Crowdfunding is a promising idea, and has created useful products. The Canary home-security system I wrote about recently was funded in this way. One big problem remains, though: how do you reward your early backers if you become too successful? Many of the 9,522 people who provided $2.5 million to fund development of the Oculus Rift headset on Kickstarter were understandably miffed when the company was sold to Facebook for more than $2 billion, of which they received precisely nothing. (I know how this feels — when I was 17, I inherited £200 from a distant relative, the remains of some money his father had made selling the patent for the caterpillar track to a small Californian tractor company in 1907. The firm is now called Caterpillar.)
Where crowdfunding seems to offer an unquestionable benefit is in altruism or patronage. The world is full of opportunities where just a few thousand people with £20 to spare can make a real difference if they pool their resources. In 2008 I wrote here about a website called Kiva.org. This allows you to ‘lend to charity’. Pay in $100, for instance, and your money is lent, typically in tranches of $25, to people who otherwise don’t have access to loans. You might fund a fisherman in the Solomon Islands to buy a new outboard motor, or a consortium of women in Rwanda to buy stock for their clothes stall. They then pay you back, and you can lend out the money a second time. And so on.
The total lent out since the site’s launch in 2005 is now nearing $1 billion, for which Spectator readers can take some credit. When I first wrote about Kiva, I created a lending team for readers (kiva.org/team/spectator). I just checked it. In the nine years, our 116 team members have together made nearly 11,000 loans totalling more than $290,000. This shows what a difference a few people can make.
Crowdfunding of films also seems to promise good things. Since the mainstream industry is mostly preoccupied with producing vapid comic-book adaptations, film-makers intending to make more interesting, small-budget movies have turned to websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Kajaki, among the best war films ever made, was partly funded in this way.
But, perhaps most valuable of all, crowdfunding is now taking off as an alternative means of funding academic and scientific research. (For those of you unfamiliar with academia, it is a system where you take the brightest minds of a generation and make them devote most of their time to filling in grant applications.) Getting funding for small-to-medium projects is always time-consuming and difficult.
I recently met Steve Keen, the healthily dissident economist; disappointed with conventional funding, he has turned to a website called Patreon.com to fund his own research. For various monthly rates starting at one dollar, you can back his work and receive regular podcasts and lectures. He’s reached an income of $3,000 a month in just a few weeks (patreon.com/ProfSteveKeen).
Or, in another area of research close to my heart, UCL is looking for £1 million to fund a Forensic Science Centre (see crowd.science). It doesn’t seem impossible that there are 10,000 people in Britain who share my obsession with true-life crime and who would willingly pay £10-£20 for regular updates on the latest research in this field. I also see my donation as a kind of insurance policy. Forensic science continues to make great strides, but our ability to collect evidence is outpacing our capacity to make sense of it. As recent cases have shown, it now takes only one wrong-headed expert witness to bang you up for life.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.