Crowdfunding for Public Health

Mar 13, 2014, 12:02 PM

With just seven days to go until the announced deadline for its first round of funding, the front runner to reach its goal on UCLA Spark—a new crowdfunding platform hosted by the university—is a public health initiative, the UCLA Sex Squad School Tour 2014. The Squad is a multimedia theatre troupe made up of University of California, Los Angeles students and graduates who talk to high school students about sex and sexual health.

Crowdfunding uses social media to encourage contributions from strangers for projects of all kinds. Sites such as Kickstarter have raised millions of dollars for multiple projects, including one by three U.S. State Department officials who raised enough capital to start their own dress sock business.

UCLA Spark’s projects are way loftier. The four other projects in the first round of funding on the site, which debuted last month, include a program to connect ninth-grade girls with technology, a bus to transport campus volunteers to community service projects, funds to help preserve the Watts Towers, (an iconic Los Angeles monument) and expansion of cancer treatment in Ethiopia.

Nancy Katano, Executive Director of Corporate Foundation and Research Relations at UCLA, says the idea for a crowdfunding platform at the university came about because two things converged: The university began getting faculty and student requests for help funding some very small niche projects—beyond the scope for most grants—and Katano began receiving calls from crowdfunding platforms looking to contract with the university. Katano says using an outside platform would have lost too much money for the projects since the platforms take a fee as well as a percentage of funds raised, so instead the university launched its own platform.

To become a UCLA Spark project, faculty and official student organizations propose projects for funding through an online application and a UCLA vetting committee makes the final decision.

“We’ve set up a whole series of guidelines and then we have a face-to-face meeting for applicants to help them think through how the platform can be effective for them—what’s realistic and what their responsibility is going to be,” said Katano. “With most crowdfunding platforms engagement is key. We ask them about their social media reach, do they use Twitter? Do they use Facebook? Are they comfortable shooting video?"

Katano said that with crowd sourcing there are many different criteria for which they need to be responsible. Jarrett Oakley, Assistant Director of UCLA Spark, credits the Sex Tour with following what’s needed to succeed at crowdfunding.

“All of the people involved had 100% commitment and followed most of our strategies to a T, and in that way, they were able to do certain things early on and often to be able to achieve their goal,” said Oakley. “Crowdfunding [takes] a significant amount of time and work commitment.”

Strategies stressed by Katano and Oakley include:

  • A marketing and outreach strategy across social media and distribution lists
  • Reaching out to core constituents and key stakeholders that would be supportive of you in your initiative directly

Oakley says a key benefit of crowdfunding for important initiatives beyond funding is the opportunity to use the platform as an outreach and engagement tool.

“These are passion projects that potentially would not have been seen otherwise, and so it’s a great microphone for extraordinary activities.” And for a smaller organization, it’s very cost effective, he added. “If you look at other types of engagement tools like direct mail as well as phone-a-thons, [those have] very, very expensive overhead and [are] high-investment, low-yield.”

Oakley also points out that through the outreach and engagement of a public health initiative, new partnerships that traditionally probably would not have happened could occur.

So far the Sex Squad has reached 76 percent of its funding goal of $10,000, far outpacing the other initial projects on the site. The next closest is the girls’ technology project, which has raised just over $1,000 toward its goal of $5,000. As the deadline for funding approaches, the projects that have not met their goals will meet with Oakley to discuss next steps—for example using the funds raised for a portion of the project, or extending the deadline.

>>Bonus Link: See a power point presentation on public health crowdfunding from the 2013 annual meeting of the Oregon Public Health Association.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.