HotSpot 3 – Donald Trump and Dollar Bills: Crowdfunding for the Masses

(See also the series overview for this Hotspot on civic crowdfunding.)

Liana Gamber Thompson

“People in tech and some Brooklyn hipsters know about crowdfunding, but it hasn’t been brought to the masses yet,” said Bill Zanker last week in Fortune. “This is a very big idea — like eBay or online dating — and we’re just in the beginning stages.”

Zanker, founder of the continuing adult education school and celebrity seminar-heavy, The Learning Annex, recently started a new crowdfunding venture called FundAnything, and he’s teamed up with Donald Trump to promote it.

On May 8, the two partners staged a FundAnything promotional event at Trump Tower in New York City that included Trump giving away suitcases of money to three lucky individuals, writing checks to a handful of onlookers, and allowing the crowd in the lobby to grab armfuls of bills out of a cash-filled aquarium. And, of course, no promotional event would be complete without sexy girls in FundAnything tank tops and Trump’s face plastered on just about everything, namely a sea of banners and posters with the accompanying slogan, “I’m Giving Away Money.”

The scene was interpreted by many as tacky, even vulgar. Buzzfeed titled their account of the event, “Donald Trump Starts Trashy Version of Kickstarter, Gives Wads of Cash to Strangers.” Gawker had a similar take with an article titled, “Grovelling for Dollars: A Journey to the Pit of Hell with Donald Trump.” And I must admit that I was among those who found the images of Trump throwing checks and cash into a crowd of “average Joes,” many of whom were people of color, more than a little off-putting.

If we look beyond the spectacle of the promotion, though, and examine FundAnything’s business model, it’s not about Trump giving money away to strangers at all (okay, maybe just a little, since he’s slated to occasionally give money to projects he likes and then tweet about them). But by and large, FundAnything works just like other popular crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or indiegogo.

Ostensibly, one can raise money for just about anything on FundAnything (and a name is born!), from new business ventures to medical procedures for pets, barring that projects do not contain “offensive or objectionable” content. This model is similar to how indiegogo works, while Kickstarter requires funding campaigns be centered around projects (a game, a film, an album) instead of charitable causes or personal needs. All that freedom comes at a price, though; while Kickstarter takes a flat 5% cut of funds raised, FundAnything takes 9%, giving back 4% only to successful campaigns (indiegogo also takes 9% and gives back 5% to those who reach their funding goals).

However, Kickstarter is certainly not without its detractors. In recent months, Kickstarter has spurred criticism that it is straying too far from its initial intent of connecting small-time producers to modest funding sources—the first Kickstarter campaign back in 2009, called Drawing for Dollars, sought to raise just $35 for self-professed guy who “likes to draw,” LJ Ruell. Critics suggest that Kickstarter is now more of a mode for already big stars like Amanda Palmer, Rob Thomas (the screenwriter, not the Matchbox Twenty singer), and Zach Braff to connect to their fans, cutting out industry middlemen.

Palmer gained notoriety in early 2012 after successfully raising over a million dollars to fund her new solo album and supporting tour (only to go on to raise the ire of both fans and critics when she solicited unpaid volunteer musicians for said tour). More recently, Thomas raised well over $5 million to produce a movie version of fan favorite Veronica Mars, and Braff over $2 million to produce Wish I Was Here, the follow up to his successful 2004 twee-fest, Garden State.

While these cases all have positive implications for fan agency and power, there are potential drawbacks, too. As fan scholar Suzanne Scott said in a recent conversation with Henry Jenkins about the Veronica Mars campaign, “I just worry that fans’ legacy as creators in their own right will once again be obscured in favor of celebrating industrially sanctioned modes of fan engagement.” Moreover, already successful artists raking in huge sums for pet projects seems a far cry from the kind of crowdfunding for the masses that Zanker describes when he waxes poetic on the potential of FundAnything.

To be clear, I don’t have much faith that FundAnything will end up radically democratizing crowdfunding, but it does raise some interesting questions about who uses crowdfunding and why. Do we need crowdfunding for the masses? Does such a venture open the door to a sea of hair-brained schemes and potentially dangerous scams? Does giving widespread knowledge of crowdfunding and its associated fundraising skills to anyone and everyone devalue it somehow or place undue pressure on producers to establish authenticity?

Implicit in Zanker’s observation that only Brooklyn hipsters and Silicon Valley nerds know about crowdfunding is the notion that there are any number of populations out there who could benefit from this type of what, on the surface at least, seems like easy money. Niche crowdfunding sites like the newly-launched and even micro-lending sites like Kiva or Zidisha have slowly been chipping away at this problem for a few years, but maybe crowdfunding doesn’t need to be democratized so much as it needs a massive publicity overhaul, especially when sites like FundAnything and indiegogo offer (relatively) anything goes models for their fundraisers.

In the case of FundAnything, Zanker has decided that the best way to garner such publicity is by invoking the Trump brand. While I remain dubious about this decision and about FundAnything in general, I do think Zanker’s idea of bringing crowdfunding to the masses is a good one on the whole. Because despite the scams and schemes, don’t we want the people who are struggling the most to know more about this option? Maybe it’s time crowdfunding escapes the confines of Silicon Valley, of the business world, of fandom even. I want to see those faces in the crowd at Trump Tower successfully build campaigns of their own because at the end of the day, solid fundraising skills will go a lot further than a few measly fistfuls of cash.

<< back to the series overview for this Hotspot on civic crowdfunding