Episode 26 – The ins and outs of crowdfunding research

Given how low success rates are for many/most granting schemes, it’s incredibly useful for researchers to understand whether crowdfunding might be an appropriate way to raise funds for their work. And if it is, how you should go about running a successful crowdfunding campaign.

So we invited Jonathan O’Donnell back to the show – you may remember we chatted with him in episode 22 about how to write successful grant applications. And Jonathan is the perfect person to chat with about crowdfunding because he’s currently in the write-up phase of his PhD thesis on…… you guessed it – crowdfunding research.

Jonathan is the best person we know to chat with about funding research because in his job, he helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia (all opinions are his own). He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990’s (with varying degrees of success). With Tseen Khoo, also he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia. His ORCID is 0000-0001-5435-235X.

In the meantime, you can follow Jonathan and learn more about his work here:



Jen (00:00:20)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:01:11)
Hello everybody and welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m so delighted to be here with my friend and colleague Michael. Hello Michael.

Michael (00:01:21)
Hey Jen, very excited for this episode, which is very special. And I know all of our episodes are special, but this one is extra special. What is the reason for that Jen?

Jen (00:01:31)
Well, this one is extra special because I, I would like to begin by welcoming our wonderful guest Jonathan O’Donnell from the Faculty of Science, where he is a senior research initiative coordinator for ARC and NHMRC grants. And he is one half of the very famous Research Whisperer.
But Jonathan, the last time we chatted with you was in season 3 and we picked your brains about how to write better grant applications. And when we were recording, we chatted briefly about the fact that in addition to all the other incredible work you do at the University of Melbourne and with the Research Whisperer, you’re also a PhD student.
So hats off to you! And we really briefly touched on your area of expertise in that conversation, which is crowdfunding. But we realised very quickly that there was no way we had enough time to explore that and do nearly as much justice as we wanted to to your expertise. So Michael very unceremoniously edited out every mention of your PhD from that episode. Sorry for doing you such a disservice.
So our listeners heard nothing about that, but that’s why we really wanted to have you back. Thank you for joining us and we really want to talk about your research topic and to learn about the role of crowdfunding in research. So I guess Jonathan, we just want to start by asking you — Why did you decide to undertake a PhD on crowdfunding? What’s the story there?

Jonathan (00:02:56)
Right, so my job is to help people get research funding right? And it’s a pretty stable kind of area. There’s not a huge number of new ways to fund research that emerge, but crowdfunding is absolutely one of those.
And I think I probably know most of the people who have done some crowdfunding, academics had done some crowdfunding. So I could just have a chat with them and write that up, and that would be my PhD.

Michael (00:03:19)
Yeah, fantastic. It’s, it’s such an interesting idea you know, crowdfunding for research.
How popular is it? I mean, you’re researching the topic. Is it something that’s still quite niche or fringe, or are you seeing it become a little bit more mainstream?

Jonathan (00:03:35)
There are universities in Australia that have told their academics NOT to try to raise funding through crowdfunding. It’s very niche. I did a, a review of all the campaigns I could find at the start of my PhD. And I’m thinking of doing that review again to try and measure whether there’s been any growth.
And the reasons that it’s niche [is] kind of interesting. 1: There’s a lot of prestige around funding. And so big funds that are hard to get are seen as being the best funds to have. And this is small funding that is rather, comparatively easy to get, right? I mean, Australian Research Council, National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia, you might be looking at 15, 20% success rate.
In crowdfunding, most people, you’re looking at a 50% or above success rate. And that’s unheard of in any national granting agency, right? It’s about kind of entrenched ways of thinking as well. I talked to a couple of PhD students from a university that will not be named. They said they put up a crowdfunding campaign and the leader of their lab said “Take that down, you are bringing the lab into disrepute”.

Michael (00:04:48)
Oh no.

Jen (00:04:49)

Jonathan (00:04:51)
Right? Because it’s, this is not the way we do things here. We’ve always done things this other way. Like there’s a new way to get money, it’s a no brainer to try and work out whether that’s a useful thing. But I think it’s similar in some ways to research communication.
Research communication is one of those things that most universities say “Ah, it’s really important. We really love it when people do this.” And then you look at their promotion criteria, and it’s not on there. And you look at the hiring criteria, and it’s not on there.
And you know, there’s, there’s not a lot of actual entrenched support. You look at like time for research communication. Oh, no, that’s not part of your job, you know. It’s really difficult to open up that space. And, and people have been doing research communication a lot longer than they’ve been doing crowdfunding for research. So it’s early days.

Jen (00:05:39)
Yeah, I, I think you’re right, there’s a lot of lip service in this area, isn’t there? Whereas what people actually get supported and rewarded for doing can sometimes be quite different.
But Jonathan, I’m really interested to hear more about the specifics of your PhD research. I know you haven’t completed, but I was really lucky to attend a talk that you gave maybe a couple of months ago.
And you shared some fascinating case studies and some quite specific advice for the sort of projects that you see doing well under crowdfunding model and the sort of advice you would give to researchers who are thinking about dipping their toes in, in this crowdfunding pool. Can you talk to us a bit more about the specifics of what you’ve done and what you found out?

Jonathan (00:06:19)
Sure, OK. For the research, the first thing I did, like I said, I did a, a review of all the crowdfunding campaigns I could find that mentioned an Australian university and included an Australian academic. I wanted to look at universities and the way universities work because crowdfunding itself, pretty simple, Kickstarter or GoFundMe whatever, they make it really easy to set up a campaign. So anyone can do that. You then plonk a university in the middle of that process and all of a sudden it gets a bit more complicated, right? Because universities are good at making things [complicated].
So I wanted to look at how the university works. So I looked at academics. I found as many as I could. And then it was very clear that there are a couple of universities that had support programs that were running for crowdfunding.
So I contacted two of those universities and I said, “Can I come and talk to your academics?” Both those people who have been successful and those people who have been unsuccessful and to some of your administrators. ‘Cause I wanted, you know, I’m a, I’m a research administrator myself. I wanted to find out what the the back-end processes were.
The things I found were… One of those things was being able to put some boundaries on 6000 to 9000 roughly, the amounts that people, most people are raising. You know, kind of put some hard numbers around yes, more than 50% are successful but, but also in talking to people, it was fantastic. It’s always great when you just talk to someone about something. You know, that that is really something that they understand.
So mostly it was open-ended interviews. But one of the questions I, I made sure to ask was would you do it again? It’s fairly basic question, seems to measure whether it’s useful or not. Pretty much 80% of the academics I talked to out of the box went no.

Michael (00:08:09)

Jen (00:08:10)

Jonathan (00:08:12)
Immediately afterwards, I would ask “What it useful?” And the same people, the exact same people would say “Oh yeah, absolutely”. And so then when we unpacked that, why was it useful? Well, it was useful because they learned to talk to the public about their research, right? So that’s (1). They learned how to ask for money. It’s really hard to ask for money. Money is a really personal thing.
They’ve learned how to approach the media. Often they learn how to make a little video about their work right? Or how to find someone else who could help them make a video, a friend or whatever. But also other things that weren’t about learning. There was a real sense of gratitude when people donated, it was like, “Ahh, I didn’t expect this particular sort of person or, or you know, to get donations from this area”.
And also just that it took them out of their kind of comfort zone and they tried something new and that was, a lot of people really enjoyed that. And just that they felt that they were speaking for their field, right? They were representing not just themselves and their research, but they were saying, “This is why physics is important” or “This is why math is important”. They felt they were getting those messages across to people as well. The other thing to keep in mind. So that they’re kind of the good sides.
The things that made it really difficult for people. Most donations come from friends and family and colleagues. And some people found that really difficult. It was like well, that’s not where I should be getting my funding from. But if you think about it, it kind of makes sense. You start from the people you know. And you, you know, you move your message outwards from there, right? And the people you know are the people who really want to help you, really want to trust you. You know, really understand that you’re a good person.
And most academics don’t have a ready-made audience. There’s a great, there’s a fantastic paper that says to crowdfund their research, academics need an audience, right? And that is both a statement and a warning, right? Because you’re running, you’re running, like for most project based crowdfunding you’re running a 6 to 8 week program. And it’s a communications program.
You’re absolutely over those 6 to 8 weeks, one person used the term pestering. You are just pestering people about your research, right? You’re trying to get their attention. And so you start with people you know. If you have an audience because you’ve done research communication before, because you’ve got a blog because you’ve, you’ve whatever that’s really useful. But most people don’t have that. And one of the things that came out of it was I really encourage all academics when their students graduate to offer to link with them on LinkedIn.

Michael (00:10:59)
Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan (00:11:00)
Because like, I thought, of course academics have an audience. They’ve taught their subject for the last five years to any number of people. But most of them had no way of contacting those past students. And and I, I really encourage academics to keep in touch. Just a light touch, right?
You know, via LinkedIn with past students. And not just for crowdfunding, but for guest lectures. For you know, finding out what’s happening. Because it turns out that the people you taught go into the industry you taught them for, right?

Michael (00:11:35)
Who would have thought?

Jonathan (00:11:37)
And so anyway, anyway, I’ll stop there, but they are some of the things that came out of my research directly.

Michael (00:11:42)
Great insights Jonathan and great to be able to get those experiences from people who have actually tried this. And Jen, I know you’ve got a little bit of experience with crowdfunding here. Does that kind of align with your experience, Jen?

Jen (00:11:56)
Yeah, I mean, ours is quite a long time ago now. So my husband, Euan and I, Euan who interviewed back on episode one of this podcast. We ran a campaign. I think it’s seven years ago now. We set out to raise $15,000 to be able to return to some field sites that we’d worked on 10 years before that for his PhD because we’d heard word from some of the local indigenous groups that the particular species of kangaroo that he’d worked on for his PhD had started to really decline in numbers, and there was no one up there doing this kind of systematic sampling to find out if this species was in trouble or not. We’re talking quite remote areas in Cape York. So the very tip, northern tip of Australia, and through the Northern Territory and the Kimberly. So quite remote, unpopulated areas.
And so we yeah, essentially went out to our audiences asking for enough money to be able to fund a vehicle pretty much to be able to go and return to all of these sites. And I mean, thinking back now compared to the sort of audiences we interact with now. You know, our careers have both progressed quite a lot in the last seven years. We interact with many more people. We do a lot more media and things. But I guess compared to a lot of academics back then we did already have some audience.
And you know, yeah, you have to work really hard. I remember thinking, gosh, someone who isn’t already kind of [OK] with how Facebook works and doesn’t already have activity on Twitter and sort of doesn’t know how to do this. Gee, this would be hard. ‘Cause we worked really hard and we were successful. We set out to raise 15,000, I think we ended up raising just over 20,000.
But the joy for me was that so many of our friends and family and colleagues were then invested in our journey. And it was quite a big undertaking. At the time, we had a four-year old and a seven year-old. We were driving ridiculous distances. We were working crazy hours in the field in very uncomfortable hot conditions.
And we had this huge sort of group of people who were kind of invested in that. And I spent lots of time writing a blog and updating that community on Facebook with photos of where we were and what we were seeing. And for me, there was a huge joy in bringing a community along with what is otherwise often very lonely work. Field work in remote locations, you can really wonder what’s the point? And who’s ever gonna know about this?
So for me, even though there was a lot of hard work involved in, in raising that money. I loved the fact that not only were people sort of emotionally invested, but they were also financially invested in what we were doing. I found that a really fantastic experience. But I hear what you’re saying, Jonathan. We did already have audiences both as a couple and as individuals. And we were already active on social media, which, which obviously massively helped.

Jonathan (00:14:38)
I want to pick up on one of the things you said Jen about taking your family on field work. ‘Cause I remember that campaign and you specifically talked about that in the campaign. That is something that will be so hard to fund through traditional funding mechanisms. You know, you imagine trying to write a paragraph in your Australian Research Council grant about how important it is to take your family on your field trip with you.
It’s just not gonna flow right? It’s just not going to… Like it’d be really, really hard to get it across the line. Whereas crowdfunding, because it’s new, because it’s a different way of funding, much easier to make that a feature of what you’re doing.
And the other thing I love about crowdfunding is it brings the crowd into the university. So you did really good work and hard work to keep your audience, your funders, and the other people who are interested informed about what you’re doing, right? And that demystifies the research process.
By and large, in Australia, universities are well trusted by the public. But the public don’t really understand how research works, right? So if you’ve got a successful crowdfunding campaign and then you go back to your followers and go, “Oh look, there’s going to be a bit of a delay. I’d put my ethics application up and it got knocked back. So I’m going to have to do it again and they only meet once a month and da da da da da.” All of a sudden you’ve demystified that process for a whole bunch of people. And I think that’s really valuable. This is classic research engagement. It’s about telling people what the university does, how the university works.
The people at the University of WA absolutely… Like they’re on record as saying from their point of view, it’s not the money that’s most important, it’s about renewing that social contract between the university and the public. And just you know, the guy who runs it up there, he said in an interview or, or a kind of written piece, he said “If someone wanted to raise $10,000, then from my point of view, the best result is 10,000 people give a dollar each” because that’s 10,000 people who have looked at what the university is doing and said, “Yeah, absolutely. I’m willing to reach in my pocket, pull out my wallet, put my credit card you know, on the line and say yes, I want to support this.”

Michael (00:17:05)

Jonathan (00:17:06)
It’s why it’s, it’s one of the other reasons I like micro patronage because again, it’s a, it’s a number of people just giving small amounts regularly. To sustain a research or a research related activity.

Michael (00:17:19)
Yeah, yeah. I mean all that sounds fantastic, especially demystifying the research process. I mean, why on Earth wouldn’t universities, all universities be supporting this? I mean, where is the push back coming from?

Jonathan (00:17:33)
So you get yeah, sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. I certainly know some universities have had issues where an academic has gone out, they’ve put their name on a crowdfunding campaign, and the first thing that the university knows is it pops up in the press. Now if pops up in the press and everyone’s going oh, this is interesting, the university is quite happy about that.
But if it pops up in the press and someone’s going, what the hell is this about? Universities are very gun shy of that. You know, they’re very, they’re very worried about that. I was working with someone at a university and everything was going really well. You know, the the comms people were on board, their faculty was on board, various other bits of the administration that needed to be on board like finance were on board. Yes, we’ve got a way of bringing the money in.
And then someone said ah, probably should go to legal. You know, just to check it out. And legal came back and said, “Look, there’s no legal risk here. But there is a risk to the reputation of the university.” And what I didn’t understand at the time and what, what that means in legal speak is we need to see or someone needs to see a business case that balances that risk against the reward and signs off and says yes, the university approves this, right? Yeah, but what happened in, in essence was the comms people said “Oh, if legal is not on board. I’m sorry we can’t help.” And the finance people said “Oh, if legal’s not on board. We can’t help.” All of that, all that support just melted away, right? So that’s, that’s kind of one of the issues.
The other issue is I had a kind of senior researchers administrator sort of person that does what I do who said “Look. I would much prefer one of my academics to spend 6 to 8 weeks writing another paper that will make them more competitive for big amounts of money then spend their time learning how Twitter works, which will make them competitive for a small amount of money”. So you know, horses for courses.
The other thing I missed earlier was you asked kind of what I’d found in my research. And one of the things is that comes up a lot is who does this work for, right? And it was very clear to me that this will work for pretty much any research topic. There’s an academic at Deakin University, who ran a campaign around a particular super bug that can kill you through explosive diarrhoea.

Michael (00:20:11)
Oh no.

Jonathan (00:20:12)
This is not a topic that it’s easy to run a research communication campaign around. There is no she, as she said, there’s no brown ribbon campaign to raise funds for this, for this disease, right? She absolutely successfully ran a crowdfunding campaign to make a video to make people more aware of this. And, and so you know, like I I, I don’t have an example for every discipline, but I’m pretty close to having a, a successful research campaign for every discipline.
Where it doesn’t work is where people don’t understand what’s required. So one of the universities early on kind of ran a trial. And the university thought.. Oh, the academics will promote their campaign. And the academics thought oh, the university is going to promote my campaign. And so you had people who raised like 2 dollars, 4 dollars because no one was doing any work to tell anyone about it.
And so it’s much more around the work involved and a bit of luck, right? If you get, if you get a big, a big donation from a company, companies have more power to give than individuals. So if you get a big donation for a company that might get you across the line. Whereas someone else who’s got just as many individuals but not that one big donation may not make it across the line. So there is a bit of luck involved as well.

Jen (00:21:38)
Jonathan, just before we finish, I’m just imagining a listener who’s kind of sitting there thinking, oh well look, I reckon my university would get behind me and maybe this is an avenue that I haven’t thought about before. And you know, it’s getting much more difficult to secure funding from, from some of these larger schemes. I reckon I should give it a go.
Do you have some key questions that you would encourage that listener to ask themselves? Or maybe a couple of key pieces of advice that you would pass on to that person?

Jonathan (00:22:04)
Yeah yeah, so there’s, there’s a few. One is: Do you have a support base and how big is that support base? And you can think about that in different ways. You know, that may not be like an audience that you’ve built up because you’ve been on radio or whatever, that might be your family is just like this sounds like a great idea. You know, we’re really excited about this and we really want to support you in this. Your partner is willing to help, right? Or it might be a colleague that’s like, “Hey, let’s do this together” because it’s much easier… When things get tough, it’s much easier if you’ve got a mate to just have a drink and go “Oh god, this is harder than we thought”.
Or it might be your colleagues are like, “Ah, you would be great at this”. You know, you would support this, right? So if you’ve got a base like that, that’s helpful. If on the other hand your family are saying we don’t see enough of you already. Or your colleagues are saying what the hell would you want to do that for, right? Then, then it’s going to be much tougher, right?
Also think about your research. If your crowdfunding campaign starts by saying, “Well, the first step is to kill 1000 mice”, right? Or whatever, right? That’s going to be difficult. If there are organised opposition groups. If you currently are working in vaccine research, right? You may find that the anti-vaxxers just go “Hey, let’s stacks on this person”, right? And that gets really hard.
If, on the other hand, you’ve got this sort of research, or you’ve got a, a hook to your research that allows you to think Well, I think I can get some press out of this. You know, I’ve got a clever aspect. Classic example of this was that people who were doing astronomy research and they were mapping basically the Australian skies and they realised that in Star Trek, this is what Star Trek refers to as the Delta quadrant. And so they were like “Ah, help us map the delta quadrant”. And a whole bunch of Trekkies went “Yeah, we’re into that, no problem”, right? So if you can do that, if you’ve got an interesting hook then that makes it easier, right? So and you can kind of map these out.
And also timing. What have I got coming or where can I put a 6 to 8 week program where I’m not going to be overwhelmed by marking. I’m not going to be going on field work. I’m not going to be out of Internet contact because you know, I’m going to a conference in Antarctica or something. Just think through what’s going to happen in those 6 to 8 weeks.
And the other one is essentially what do I want to do with this group once they’ve funded me? How can I repay them if you like? And mostly that’s about how do I keep in touch with them? Be on that 6 to 8 week program ’cause it’s, it’s an ongoing commitment, right? You don’t want to say “Hey, give me money” and then say at the end “Thanks very much. I’m never going to talk to you again”, right? That’s bad if you’re going on a date. And it’s bad if you’re doing crowdfunding. So don’t ghost people basically. And so you need to think through Well, how am I going to take those people? And mostly that’s just oh, once a month I’ll send you an email. I’ll let you know how the research is going and how long do you want to do that for? Well, maybe for a year, maybe for the duration of the project you were talking about.
But yeah, they would be the sort of things I would, I would ask people to think about. And, and finally: Is your university on board with this? Because this is the one source of funding you can do outside of the university if you want to.

Michael (00:25:39)
Yeah, the thing that really strikes me with crowdfunding is that you know, it’s, there’s so much potential in terms of creative approaches that researchers could take with this. And it’s really up to them. You know, they essentially make the rules as opposed to large funding bodies making the rules.
Where do you think it’s all going, Jonathan? You know, what’s the future of crowdfunding?

Jonathan (00:26:01)
I think, I think it will slowly spread out across universities in Australia. And then there will be like a tipping point where… Like universities are risk averse, but absolutely they want to be doing what every other university is doing. So to get to a point where people are going “Oh, why don’t we have a crowdfunding team ’cause all the other universities have one?”

Michael (00:26:26)

Jen (00:26:27)
Jonathan, so much good advice. I think we’ll have to ask you back for a third episode, but we’re really grateful to you. And just hats off to you again for actually managing to pursue a PhD while doing a huge number of other really wonderful things within the research community.
And I don’t know quite how you managed to fit it in on top of a pandemic as well, but it’s really exciting research. And I’m hoping there are people listening who are thinking yeah, actually I reckon I could give that a go.
Because I think there’s a lot to be gained from as you say, reaching out and connecting with people and to share the research that you do. And your passion can get you a long way I think, in terms of crowdfunding.

Jonathan (00:27:02)
Passion goes in an enormous way in this space.

Michael (00:27:05)
Yeah yeah, big thank you for me to Jonathan. Your insights here are really valuable and I think it’s going to give people lots to think about. So, much appreciated.

Jonathan (00:27:16)
Terrific, happy to help.

Jen (00:27:19)
We’ll see you next time Jonathan. Thank you.

Jonathan (00:27:21)
Ok. See you later.

Michael (00:27:51)
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners for your support.
If you are enjoying these episodes, you can help spread the word by telling a friend about Let’s Talk SciComm or even sharing one of our episodes.
But that’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your feed next Tuesday. See you then.