In the last couple of years, Scottish Gaelic language groups and organizations have started to use crowdfunding as a method of fundraising for language revitalization projects. Alternative methods are sometimes needed because in the English-dominant world there never seems to be enough public funding available for good Gaelic projects (to put it mildly!). My friend Dr. Andrew Gossen has had a foot in both worlds, Gaelic revitalization and crowdfunding, and he has graciously agreed to be interviewed by the Gaelic Revitalization blog for his insights on how crowdfunding can be applied to Gaelic revitalization projects. Andrew is a fellow anthropologist by training who carried out an ethnography of the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. After obtaining his Ph.D. from Harvard, he moved into higher education administration, specifically alumni relations, crowdfunding, and social media, and I’ve been following his career with great interest ever since. Here’s our interview!
EM: What is your background and previous experience with Scottish Gaelic language and culture?
AG: I first got interested in Scottish Gaelic while working on an archeological site on South Uist while studying abroad at the University of Sheffield in the early 1990s. At the same time that it was becoming clear that I’m not a particularly good archeologist, I was getting increasingly interested in the people, history, and culture of the Hebrides. When I began my graduate studies in social anthropology, I wanted to return to the Highlands and Islands to study Gaelic linguistic and cultural revitalization efforts. After spending two summers at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig beginning to learn Gaelic, I returned for a longer period of research in 1998 and 1999 and wrote my dissertation about the role played by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Gaelic in the emerging University of the Highlands and Islands Project.
EM: What do you do now?
AG: I’m now Executive Director for Digital in the Division of Alumni Affairs and Development at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. While my current position has no real connection to Gaelic, I have realized in retrospect that my interest in the transformative potential of digital technology was catalyzed in part by the importance of digital networks and communications channels in the early distance learning efforts at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and the networked structure adopted by UHI.
EM: So you specialize in using crowdfunding and social media for higher education fundraising?
AG: Those are key elements of the job. In a nutshell, my team and I work to take advantage of emerging technologies to connect Cornell alumni more closely to each other and their alma mater. Since the tools are constantly evolving and our audience is migrating from platform to platform, it’s both interesting and challenging to try to stay out in front of emerging trends.
EM: What is crowdfunding and how does it work?
AG: Crowdfunding involves raising money from the “crowd” constituted by the 3+ billion people who have internet access worldwide. In contrast to many approaches to fundraising in which you try to raise large sums of money from a small number of people, crowdfunding projects usually seek to raise more modest sums of money from a large number of people. Indiegogo, the first of the current generation of crowdfunding platforms to really get traction, launched in 2008. The timing was just right – people were beginning to spend an increasing amount of time online and the social networking revolution was taking off. Crowdfunding platforms provided users with an opportunity to tell their story and ask for support in a way that was easily shared across social networks, and the concept really took off. The growth rate has been astonishing – there are currently over 1,200 crowdfunding platforms in operation, and in 2015, $16 billion USD was raised across these platforms.
EM: What kind of advice would you offer to anyone who is planning a crowdfunding campaign for something related to Gaelic?
AG: The great virtue of crowdfunding is that it has democratized access to the tools of fundraising. Any person or group who has a good idea can use a crowdfunding platform to raise funds to make that idea possible. In order for a project to succeed, you need:
• A clear description of what your project is;
• A clear explanation of the impact that your project will have;
• A clear sense of who your audience is and how you intend to reach them; and
• A person or group of people who are willing to focus on the project and ask people in their networks to support it.
That last point is crucial. Great projects that don’t have enthusiastic champions willing to do the hard work necessary can easily fail. Crowdfunding is not magic. It takes dedication and focused effort to succeed.
EM: What do you see as the best applications of crowdfunding to Gaelic projects?
AG: In general, crowdfunding works best for clearly defined projects that have a start date, an end date, and a concrete end product. I could imagine crowdfunding working well for Gaelic projects such as:
• Artistic projects – albums, films, books, etc.
• Historical preservation projects
• Certain types of infrastructure – Gaelic signage, for instance.
• Curriculum development or class materials for teachers.
It’s really limited only by your imagination. However, I’ve found that things like travel or operating expenses are harder to sell than more concrete projects such as the ones identified above.
EM: What role does social media play in crowdfunding?
AG: It’s important to generate buzz about the projects, and in some cases, it can drive a substantial amount of giving. However, you shouldn’t neglect other forms of outreach, especially e-mail.
It is crucial to start building your audience on social media *before* you need it. Social media audiences respond well to authenticity and trust built up over a period of weeks, months, and years. Asking people for money as soon as you’ve met them is just as rude and ineffective in the digital world as it is in real life.
EM: Are there any pitfalls to crowdfunding Gaelic-related projects?
AG: I can’t imagine that there would be. It’s vitally important, however, that you follow through on your obligation to your supporters. Depending on how you’ve structured your project, you may have promised them perks (different rewards that relate to different levels of gift), or you may simply have committed yourself to telling them how the project went. It’s both rude and unethical to neglect this follow-up. On the flip side of the coin, if you do it well, you’ll have an engaged and enthusiastic audience in place for the next time you have a great project in mind. That’s one of the best aspects of crowdfunding – seeing a community of supporters coalesce around a project and remain connected even after the project is done.
EM: What are some crowdfunding platforms people should consider?
AG: Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Crowdrise, Crowdster, Razoo, GoFundMe, and Hubbub are among the major platforms. Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of options.
EM: Mòran taing, Anndra!