Aug 21, 2012

Kickstarter isn’t a magical money machine

Homicide Watch is an amazing example of using technology and social media to transform local news. It deserves to be funded, and I am a backer. However, Kickstarter isn’t the appropriate venue for funding Homicide Watch.

Homicide Watch is a very worthwhile project that deserves support. It was created by Laura and Chris Amico, with the goal of tracking every homicide in Washington, D.C. The site tracks victim, each investigation, each arrest, and each trial. It provides a detailed look at each murder, providing coverage sorely lacking in the traditional local media. Homicide Watch provides an invaluable service to our city. Unfortunately, the site may have to shut down. Laura is headed to Harvard for a fellowship, and a deal to sell Homicide Watch to a local media outlet fell through.

In an effort to keep Homicide Watch going, the Amicos have turned to Kickstarter. The money raised on Kickstarter would be used to hire paid interns to operate the site while also learning about crime reporting. The project’s goal is set at $40,000 and as of today has raised about $14,000.

There’s been a lot of buzz around the journosphere about this project, but I have a feeling Homicide Watch may not reach their funding goal. If they fail, it will be because this is simply not a good Kickstarter project.

I love Kickstarter, and have seen several of my good friends transform their lives by getting their projects funded. It’s a wonderful tool to give someone the resources to build something. But, Kickstarter depends on offering backers something tangible, while also being transparent about where the money will go.

Homicide Watch is a poor Kickstarter project because it doesn’t offer backers tangible rewards and it is not transparent. How did they arrive at the $40,000 goal? In the explanation of how they money will be used they say:

The money we raise will go to pay student interns. We want to make sure they can dedicate time to working on the site, so it’s important to be able to compensate them for their effort. We’re hoping to hire five students over the course of the next year, and we’ll oversee them from Cambridge and train them on how to use the site.

How much will they pay? As a backer, that’s something I want to know. What about overhead? Does $40,000 guarantee the site will exist for a year and hire and pay the interns well? The premise of Kickstarter hinges on the promise of project creators that, if their goal is hit, the project will be completed as described and rewards delivered. 

Looking at the rewards, we can see why this project doesn’t fit with the Kickstarter model. The rewards are not tangible results of the project being successfully funded. The entry level reward provides no tangible product. The $20 reward provides an ebook of the site’s 2011 year in review, which of course does not depend on whether the site gets funding for the next year. Travelling to Boston to have lunch with Ms. Amico is also not a result of the project being funded. The reason these rewards seem awkward or forced is because they are. It is a result of trying to shoehorn something into Kickstarter that the funding platform was not designed to accommodate.

Kickstarter has become to many some sort of magical money delivery device. It’s become in too many cases a “fund the operations of our business” or “fund my lifestyle” donation service rather than a way to create something that couldn’t have been done otherwise. In fact, in Kickstarter’s project guidelines, they say:

1. Funding for projects only.

A project has a clear goal, like making an album, a book, or a work of art. A project will eventually be completed, and something will be produced by it. A project is not open-ended. Starting a business, for example, does not qualify as a project.

For a project like Homicide Watch, the “hit the goal or die” model doesn’t seem right. I imagine there are ways Homicide Watch could operate with less than the $40,000 goal, though I am not sure because they didn’t outline why that is their goal. But, it seems, it would be better for them to have the $14,000 they’ve raised so far no matter what.

I know people can contribute and not be out anything if the goal isn’t reached. But, that’s the problem. Homicide Watch should get the money now. It doesn’t need to be dependent on whether they reach an arbitrary goal. Their creation already exists and is worth funding. We need to keep it going. I would almost guarantee that every person who has pledged to the project thus far would be more than willing to sign up for a monthly subscription to the site.

I’ve backed the project, and I hope they hit their goal, simply so they can continue to operate. But, if they don’t hit the goal, I hope they realize it’s not necessarily because people did not want to pay for Homicide Watch. Instead, it may be because Kickstarter was not the right place to find the money.

He had already learned there was only one day at a time and that it was always the day you were in. It would be today until it was tonight and tomorrow would be today again.

Hi, I'm Dave Stroup. I write and take photos in Washington, D.C. You can call me an organizer, but of people and not things. I'm on Twitter and Flickr. Here's a small bio. You can view my resume on LinkedIn. Questions? Ask me. I can also be reached via electronic mail. You can subscribe via RSS.