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When Kelli Space graduated from Northeastern University in 2009 with $200,000 of student loan debt, she panicked. Given that she had an entry-level office manager job that didn’t pay much, Space knew that it was going to be tough to pay back that debt on her own.
But instead of deferring her payments—or not paying them at all, like many grads end up doing—she started a crowdfund, which is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising small amounts of money from a vast pool of people online.
“In total, I received $13,000 from strangers around the world,” she says. And although that amount only made a small dent toward paying off her debt, it had a big impact on her career trajectory—the experience inspired Space and three friends to start Zero Bound, a company that helps students and graduates crowdfund their own student loan debt in exchange for community volunteering.
Space has not one but two lofty goals with Zero Bound. “We hope to use the trend of crowdfunding to not only help a generation pay off their debt, but also increase volunteerism among an age bracket that actually volunteers the least,” she says. “And, to that end, I believe that crowdfunding can be a largely beneficial way to raise the funds to make that happen.”
Crowdfunding: It’s Viral—and Personal
Space isn’t alone in her thinking. Since 2011, crowdfunding efforts have more than tripled, and current campaigns are projected to raise more than $5.1 billion worldwide in 2013.
But what started out as a way to enable businesses and individuals to raise money for creative endeavors without relying on such traditional financing sources as banks—take the indie Veronica Mars Movie Project, which raised over $5 million on Kickstarter in just 30 days—has morphed into a means for literally anyone to ask for money—for literally anything.
“Crowdfunding is definitely branching out into multiple areas, including personal causes,” says Ellen Sperling, co- founder of crowdfunding site YouveGotFunds.com. And, by personal, we’re talking about everything from surgeries to honeymoons. Why, you ask? “It’s partly because the costs for many of these regular items have skyrocketed,” she says. “Medical fees are through the roof, and even if you have health insurance, they don’t always cover certain medications and procedures, like fertility treatments.”
The same applies to financing higher education. “Why would college students want to graduate owing $150,000-plus in loans,” Sperling says, “if they have family, friends, and possibly community members who can help, enabling them to start their careers in a better place?”
Brad Wyman, Chief Creative Officer of FundAnything.com, calls this new trend of personal crowdfunding a “virtual barn raising.” It’s the online version of your own community rallying around you to support you when you need it the most.
Take James and Adena Reimer, a Canadian couple who started a campaign on FundAnything.com when James, who’d been battling cystic fibrosis and bromchiolitis obliterans, needed a second lung transplant. They were hoping to raise $10,000 to “pay for medical bills that weren’t being covered by my home province,” says James, 29. “We also had other expenses, like plane tickets to fly my mom out to help, and emergency taxi trips to the hospital.”
They ended up raising a whopping $43,000—and were overcome with the outpouring of support. “If it wasn’t for crowdfunding, we’d probably have to take out a loan or beg family members,” says James. “It was a huge blessing!”
Couples are also turning to crowdfunding to help make their dreams of having kids come true. Nate and Christy Kujawa of Spokane, Washington, had been trying to get pregnant for about four years with no success. After multiple doctor visits, Christy received a devastating double diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis and Crohn’s disease—and then Nate learned that he had multiple sclerosis. Physicians told them that they had a 2% chance of conceiving naturally, but a 95% chance with IVF.
The only problem? It’s an expensive solution.
So they turned to the Internet. “I got the idea from a client of mine,” says Christy, 31. “We were talking about how expensive [IVF] was, and she suggested I [start a crowdfund]. I actually knew a few people who had done funding for cancer treatment, and to help replace things due to a house fire, but no one specifically for IVF.” To date, the Kujawas have already raised one quarter of their $12,000 goal—and they say that the response has been overwhelming.
A Hand Up or a Handout?
Most people cringe at the thought of asking for financial support, and tend to proceed with caution when asking friends or family for money—even for worthy causes. So what makes doing it online so much more acceptable?
“It’s a lot less uncomfortable to ask someone to check out your campaign than to put your hand out,” says Wyman. “And for life events, such as a wedding, look at it this way: It’s similar to registering for gifts at a store, except now the couple can ‘register’ for something that’s more meaningful than china. And unlike just giving cash, guests know that their contributions are going toward a couple’s real goal.”
According to Sperling, crowdfunding isn’t just benefiting those raising the funds, either—it’s giving everyone a chance to give back. “Sometimes people just want to help others,” she says. “It’s a strong emotion that drives the crowdfunding industry as a whole.”
Crowdfunding 101: A Primer for Success
Before you jump on a crowdfunding bandwagon yourself, Wyman says that there are a few things you should know when it comes to creating a good campaign:
1. Set a Realistic Financial Goal: If potential contributors don’t think that you’ll be able to reach your goal, they’ll think twice about contributing to your campaign.
2. Craft a Smart Elevator Pitch: You should be able to explain your cause in two to three concise sentences. And before you share that pitch with potential donors, practice it on your friends and family.
3. Be Your Best Marketing Team: Tell everyone you know that you’ve launched a campaign, and invite them to visit. And be sure to consistently update the campaign, so there’s a reason for people to keep on visiting your site.
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