We recently met with Emily-Rose, who was the first student to fully crowdfund a degree. She raised £26,500 to cover the course fees and living costs for an MSc in Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University.

What is crowdfunding and how did you hear about it?

Crowdfunding is a means of raising money that, at its best, elicits a large number of small donations (rather than a small number of large ones), in exchange for non-monetary rewards. I’m not really sure how I heard about it; I just knew that it existed. I chose Hubbub as a platform since their official focus is on education.

What made it attractive to you?

Having not been successful in securing a HEFCE grant, and not wanting to take on more debt than I had already accrued as an undergraduate, crowdfunding represented the only remaining avenue to explore. I really resonate with the philosophy behind it, and I also love how it enables practically anyone to become a philanthropist – a privilege normally only accessible to the wealthy.

Did Hubbub provide you with any help or advice before you started or through the process?

They advised me to offer several evenly-distributed reward tiers, in order to attract donations from people spanning the full economic spectrum. I set my reward boundaries at £1, £20, £50, £100, £250 and £500. Hubbub also suggested I set a “minimum needed” target – a sum that must be raised in order for any money to actually change hands – because it gives donors a sense of security that their money will definitely be used appropriately. Since there was no way I could accept Oxford’s offer without proving I had 14K in the bank to pay the fees, it seemed obvious to make that my minimum target.

Can you briefly tell us about the different stages of the process?

The first stage is setting up your profile and pitch. Why are you worth supporting? Where are you headed? Who are you? Although not mandatory, including a video increases your chances, statistically-speaking, of success. So, after writing my pitch, I set to work on making a video using a basic freeware video editor. My first attempt came across as too serious, so I discarded it and tried again, making sure I smiled more, and editing in a bunch of silly clips. It took persistence to get right, but was definitely worth it. The hardest aspect of creating my project was thinking up rewards. I considered offering recordings of my singing, or artwork, but Hubbub recommended something more relevant to my project. I was pleased with the idea of turning my degree into an exclusive blog, to which, for the minimum donation of £1, donors were promised access. I’ll be posting summaries of the essays I write and discussing ideas and debates relating to my course. For £250, donors won the opportunity to promote their own project (whatever that might be) in a post on my science and scepticism page (facebook.com/hatepseudoscience), which is approaching 90K “likers”. £500 donations meant receiving a professionally-bound copy of my dissertation at the end of the year, plus all the other rewards. All this preparation took about a week. I needed to provide financial declaration in 5 weeks’ time, so I set my deadline accordingly. I then emailed all my contacts and wrote a number of hand-written letters. Generic correspondence is easy to spot, and it was important to me to appeal to people on a sincere and personal level. I tried to communicate how much I valued the part they had played in my life, and discuss my project in a way that was relevant to them individually. My mum also put a lot of her time in, sending messages to her friends.
What proportion of your donations came from people you didn’t know?
I’d say that around two thirds of the money I raised was from people whom I knew personally in some capacity. I had around 500 sponsors altogether, including 71 who donated £1, and 82 who donated £5. The science page produced around £3000 in donations, but whether our readers class as complete strangers, I’m not sure. I was advised that it might be worth going to the press, so I contacted my local newspaper, who ran a story a couple of weeks before the project deadline. This was then picked up by the tabloids and resulted in some rather hostile press and nastiness from online commenters. As poetic justice would have it, however, it was actually at this stage that I started to receive significant donations from strangers – people who wanted to show solidarity and make a stand against the insult-hurling. It was quite a phenomenon – the project earned about 8K as a direct result of the publicity. From any comments donors made, what ultimately helped persuade them to give the money? People contacted me to say that they were fascinated by my area of study, that they had been inspired by my drive, that they were impressed by my diverse set of skills and interests, and that they felt the work I was doing to promote reason and science was valuable. I also had a lot of people express excitement at the prospect of being able to follow my progress.

How did you get in touch with Steven Pinker and Douglas Hofstadter? And persuade them to donate?

These are both scientists who have inspired me in profound ways. I wrote them long emails discussing my ideas, relaying a few anecdotes, and basically telling them how much I adored them. (Some rhetorical skill was required in order to avoid sounding creepy or sycophantic.) I had met Steve briefly at a book-signing, so this was a good inroad. I’d never met Doug before though. But if you read enough of someone’s writing, you start to feel you know them.

What tips would you give to those thinking to embark on the process for postgraduate study?

People give to people, not just causes. Make sure you flaunt your diversity, and don’t be afraid to include a bit of humour, as well as emphasising the seriousness of your ambitions. Be bold! – Make lots of contact. Don’t be shy when it comes to people you haven’t seen for a while. In fact, a brilliant side-effect of my project was a re-kindling of connections from my past. – Be prepared to spend practically every waking hour on your project. Crowdfunding really is a lot of work. – Be prepared for your project to bring out the worst in some people, and remember that they’re not the kind of characters you want in your life anyway. – Enlist the help of family and friends.

Are there qualities you need to have, or things that need to be in place before you start?

Certainly motivation, confidence and good written prose are all indispensable. But having a large network of contacts is the crucial bit and I think that for the time being, people without this resource would find it immensely difficult to crowdfund successfully.

Are there challenges for crowdfunding and its future as a means of financing postgraduate study?

Yes. Currently, people tend to give nepotistically – to people in whose lives they already have some sort of stake. So how can crowdfunding cater for people who not only don’t have any money, but also lack a network to tap? Over the next 10-15 years, I see the potential of crowdfunding increasing as awareness is raised and attitudes change. My own experience of crowdfunding has inspired me enormously and I’ve contributed to a number of projects since running mine. I plan to do so for the rest of my life.

The prospect of following these people’s progress genuinely excites me, and if enough people felt the same way then we, The People, could fund anyone and anything. People tip restaurants that they’ll never go to again. Why? Because they feel that doing so is part of their social identity. That’s the kind of niche I think crowdfunding needs to carve for itself. Anyone interested in subscribing to my blog can still do so, by donating to a science-based project of their choice. See the “updates” section of my hubbub page for more information.
MastersCompare and PostgraduateStudentships says a huge thank-you to Emily-Rose for sharing her thoughts and insights about the crowdfunding process and wishes her all the best for her masters course.

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