StartSomeGood Co-founder Tom Dawkins Shares Lessons in Crowdfunding Social Enterprises
StartSomeGood was launched in March 2011 as a crowdfunding site explicitly geared toward social entrepreneurs. Their goal is to help changemakers get their projects off the ground by connecting them to financial and intellectual capital and creating a supportive community around projects.
Recently, StartSomeGood released an e-book that profiles some of the innovative projects that have taken flight thanks to the site. In its first nine months of operation, StartSomeGood brought in over $225,000 to fund 34 campaigns. In the book the creators of successfully-funded ventures also share some lessons they have learned from launching projects. Below, co-founder of StartSomeGood Tom Dawkins shares with Dowser some of the book’s gems, as well as a few thoughts about the potentials of crowdfunding—or peerfunding, as he suggests it be called—and what makes a social enterprise get off the ground.
Dowser: What are the main takeaways from the e-book that SSG just released?
Dawkins: We originally envisioned this project as a blog post highlighting some of the projects we’ve supported on StartSomeGood, but the responses were so great that we decided we had to do something bigger—so we made this e-book. What really inspires me is how optimistic the people running these projects are—and you really have to be, to become a social entrepreneur—and the responsibility they are taking on. It’s like they’re saying, ‘if I’m not gonna do it, who is?’ And really, that’s the question that every social entrepreneur starts with—realizing that we want to do something, and no one is coming to help us, and also, that we have everything that we need.
What’s inspiring about peer-funding is that it’s a way of unlocking the resources already around us—we don’t need permission from government, or big foundations, or high-net worth individuals, rich people—the people who have traditionally made the important decisions about what happens and what doesn’t in social change work. Now, we can look to the people who care most about our work and understand the support we need to get started. And that’s the true message in this book—how capable people are in finding the resources they need. They realize that, if not them, then who?
What has the first year of SSG been like?
2011 for us was kind of getting the beta website up, tinkering with it, walking the first projects through, seeing what worked and what didn’t. 2012 is all about making ever more changemakers aware that this is an option—that this is one of the ways to go about launching a venture and making a difference. Recently I met with Matt Flannery, the founder of Kiva, and he was telling me that they had applied to all the social entrepreneurship business competitions. They applied to Echoing Green, twice. They applied to the William James Foundation. And they didn’t get any of them. It’s sort of the social entrepreneurship version of the Beatles story, in which they got rejected by forty record labels. But they decided in the end to go ahead with it anyway—that they didn’t need permission from any of those competitions. And of course, Kiva turned out to be a brilliant idea.
What we’re trying to do is just make it a little bit easier for the next Kiva to emerge. It’s never going to be easy for social entrepreneurs to start ventures, but we’re trying to make it just a little easier—so you can start in an earlier stage, you don’t need to spend $800 and wait two years to get your 501C3 status, you don’t need to win any fellowship or competition. You don’t need to find a single major sponsor—instead it can be a large group of individuals, giving what they’re capable of, and together that can be the fuel that you need to get started.
What are some of the challenges that users of SSG encounter?
More than half of all projects fail on crowdfunding sites. And actually, we prefer the term ‘peer funding’—because there really isn’t an anonymous crowd out there just waiting to shower you with money, no matter how good your idea is. Every project is a unique community convened by that entrepreneur. And the ones that succeed do so because of hard work. And that’s why we’ve tried to re-frame crowdfunding as peer funding—unsuccessfully, really. But a crowd implies an anonymous group of individuals—whereas peers, or a tribe, implies people you have a relationship with. That doesn’t just mean that they’re your friends or parents. It also means a cultural connection—they care about the same issues as you, or they’re part of the same cultural or geographic community as you, and may be interested in supporting you for that reason.
How does that philosophy show in the way the website works?
The entire website is based on that philosophy—that you can mobilize a peer group, or a tribe – to support the change you want to create. Microphilanthropy is not just money broken down into smaller bits, it’s different from traditional philanthropy. People are inspired in different ways, to give in different increments. When you’re giving a million dollars, one of your motivations is literally tax management—moving from one tax bracket to the other. But people giving ten or fifty dollars, they’re not thinking about that stuff at all. All that matters is how inspired they are, how connected they feel to the individual, or the community, or the issue being represented, and to what extent do they actually want to experience the future that the project is striving to make. It’s about inviting people to be part of the journey of creating that new world.
We’ve had donations as large as$35,000 on our site—a larger individual donation than we were ever expecting. That was for the Do Good Bus, a mobile volunteer corps that traveled to various North American cities and engaged in community work; they raised over $101,000–which proves that anyone can do that, that the site works as advertised. But in peerfunding what’s come before is not predictive of what could happen next. This group has brought together a unique combination of people to support their project. We are just the toolset. People ask me all the time, how much money can I raise on your platform. And I say, that’s the wrong question. It’s like buying a thousand stamps from the post office and saying, how much can I raise with these stamps? Well, who are you sending letters to and what are you saying to them? Do they care? And what can they afford to contribute? And the answer to that will be unique for every project.
What are a few lessons you the SSG team has learned from running the website over the past year?
We have learned more and more the power of focusing on the positive impact social entrepreneurs are making rather than just talking about the problems we are working on. One specific change we’ve made on the site is that while each project’s venture page used to say, ‘what is the problem you’re working on, and what is your solution?’ it now says ‘what is the future you are creating and how are you creating it?’ We’ve really tried to orient our site around this visionary and positive view of change, rather than getting people to think just in terms of problems. So, we ask people to articulate their view of a better world and invite us all to join them in solving it. If all you’re doing is staring at a problem and thinking of how to fix it—if a problem is -1, and you fix it you get to zero. But we want to get to +1, to a better world for everyone.