Money & Banking

Wed, 23 May, 2018Danielle McCarthy

Crowdfunding: A worthy cause or a waste of money?

Crowdfunding: A worthy cause or a waste of money?

When Nicole Leybourne, 23, was in Tokyo on a modelling assignment last month, she saw a dog in the window of the pet shop close to her apartment and she fell in love.

Love does strange things to people, and so she went a bit mad. In the middle of the night, she lay awake thinking about ways to set the dog free. She spent solid time at the shop where he lived, watching and cooing at him, hurrying staff to fill up his water. One day she asked what would happen if he didn't get sold; they said you don't want to know.

Leybourne, an Aucklander who lives in Perth with her fiance, had it all planned out: She would raise the money she needed to buy the dog ("I didn't give him a name, because I didn't want to get too attached"), take him to Perth, and when she came home to New Zealand for a month each year, he would stay with her friends.

She took to the crowd funding site PledgeMe, with a picture of the sad little pooch and her appeal summed up with the heading Save This Dog's Life. She wanted $3500, she said, "to buy and take this dog on an aeroplane home with me".

"Every time I walk past his eyes look so sad and he looks bored out of his mind in his small glass box," she told possible pledgers.

It was a tall order. It's not hard to find a sad dog in the window of the town you live in, let alone asking people to help you buy one and travel internationally with it.

In an age where more people than ever are asking for money, Leybourne was up against some intense and varied competition on the numerous fundraising and campaign sites that have emerged in the past few years: help me get to the cheerleading champs, to the synchronised swimming champs, to the body building champs, to publish my book, to study ballet, clarinet, mathematics, to get married, to visit my lover, to buy a bike, to get to a beauty pageant, help, help, help! Help the Island Bay Grade C men's team get to the nationals in Taumarunui. Help my dog get cleft palate surgery. Help the Sweet Adelines get to Las Vegas.

There's no doubt such sites have helped save, change and improve lives, and some of the outcomes are real heart warmers. Givealittle is loaded with stories of sick people who have received help they wouldn't have been able to access otherwise, and Pledgeme has put muscle behind a heap of businesses with its project and equity campaigns. But what of the rest?

The campaigns that are so ridiculous, their very presence seems vaguely offensive? The ones that ask for things that in my day would have had me outside The Warehouse buttering cheap bread for a sausage sizzle, or picking up an extra shift at work?

A young guy meets someone he likes on an OE and now wants money to go and be with him back in Germany: "To do this I need help, flights aren't cheap and neither is surviving in a new country, but with a few months of work on my part and the help of much appreciated donations, I know that I can make it to go be with him." I have very little sympathy for this type of campaigner, but those who run the sites say I don't have to give him money – and they are right. I won't be.

It takes very little to start up a fundraiser on PledgeMe, or Givealittle. PledgeMe rules are that applicants "can't break the law or do anything too evil", says head of communications Jackson James Wood. Both sites like to let the crowd decide if the campaign is a goody, and more often than not the crowd decides that it is.

Wood says the success rate on PledgeMe is more than 50 per cent. Givealittle general manager Lynne Le Gros doesn't know the numbers, but "the norm for many is to over-exceed their goal". After three weeks, the guy who wants to reunite with his German lover has raised $4, so that says it all, really.

When a Juliette Hogan dress I had spent months stalking online was reduced from $1200, I put a picture of it on my Facebook page and asked in jest if anyone hada spare eight-hundy to hook me up. "Start a crowd funder! I'll chuck 10 bucks at ya!" wrote a friend.

I could never. Mostly because I would feel out of place next to more worthy causes than wanting an overpriced dress, and also, truth be told, I'd worry too much that my friends would think me cheap.

"If you want a dress and your friends like you enough and the rewards are good enough, who are we to decide whether you getting it is a good idea?" says Wood. "It all comes down to whether you have a crowd and if you sell it well enough."

If nothing else, it could be a way to test your mates. Nicole Leybourne doesn't have a Facebook page, so she was off to a bad start when she launched her ambitious save the dog campaign. She wasn't too worried that people would think she was being a goof, because she already knew she was. "That this girl has fallen in love with this dog in Japan, I think it was ridiculous," she says with a laugh. "But I think there is so much that's bad in the world, sometimes it's nice when you see something a little bit quirky."

Christchurch high school student Rhianna Sutherland had an idea for PledgeMe that was about as quirky as you could get. The 17-year-old was sitting in her bedroom one night when she decided to do something "completely random". She looked at her cactuses and thought she wouldn't mind some more. She started a PledgeMe fundraiser called My Mini Cacti Need Friends.

"I was just doing it for the lols," she says.

Sutherland was inspired by Zak Brown, the guy who launched a campaign through a kick-starter site in America, asking for $10 to make potato salad. He raised more than $50,000. Sutherland's target was $7 and she made $10. Success.

There's something to be said for random fundraisers, created purely for the lols. They don't have that whiff of scrounging about them. Maybe that's why the potato salad guy did so well. Ian Crouch, a writer for the New Yorker, says Brown's was a freak case of winning the internet lottery. While the potato salad guy was getting inundated with questions about how he was going to put the funds to good use, Crouch argued he should do whatever he wanted with it. Not every moment has to be an Oprah one.

Nicole Leybourne's dog is still in the shop, as far as she knows. A friend in Japan keeps her updated with pictures of it sitting in the same sad little spot. Through PledgeMe she raised $30 of the $3500. "I was really gutted. Like, I thought maybe people would feel sorry for this dog. He would have had a nice little life," she says. "But it's not to be."

Have you tried crowdfunding?

Written by Aimie Cronin. Republished with permission of