Welcoming Kickstarter into the Clubhouse

While it can and should never replace the deep patronage necessary for shalom, online crowdfunding can have a valuable place in positive culture-building.

Appears in Winter 2013 Issue: Patronage: Why We All Need to Invest in Culture
December 1 st 2013

Below is a Comment Winter 2013 sample article.
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Every year in early spring, the best golfers in the world descend on Augusta, Georgia for the Masters Tournament, one of the more storied traditions in all of sports. The Masters—and the Augusta National Golf Club that hosts it—has gone out of its way, at times controversially, to set itself apart. Membership continues on an invitation-only basis, even if the parameters of its membership have loosened over the years.

Official Masters memorabilia is only available in Augusta, and only during the tournament. The club does not disclose much of anything, and its secrets—down to its pimento cheese recipe—are closely guarded. The entire Masters experience—symbolized in the public imagination by iconic green jacket—is predicated, from top to bottom, on exclusivity.

Of course, it's also true that an estimated quarter of a million "patrons" attend the tournament annually. Not fans, mind you: patrons. In a lighthearted piece that appeared several years ago, Sports Illustrated staff writer Seth Davis writes, "We are told, annually and often, that the people who come to Augusta are not your normal, rowdy, beery golf fans. Heck, they're not even fans. They are patrons. Or so we're told." Davis goes on to spell out the differences between patrons and fans, including their imbibing practices: "The patron drinks when he comes to the course. The fan starts drinking at the airport." Davis concedes that at the Masters there are indeed patrons in the true golf sense of the word—those who wear golf spikes, sip sophisticated beverages, and "tie their pullovers around their shoulders." But there are also a fair share of fans in the "normal, rowdy, beery" sense who wear sandals "or shoes that have holes in them so their toes are sticking out," who buy multiple beers at a time (in souvenir Masters cups!), and who tie their pullovers not around their shoulders, mind you, but around their waists, in a manner befitting the unfashionable commoners that they are.

What Counts as Patronage?

In this sense, Davis's distinction is less between a fan and patron as between two very different types of patronage. While patronage has traditionally carried unmistakable connotations of privilege, it has also entailed a set of responsibilities that vary according to the type of patronage at hand. A patron of the arts is understood to have different privileges and responsibilities than does a patron of a local small business, for example. One engaged in political patronage, for that matter, might be regarded with considerable scorn, while the patron of a worthwhile charitable cause will likely earn the reputation of a compassionate public figure.

But despite these varying connotations and roles, patrons have historically been understood to be people tasked with the job of curating and adjudicating between potentially worthy objects of their patronage. A patron makes the conscious choice to support this artist instead of another, or to fund this hospital in the neighbourhood rather than that museum across town. These decisions have definite culture-making consequences. Indeed, though we seldom stop to acknowledge it, the world we inhabit has been indelibly shaped, for better and for worse, by the curating of patrons down through the generations.

The old models of patronage—soliciting checks with several zeroes at wine and cheese parties—are still with us, but new kinds of patronage are springing up more than ever before. These new forms of patronage are represented most poignantly by the phenomenon of online crowdfunding platforms.

Take the online lending platform, Kiva. Using Kiva, one can now contribute to the business dream of an impoverished widow on the other side of the world. In return, the donor gets updates on the intrepid entrepreneur's progress. Similarly, one can donate to a political campaign using a platform like Rally, or by texting a number that appears on a screen. The donor might receive a stack of bumper stickers or a t-shirt in exchange. Or one might use the world's most popular crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, to pledge $25 to fund a musical artist in exchange for a download of an album before it's officially released.

Platforms like Kickstarter proudly draw upon the language of patronage, hearkening back to the golden days of yore. On its website, Kickstarter asserts that "Mozart, Beethoven, Whitman, Twain, and other artists funded works in similar ways—not just with help from large patrons, but by soliciting money from smaller patrons, often called subscribers." These patrons would often receive perks, they go on to explain, just like Kickstarter supporters do today. Kickstarter extends the invitation to participate in the "extension" of traditional patronage, "turbocharged by the web."

Though Kickstarter was not the first crowdfunding platform of its kind—Indiegogo, for its part, preceded it by two years—it has certainly become the most successful. Kickstarter recently announced that, to date, five million backers used the platform to fund over 50,000 projects, delivering over $700 million into the hands of creators. But can Kickstarter truly bear the weight of patronage? Can Kickstarter supporters be considered, in any real sense, patrons? Put another way, if we were to take a busload of Kickstarter "patrons" to Augusta, how might they behave?

What Kickstarter Is

To the extent that project backers are in fact patrons, Kickstarter could be said to represent the democratization of patronage. No longer the domain of the elite, patronage is now open to pop culture. Indeed, the New York Times dubbed Kickstarter a new version of the National Endowment for the Arts—but for the little people. Collectively, ordinary people now have the power to decide which creative projects get funded. With that power, however, comes a new set of opportunities, challenges, temptations, and responsibilities, each of which bears careful, sober consideration.

Kickstarter has a set of carefully instituted principles underpinning it. For example, nonprofits can't use it to supplement their fundraising efforts. Kickstarter requires creators and backers alike to recognize that the platform is about a value exchange, not one-way giving. Additionally, Kickstarter limits creators to posting clearly defined projects (and creative projects, specifically) rather than more open-ended petitions. If you're looking for someone to fund your career or to provide venture capital for your company, you'll have to look elsewhere, in companies like CircleUp.com, Crowdfunder.com, or fund4learning.com.

What's more, creators must decide on a funding goal and a finish line. If the goal isn't met by the specified end date, the project is sunk. Set the goal too low and you can only accomplish so much. Set the goal too high and you risk accomplishing nothing at all. Indeed, less than half of all projects succeed in reaching their targets.

Once a project is approved by the Kickstarter team, it's mostly a matter of survival of the fittest. Though Kickstarter claims it never curates projects, it certainly plays an active role in which ones rise to the top and which ones languish. The lucky few that are chosen for inclusion in Kickstarter's weekly newsletter understandably fare better, on the whole, than the vast majority that get the snub. Kickstarter has also designated an elite assortment of curators to join them, including the Sundance Film Festival Institute and TED Fellows.

Still, questions remain about the real value of Kickstarter. And these questions open crowdfunding, as a concept, to further scrutiny. One recent Kickstarter project was created to fund a fictionalized anthology of nothing other than failed Kickstarter campaigns. Titled HELP FUND MY ROBOT ARMY!!! & Other Improbable Kickstarters, the project's description read, "The anthology will contain 25 or more science fiction/fantasy stories in Kickstarter form; that is, the stories will be told in the form of a fictional Kickstarter project pitch, using the components (and restrictions) of the format to tell the story." Unlike the projects said anthology is set to portray, this project was successful—its 557 backers pledged over $5000 in excess of the project's $6,000 goal. This despite the fact that the anthology will serve no real purpose other than providing a cynical, snarky commentary on the very platform that made it possible.

Evaluating Kickstarter's Claims

A microcosm of the economic system of which it is part, Kickstarter supplies what the market demands. Unfortunately, the market doesn't always demand what the world needs.

This raises an important question about one of Kickstarter's central claims: that it exists to "bring creative projects to life." This claim is based on the belief that "creative projects make for a better world."

But do they? The notion that "creative projects make for a better world" is not a spiritually or eschatologically neutral claim. It is certainly true that creativity might make the world a better place. Many people, whether in gratitude to their Maker or oblivious to his grace, exercise their creative calling in beautiful ways. But we're all prone to corruption, and our creations can easily become instruments for unholy ends, dishonouring God and degrading neighbour.

The question is: Whose vision of a "better world" will be realized? No one expects crowdfunding to usher in the new heavens and the new earth, but can Kickstarter projects collectively even point in the direction of any cohesive future? One might suggest that, as creators compete in the marketplace of ideas without a shared vision of the future, a fragmented world rather than a better one is a more likely outcome.

For Christians, our vision is shalom—comprehensive human flourishing—made possible by the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again. We see it now in glimpses, but we trust that one day we will experience it in full. Is it possible for such a cohesive vision, to be embodied in Kickstarter? I have my doubts.

Of course, Kickstarter patrons do get to choose which projects to support; no one is forced to support objectionable (or boring) projects. I have personally contributed to three Kickstarter projects: a documentary, a worship album, and—believe it or not—a mission trip. In all, my Kickstarter patronage has amounted to $200. Kickstarter has allowed me to support meaningful projects created by people I know and trust. There is no question this platform does in fact deliver in that regard.

But patronage also assumes a community dedicated to a particular vision. Is Kickstarter capable of developing such a community? Well, it claims to foster a "vibrant ecosystem." In other words, Kickstarter presents itself in fundamentally communal and relational terms. At first glance, this appears to be true. On any given project, a creator invites his friends and family to support his dream, and many of these friends and family members are happy to do it.

What is more likely is that Kickstarter simply reinforces already existing communities, most of which are formed less around patronage and more around blood or friendship ties. The majority of Kickstarter campaigns are promoted first and foremost through social media. However, as we all know, Facebook and Twitter are hardly limited to relatives and actual friends. The ideal is that a creator uses these social media channels to broadcast her pleas, not simply to her immediate circle, but to a range of acquaintances and total strangers without the prerequisites of actual friendship.

Research from Ethan Mollick at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania suggests some patterns that contribute to the success of a Kickstarter project. Unsurprisingly, the larger the goal size, the less likely a project is to succeed. Projects that Kickstarter features on its homepage and in its newsletter fare much better than average, while projects with elongated fundraising durations suffer, presumably because of a perceived lack of confidence on the part of the creator. Additionally, the larger a creator's social media network, the higher the chance of success. But while project pleas are broadcasted near and far, friends and family actually do end up contributing the bulk of donations, because they truly believe in the world-shaping power of the project, or else because they simply want to get the creator off their backs.

Nonetheless, even if the level of support extends beyond friends and family, these dynamics serve to make the patron's responsibility to curate and adjudicate with care within a community next to impossible. The beauty of social media is its effectiveness at maintaining hundreds or even thousands of connections with people down the street and around the world. The downside of this, of course, is that those ties are in large part quite weak ones.

In fact, a third claim Kickstarter makes might exacerbate the weakness of those ties. Why? Because Kickstarter proudly claims that it makes patronage quick and easy. Indeed, anyone who has backed a project on the platform knows what a fast, hassle-free experience it can be. And when contributions start at less than the price of a meal, we can participate without counting the cost.

This revolutionary ease of use is certainly part of what Kickstarter has in mind when it claims it has "turbocharged" patronage of old. In automotive terms, a turbocharged engine is a good thing for power and efficiency, but it is less than helpful for careful, deliberate movements, such as on icy roads. Technologically speaking, being turbocharged is not necessarily always a virtue.

Undoubtedly, removing friction in online transactions is the mantra of e-commerce, and rightly so. This is usually best for customer and company alike. But there's no way around friction when you're cultivating relationships of trust, something this particular web platform is purporting to do. The life that Jesus calls his people to is not without its burdens. Jesus was not looking for the largest crowds to attend his teaching events. He was looking for disciples willing to take up their cross and follow him. He was in search of a people who would walk with him through the complexities and hardships of life together. Friction causes us to think twice. It forces us to count the cost.

When friction is removed, intentionality, commitment, and partnership go with it. For web platforms, inefficiency is not a virtue—after all, who isn't grateful for Amazon's patented "1-click" technique? But when it comes to relationships, and especially a relationship of patronage, shouldn't a different set of rules apply? Kickstarter's mantra is that it makes fundraising—indeed, patronage—easy.

But a significant part of simplifying the process is inevitably the elimination of the need to think deeply about what we choose to support, and what that support means for the world. Indeed, in a one-click world, thinking is quite often a barrier to acting, and acting is ultimately what Kickstarter aims to get us to do. For better or worse, many of us end up acting on a Kickstarter plea largely on the basis of emotion—to appease the guilt that would result from not supporting a friend's dream, or simply to feel good about "making a difference in the world."

Patronage requires some measure of thoughtfulness, due diligence, and accountability. Kickstarter's ease of use—while undoubtedly the mark of a good e-commerce platform—diminishes its potential as a true platform for patronage.

What is lost when our understanding of patronage is reduced to that which can be accomplished with a single click? Patronage necessarily entails both risk and reward, but for the backer of a typical Kickstarter project, there's ultimately not a lot of either, at least in concrete terms.

A final consideration is that Kickstarter is, as is obvious, a business. As time goes on, it will face the usual market pressures to grow its fundraising and its commissions. This pressure, though understandable, will sooner or later conflict with Kickstarter's stated values. There are signs of this occurring already. The market pressure to grow and deliver a return for its investors may erode the whole idea of patronage and community that Kickstarter so prizes, and the company could devolve into just another business without any of its youthful idealism. The tides of utilitarianism are creeping in, as celebrities find success using Kickstarter as something akin to PayPal.

None of this is meant to indicate that Kickstarter is entirely a bad thing, or that Christians should avoid it. On the contrary, this is an exercise in considering Kickstarter's claims as a way of ensuring we're not asking an online crowdfunding platform to do what it simply can't.

Kickstarter might best be viewed as the entry point for a younger generation of patrons. It gives them a taste of patronage with a very low commitment threshold, and when this happens, it's a good thing. But it is only a starting point. These pop patrons must eventually mature, assuming all the risks and responsibilities of patronage, and in turn its rewards.

Likewise, Kickstarter can also serve as a wonderful learning tool for elite patrons to see what is happening outside their walled gardens and carefully vetted social circles. It is often the case that elite patrons stop learning when their environment becomes homogenous and opportunities are filtered through inflexible social and political filters. The air is thinner at the top, but the brain needs oxygen to make good decisions.

Deep Patronage

Let's return to Augusta, where our boisterous busload of Kickstarter patrons has settled in, much to the chagrin of the club's 300-some members who incidentally still refuse to share that elusive pimento cheese recipe. One thing is clear: these pop patrons don't behave quite like the gatekeepers do, and this makes some of the elite old guard very uncomfortable. For better or worse, however, they share this tournament.

Pop patrons and their elite counterparts may never see eye to eye on everything, but if there's one place where they can stand on common ground, it's at the clubhouse, the nineteenth hole. Though they tie their pullovers differently and order different drinks, around a shared table they actually stand a chance of getting to know each other.

Our world needs common places where shared learning and innovation among different kinds of patrons can occur. Pop patrons need to learn from the time-tested wisdom of elites, and elites could use a dose of the idealism of their younger counterparts. When this happens, deep patronage is possible.

Deep patronage is marked by four essential principles. First, it is marked by strategy, thoughtfulness, and discernment in decision-making processes. Deep patronage requires recognizing emotional biases for what they are, and ensuring that our choices are wise choices. Just because a friend has a dream doesn't mean it's a dream we are under any obligation to support. Our patronage decisions should be in line with the vision of shalom.

Second, deep patronage is marked by experiential engagement with the world—engagement that results in dirty hands. There is a kind of knowledge that can be distilled through theoretical research, but a deeper kind of knowledge is attainable through show and tell. We are physical beings, and we're only fully engaged as patrons when our bodies are involved.

Third, it leads to a personal area of expertise, developed over time, that aligns closely with one's passions and deeply held convictions. Those with expertise are able to mentor and support others, multiplying the possibilities for culture-making. Without this depth, would-be patrons are left simply writing a check, rather than truly undertaking a joint venture for the common good.

Finally, deep patronage requires relationships of trust between patron and creator that can withstand the rigours of transparency and accountability. We are each better off when we are supported by healthy relationships and partnerships. Deep patronage requires time, intentionality, and not least, presence. Online platforms and networks are at their best when they enhance actual face-to-face conversations and experiences. They lead us astray when they begin to replace relationships in the flesh. But embodied relationships are messy, and they entail hefty doses of the unexpected and the unpredictable. Because resources can be squandered or lost, such relationships are risky.

They are also, of course, infinitely more rewarding. Deep patrons therefore take a gamble for the chance to participate in the creation of something beautiful. Kickstarter can't take us all the way there, but it has some of the resources needed to get started.

 

Lukas Naugle is a Principal at Marketplace One, where he provides leadership to the One Institute and Changegoat, a creative communications company. Prior to this role, he produced video resources for theologically driven non-profits and authors. He received his degree in International Business from Whitworth University. He loves to humanely kill and dispose of the status quo.

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