Skip to Main

May 05, 2014

ASU crowd-funding strategy takes off

By Lesley Wright |

Chris Diehnelt had three minutes to look into the camera, describe the frightening spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, showcase his molecules and make his pitch.

Diehnelt spends most of his time holed up in laboratories and classrooms, so potentially appearing in front of millions of people on video made him nervous.

But if the assistant research professor at the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute Center for Innovations in Medicine wanted to raise $5,000 to help fund his work, he had to tell his story.

He set up his home video camera in the lab and did a few takes.

It worked. Within a month, his fundraising campaign surpassed his original goal and collected nearly $6,600.

Diehnelt’s was one of 13 projects that campaigned on ASU’s crowd-funding website,, over the past year. Based on early successes, officials at the ASU Foundation launched a program in March called PitchFunder to help faculty and students navigate this latest trend in fundraising.

The premise is simple. Individuals and organizations that want to raise money for a project put an appeal for funds on an online platform. Project leaders use ­e-mail and social media to direct people to the site. With the widespread exposure made possible by the Internet, even small donations can generate a large total because so many people give.

In a time of tight dollars for research, crowd-funding is finding a home in academia. Faculty and students who want to try it need commitment, a passion strong enough to reach the wider community and a bit of panache for the camera.

"It’s a little awkward at first," Diehnelt said. "It took me a little while to figure out how to put it together."

Diehnelt will use the money raised online to generate data for a competitive grant request to the National Institutes of Health. If successful, his work could help resolve a fast-growing menace to modern health — a strain of bacteria called MRSA that does not respond to traditional antibiotics.

Universities recently discovered the benefits of crowd-funding. In the past few years, politicians, entrepreneurs, non-profits and even movie stars started using platforms such as Kickstarter to raise money by tapping a large number of small donors. Last year, New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business estimated that crowd-funding raised more than $5.1 billion globally for various projects and needs, an 89 percent increase from 2012.

Temple University in Philadelphia, the University of Utah and other colleges also are building crowd-funding portals and platforms, said Anindya Ghose, IT and marketing professor at NYU’s Stern business school.

"The use of crowd-funding by universities as a new fund source to the world of academic research and technology commercialization is definitely here to stay," he said.

Filmaker Rob Thomas gave credence to crowd-funding last year when he raised more than $5.7 million from 91,000 donors for "The Veronica Mars Movie Project." But professors who expect to raise major funds with a few tweets and Facebook posts learn quickly that crowd-funding isn’t that easy.

Tiffany Antor, an assistant director of the ASU Foundation, brings them down to earth. "Veronica Mars had a following of millions of people," Antor said. "Most people don’t operate in that kind of exposure scale."

Those without that kind of following can drive potential donors to ASU’s website, now managed through the university’s PitchFunder program. It operates through USEED, a platform designed for universities, and the foundation picks up related costs.

Each online crowd-funding campaign runs for 30 days, but team leaders spend three to four months in pre-launch training with student account managers. PitchFunder experts describe the bare elements needed: a core group of advocates with a communication strategy and a compelling story to tell on video.

Once the campaign begins, the advocates reach out to networks of friends, family and acquaintances through e-mail. Friends and family members can help spread the word, but the team members must send many e-mails multiple times.

"We teach them how to market their event," Antor said. "Money is the result."

ASU pitches have raised nearly $50,000 for 13 projects.

Explaining the essence of a project to the public can also help researchers and academics learn how to connect with lay people and consider the real impact of their work. "It makes you take a step back to make sure what you’re doing is relevant," Diehnelt said.

High energy is critical, especially if crowd-funders want to reach younger generations, experts said. Successful projects are quick, targeted and urgent — all virtues that appeal to Millennials, the generation of young adults who are in their teens to early 30s.

The Indiana-based consultant firm Johnson, Grossnickle & Associates asked more than 6,000 young people about philanthropy for the 2012 Millennial Impact Report. About 75 percent of the Millennials said they had donated to causes, but their "biggest peeve" was not knowing how the fundraisers would spend the money. About 45 percent said they tended to give online to "what inspired them at the moment."

Having well-connected team members helps, as does passion for the project.

A group of social-science professors led one of the most successful crowd-funding efforts at ASU — the Forgiveness Tree Project. Donors surpassedthe $7,000 goal, giving more than $11,000 so a team could hold workshops to teach people how to forgive. Participants wrote messages of forgiveness on paper leaves and attached them to a paper tree.

Professor Vincent Waldron, who launched the project, said crowd-funding helped widen the Forgiveness Tree Project to more groups. "This is what appealed to us," Waldron said. "We are taking research and thinking about how this might be used in the community. Those are the kind of projects that appeal to folks."

Crowd-funding projects

• 33 Buckets,Clean Water Distribution in Bangladesh: $10,042.

• Send (Graphic) Design Students to Seattle: $9,335.

• Desert Tortoise Genome for Conservation: $1,720.

• BullyBlocker, Keep Your Child Safe from Cyberbullies on Facebook: $3,215.


Back to News