By NASA MARIA ENTABAN
LAST August, London-based professional dancer Samantha Tan discovered she had been accepted to a prestigious acting school in New York City. However, her joy instantly turned to anxiety when she realised she couldn’t afford to make the trip, let alone complete the three-year course.
With only a month before her course was due to start, and having not heard back on her scholarship applications, she turned to the public for help – she started a crowd funding website.
Now crowd funding isn’t exactly a new concept. Musicians have been using the model for some time, asking for monetary contributions from fans of their music, for instance, to help pay for the recording of an album. Once the album’s done, they send a free copy to those who contributed, as sort of a “return” on their “investment”.
There are websites now, like ChipIn.com, RocketHub.com and WeFunder.com that make it easier for people to crowd fund. You sign up for an account, make a post on what you’re raising money for and what “returns” contributors will get, and your contributors can donate using PayPal or credit card.
The trend has really caught on recently with young Malaysians, some of whom are now finding other ways to apply the crowd-funding model – from raising money to attend an important environment conference, to indulging in personal hobbies.
In Tan’s case, it was the pursuit of a dream which would have been otherwise impossible, given the US$150,000 (RM472,700) she needed to prove she had for living expenses before her US student visa could be approved.
“No matter how much I saved up or worked it would not have been possible to get that money on my own even if I had 20 years, much less a month.”
In a matter of weeks, to Tan’s surprise, the crowd funding blog she set up raised US$105,000 (RM330,908), and now she has just completed her first year at the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, and her crowd funding website is still up and running.
The problem with crowd funding is that some people would tend to see it simply as digital age fundraising; especially with some crowd funders not sticking to the concept completely.
Content executive Syatirah Safran, for example, also needs to raise money, and fast. Her flight to Tokyo, Japan to pursue her Masters degree leaves this September, and she says she’ll need at least RM60,000 a year to survive in the metropolis.
Like Tan, Syatirah was also handed a rare opportunity when she was given a scholarship for her studies in Japan. But with hardly any savings and no other means to make money, she couldn’t afford to take up the opportunity because of the high living expenses in Tokyo.
That’s when she started “5 for a Friend”, her very own crowd funding initiative.
“The idea is that you’ll help out a friend in need, and it’s only RM5. Of course you can contribute more, but I’m only asking for five bucks,” says Syatirah, who has already collected RM3,000 in under a month. “The fund is not moving as fast as I hoped but some of my friends have been really generous and giving me a lot more.”
But here’s where Syatirah, and Tan, diverge from what is seen by many as an integral aspect of crowd funding – giving back.
Both Syatirah and Tan’s crowd funding initiatives are based purely on good will, given the unique circumstances they found themselves in where there really wasn’t much they could promise in return to contributors.
Tan explains: “The aim was mainly to gain exposure and hopefully attract interest from Malaysian corporations, bigwigs in entertainment or anyone who may want to invest in the training of an actor. I had no ‘rewards’ or financial returns I could promise in exchange, simply my word that I would make it worth their while and that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that no other Malaysian had before.”
But that hasn’t stopped the cynics chipping in with their two cents.
“I’ve received comments like ‘Why can’t she get a part time job’ and ‘Why can’t she take out a loan?’,” says Syatirah. “Yes, I do plan to get several part-time jobs when I get there, but to find my footing I’ll need some funds to help me start-up my life.
In any case, it’s not like Tan and Syatirah just set up a website and twiddled their thumbs while waiting on the kindness of others. According to them, they had exhausted all other possible means before turning to crowd funding.
Tan, who has received her fair share of backlash on her blog, says: “The main gripe of naysayers seemed to be this assumption that I was a lazy freeloader just waiting around for handouts, or that asking for help was somehow shameful and degrading since I gave no ‘rewards’.”
But Tan is no freeloader. She sold off some of her possessions and sold cakes via her food blog to raise the money.
Syatirah says asking for money outright was a last resort. She is also doing a lot of freelance work in her free time, and she recently held a fundraising event with free performances by singer Liyana Fizi, comedy sketch group Projek Disko Baldi, yo-yo enthusiast Ahmad Dimi and improv group AI:IA (Artificially Intelligent: Improvholics Anonymous).
There are also other Malaysians who have been applying the crowd funding model the good old fashioned way.
Adrian Yeo, 30, is currently working as the environment special assistant to YB Elizabeth Wong of the Selangor state government, and has just started his own crowd funding startup at pitchin.my.
The co-founder of Malaysian Youth Climate Justice Network (MYCJN) has been active in environment-related campaigns, and is currently appealing to the public for funding to attend “The Climate Reality Leadership Training with Al-Gore” in San Francisco, the United States, in August this year.
“This is my first time crowd funding through social media,” says Yeo, who needs to raise at least RM16,000 to cover accommodation, food expenses, his flight ticket, his visa and other miscellaneous costs.
“I’ve done car washing, newspaper collection, odds jobs and many other fundraising dinners and events.”
For Yeo, crowd funding can be about more than just raising money.
“Besides raising the funds required, I’m looking at engaging the audience with some climate change awareness. Through this strategy, I do hope that people, youths especially, will be able to pick up an interest on environment and how everyone of us can play a part in sustainable development and preserving the environment,” he adds.
Yeo plans to give back to his sponsors through several methods, which include sharing his experiences in talks on climate change at the sponsors’ premises, mentioning the sponsor during official presentations and incorporating the sponsor’s logo in future initiatives T-shirts, posters and so on.
Others like personal trainer and part-time model Kathy Chin (or KathTea Katastrophy to her fans), 20, who has a keen interest in corset modeling, use crowd funding to help support their own interests and hobbies; which is similar to what popular videogame face model Rana does, using a ChipIn account for fans to donate funds for her to attend conventions, and rewarding them by meeting them in person.
Chin has a PayPal donation button on her blog dedicated to expanding her modeling wardrobe, and she also has a ChipIn button dedicated to investing in a waist training corset set.
“I try to promote as much as I can on social networking sites like Facebook without becoming a complete spammer. It seems the best results come from just letting my fans know that this fundraising programme exists rather than shove it into their faces constantly!” she says.
To show her appreciation to donors, Chin gives incentives to those that donate a substantial amount: “Anyone donating $15 (RM47) to my Chip In will receive a high quality autographed print of me in the corset that they are helping me invest in!”
While Chin hasn’t received any negative feedback about her crowd funding (though some do object with the nature of her photographs), Yeo isn’t bothered by any potential backlash at all, and hopes to keep going until he collects sufficient funds before his departure in August.
“Begging is based on sympathy and donors get nothing in return, besides good feelings afterwards,” Yeo says. “This is pure capacity building and if you donate, you’ll get a reward, based on the amount of donation.”
Ask, and you shall receive
Through their fundraising efforts Tan, Chin, Yeo and Syatirah have learned one thing – there are generous people out there willing to help others out, and are happy to spread the word.
“I cannot tell you how unbelievably touched I still am with all the support I received. Even those that could not give money played such a huge and crucial role in spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter, or by composing long letters of support. It is incredible heartening to know that so many people believed in what I was doing,” says Tan.
Friends, family and even complete strangers who came upon Tan’s blog were happy to contribute.
“Someone stepped in to cover my flight to NYC, a friend in Brooklyn told me I could sleep on her couch when I first got there, and another stranger found my food blog and ordered £100 (RM493) worth of cake, kaya and curry puffs!”
Syatirah felt very moved by the contributions she has received from friends, and friends of friends.
“It just goes to show that people are nice, and the world is not as cynical and jaded as we think it is,” she opines. “In future I hope to keep this movement going, the whole idea of helping friends out, one small contribution at a time.”
Chin doesn’t keep track of the amount of donations she receives, but so far she has been sent outfits, shoes and other props amounting to hundreds of ringgit, and is grateful for the contributions.
These young people believe that crowd funding will work, as long as your intentions and goals are clearly stated.
Tan adds: “As long as there is complete honesty and transparency on your part. People have freedom of choice to decide for themselves whether to support you, and if your idea isn’t their cup of tea they are free to close the browser and move on.”