part of what is vivid and vibrant about this beautiful part of the world.
Culture makes possible things which conventional politics finds intractable. Which takes me to my third point (made more fully in this post). Struggling with austerity and facing rising needs, wise place leaders understand the importance of doing things differently. Achieving more with less and building the resilience of communities (what is somewhat dryly referred to as ‘demand management’) involves a step change in local collaboration between agencies and leaders in every sector, in public engagement particularly through connecting to a sense of community agency, and in the capacity for innovation.
If collaboration, engagement and innovation are our goals then surely arts and cultural organisations have huge potential in disrupting the way things are and prefiguring and prototyping how they could be? This offers a third way between the intrinsic and instrumental case for arts subsidy. Arts can achieve social impacts but rather than merely aiming for the conventional metrics of public service delivery, these impacts can be distinctive to the artistic imagination while still being concrete and measurable. Such an aspiration involves challenges both to the working methods and aspirations of arts organisations and to the capacity for risk taking and imagination among place leaders.
The greatest legacy of the Derry year of culture would be for arts and culture to become integral to the future ambition, capacity and inventiveness of the whole city.
As I have written in recent posts, I have found myself increasingly interested in institutional reform and invention as an area for policy and innovation. My own gloss on this relates back to my interpretation of cultural theory with its three active sources of change: individualism, hierarchy and solidarity. Might it be that institutions represent, inter alia, relatively stable ways of combining these three power sources?
Institutional decline might be seen in a loss of organisational viability or by institutions coming to have a less benign impact on society, or – thinking of banks – possibly becoming malignant. Is such decline a reflection of the three power sources becoming unbalanced? Perhaps the hierarchy fails to adapt or the institution has no way of tapping into the growing strength of individualism in wider society.
The perspective makes me alert to institutional innovation and keen for the RSA to get involved; so I am excited that the Society is taking further steps into the world of crowd funding. What we are talking about here is basically on-line mechanisms for fund raising in which people with project ideas appeal to the world for small donations or investments. Unlike the traditional world of fund raising which is based on long complex processes and the needle in haystack search for major funders, crowd funding is simple, transparent and based on mass mobilisation.
Crowd funding looks like a classic clumsy solution (one which combines the three competing change sources). It is individualistic in that it provides people with ideas, on the one hand, and people with money, on the other, an opportunity to get down to business. Also, there is a marked tendency in crowd funding to see donations as in some sense investments; there are often potential rewards – even if only symbolic – for those who put their money in. And those who pitch are generally looking for start-up seed money, not dependency on a continuous revenue stream. Crowd funding is a very modern form of hierarchy – light touch, low cost, fast moving – the characteristics of the growing number of organisations that build, host and oversee crowd funding platforms, of which Kickstarter is the most famous. And, of course, particularly as it relates to charitable giving, solidarity lies in the shared values which motivate the project pitchers and those who back their vision.
And it works. In 2011 $1.5 billion was raised worldwide through crowd funding and NESTA estimates the potential for charitable giving in the UK alone to be getting on for £5 billion by 2018. As the gap between what society’s needs and what the state can finance gets wider, crowd funding can be both a source of funds and way of quickly getting the most money to the best ideas.
The RSA has already dabbled with crowd funding for example, supporting successful crowd funding projects run by Fellows and Catalyst-backed ventures. However, we think there is a major opportunity for us to take a step further and build a closer and longer-lasting connection between the RSA, Fellow-led projects, the Fellowship, and the wider world. Which is why we’re partnering with Kickstarter to launch an RSA curated crowd funding area in September.
In last year’s Fellowship survey nine out ten Fellows said that they “want to engage with and help develop Fellow-led initiatives” and a healthy 14% of Fellows said they’d be inclined to provide material support to the Fellows’ Catalyst Fund.
A strength of crowd funding it also a challenge; because the process of pitching and donating is in the open, if you fail it’s there for all to see. But as many entrepreneurs attest, failure can be as useful as success in helping you learn, grow and develop better ideas. There is a danger that Fellows fail to respond to our invitation to back each other’s ideas but even if that happens in the early stages I hope we don’t get too dispirited: crowd funding is a symbol of the new idea of Fellowship taking root but changes in culture and expectations always take time.
We’ll be giving Fellows more details of our plans before we launch the site next month and – if the wider subject interests you – I will be chairing an event on crowd funding here at the RSA on September 16th.
Many thanks to Alex Watson from our Fellowship team and Ed Whiting FRSA (member of the Fellowship Council) for taking this idea forward and for helping with this post.
At the aforementioned launch of his book last week, there was some discussion of one of Anthony Painter’s key themes – the importance of institutional reform and innovation. The event was also on the day of Ed Miliband’s speech about changing Labour’s relation with the trade unions. I think it was Phil Collins of The Times who made a link, suggesting that if we were to ask in what part of society we most need new institutions we would be likely to identify the need for a more relevant and powerful voice for employees.
Indeed, there is a convincing argument that the shift in power across the eighties and nineties from employees to bosses and speculators is implicated in the economic and the social unbalancing which formed the background to the 2008 economic crisis and which continues to hold us back today.
The institutional problem is this: while employees need help in organising and a stronger voice at all levels of policy making they generally don’t want what they perceive to be on offer from trade unions. Political affiliation, activist capture, adversarialism and the tendency to define their role as defending the least effective members of the staff team, are all aspects of trade unionism which many people, especially I suspect the young, find unappealing. Add to this the hostility of employers and, of course, massive changes in the organisation of work and it perhaps not surprising that trade union membership rates are stagnant and very low (around one in six employees) in the private sector.
Yet the issues modern worker organisations could address, ranging from fair pay to employee voice, have not gone away, indeed many have become more pressing. Intelligent employers also know that disgruntled employees are a problem even if they aren’t threatening a strike and that employee engagement can be critical to productivity (a case made here by the IPA).
The consequence of the persistence of the need for employee voice and organisation alongside a failure of supply among traditional trade unions has been the proliferation of two other forms of response; first in-house staff organisations and second various schemes – such as Best Companies and Investors in People which seek to institutionalise employee voice as part of good management.
The problem with staff associations and best practice schemes is both that they are voluntaristic (relying on employer patronage) and that they lack any collective national or local voice in relation to public discourse or policy making.
Arguably, just as the business community has two major peak organisations (the CBI and the IoD) there is a need alongside the TUC for a new high profile, employee-focused body which makes a less politically-aligned (but more politically relevant), less adversarial case for employee voice and engagement, and which represents a more diverse set of institutions (possibly including enlightened employers) which share a commitment to this case.
But isn’t employee voice too weak and amorphous a goal? Most bosses pay lip service to listening to their workers but that doesn’t mean they act on what they hear. Being heard doesn’t help with the things that really concern people such as low and unfair pay, job insecurity or over-intensive or inflexible working practices (the latter highlighted in this RSA report yesterday.
A new peak employee organisation would need to have a credible entry bar on terms of what is defined as meaningful employer engagement. It would also be important to test the idea that employee voice is a good proxy for wider measures of good employment practice.
In case this post reads like a case for a patsy body which provides cover for bad employers, it is worth noting a contrast. The RSA does not have trade union organisation but our commitment to become a best company is driving us into levels of employee engagement, managerial self examination and concrete reform which are massively more demanding that the kind of superficial human relations management I often see in unionised workplaces.
A few recent conversations – including our recent RSA/Arts Council seminar series and a chat with Janet Morris, who is involved in the What Next? Southwark initiative among arts organisations – have coalesced in my thoughts.
The settlement for arts and heritage funding in the recent spending review could have been worse but not much worse. Even deeper reductions in local government funding (plus more years of council tax freeze) will mean local cuts for arts organisations on top of national ones.
While some local authorities – Bristol and Norwich, for example – see arts and culture as integral to their local economic strategy, beyond the small band of true believers can a case be made for the arts which goes beyond the passionate special pleading which we have heard so often? I think it can, but it will involve a major shift of thinking in the arts sector itself.
Looking at overall cuts in council spending of up to a third, alongside rising needs and a sluggish economy, it is clear that unless local leaders think and act very differently, they face managing a major decline in both service standards and the quality of the public domain.
The new form of local leadership required involves a number of elements:
- The development and articulation of an ambitious, distinctive and achievable vision.
- The bringing together of the key local actors from the public, private, civic and third sector and the inculcation of a deep and authentic commitment to collaboration (which, to mean anything, must involve a willingness to make short term sacrifices in individual organisations in pursuit of shared goals).
- A rich engagement with the broader public, including identifying and winning buy in for actions local citizens can contribute to the place’s prospects (for an example of this see the Mayor of Oklahoma).
‘Vision’, ’collaboration’ and ‘public engagement’ are all the kind of warm words that tend to get attached to various local coordinating bodies, like, for example, the Local Strategic Partnerships set up by the last Labour Government. But the harsh reality is that these bodies tend to be little more than committees which organisations either treat with disdain or through which they steadfastly pursue their own bureaucratic self-interest.
How can rhetorical commitments to new forms of leadership, innovative practice and generous collaboration turn into something real? This is where arts organisations can come in. Their ethos, their method, their creativity can act as the catalyst for new ways of being and thinking. This is something we saw happen when we helped bring arts practice and method to the local coordination body in Peterborough as part of our Citizen Power project (final report forthcoming).
The question thus changes: instead of ‘how can we persuade the authorities (and local people) to protect the arts in tough times?’ it becomes ‘how can we be prime movers in enabling our place not only to survive but to prosper in these difficult times?’.
For arts organisations to make this offer and make it credibly they will need to examine their own ways of working. They will in essence need to see themselves as commissioned by the places, in which they are based, a concept which, if taken seriously, is complex and challenging.
To act as place catalysts will involve developing a nuanced and grounded understanding of their locality, its people, its needs and its challenges. It will mean fending off those – and this will include some of its traditional allies – who see such an idea as instrumental or parochial. And it will involve the organisations showing how successful engagement in place leadership depends on being able also to create art and culture of intrinsic merit.
I suspect many arts organisations would claim already to be catalysts for local change just as many organisations claim to subsume their interest to the broader good of their locality, but such claims are hollow unless they are manifested in a genuine commitment to self-examination and reorientation.
It won’t be easy but ‘place commissioning’ may be the way for the local case for arts funding to be less bleeding stump and more bleeding edge.