What It’s Like to Crowdfund in a Developing Country
If technology is going to be the great equalizer, it needs to be available to all.
I remember summers of chilled beer and air-conditioned bars, the crisp skirts of waitresses rattling off the day’s happy hour specials. My friends and I would sit in the heart of Manhattan to discuss our floundering efforts as young entrepreneurs, the best and worst networking conferences, social problems we wanted to change, and the lack of funding we had in order to do so.
Crowdfunding became a common solution, a mighty key to unlock dreams from book launches to product distribution and Ironman entry fees. Easy: click, build, and share! Your aunt can finance your first company, or your boss can support your around-the-world fantasy adventure.
If deemed “worthy,” anyone can receive the funds they need to set an idea into motion.
…Anyone with a computer, internet connection, training and English skills, that is.
Having fundraised in both America and Asia, I’ve experienced the challenges that come with working on the soil of a less-developed country. As accurately as possible, I want to describe some of the obstacles I faced — and why social entrepreneurs need to start thinking differently if we’re going to help entrepreneurs around the world move forward.
Kaski District, Nepal
Our principal tells me we need over $1k for our students’ first field trip. With less than three weeks before our departure, I push down my panic and start asking questions. Is there no available budget? Can we get support from the community, from the government? What do we need to purchase?
We spend one hour discussing the trip and relevant details — who is going and desired outcomes. On a small piece of paper, we script an itinerary and estimate costs, looking for ways to chop figures and streamline our budget along the way.
While my mind spins with ways to come up with cash, our teachers debate whether crowdfunding is appropriate. I’m well aware of our upomcing need to furnish our new annex school building, and I’m sensitive to the fact I might be turning into that girl — the one always fundraising for something. Do I target specific donors? Is there a grant I can apply for? Somewhat hesitantly, I agree upon a crowdfunding campaign and begin to strategize.
Based on previous campaigns I’ve organized (one miserable failure: the fearless/confidence conference; two great successes: Everest Base Camp for urban youth, the Matepani Solar Project), I have an idea of what a good pitch looks like and what appeals to funders. I’ve seen the curve that comes with donations — more people donate small amounts and a few go big. Before my laptop is powered on, I’ve outlined our need (what we’ll use funds for), our ask (how much), why it’s important, and the rewards we can offer sponsors.
A USB stick was given to me to use during my time here. At best, it provides unreliable internet. While I watch spinning dials and wait for tabs to load, I write copy on sticky notes to avoid forgetting ideas. I’m to create the skeleton of a fundraising campaign, but after several network drops and lost work, I’m exasperated.
For thirty-five minutes I wait for the bus that never comes. Determined, I tighten the straps on my backpack and walk past home-front vegetable stands and old men perched on wooden benches.
In a relationship-oriented culture like Nepal, I risk being rude by hurrying along and dodging invitations for tea.
It takes me the better part of one hour to reach the town’s central cluster of restaurants and clothing stores.
As I’m crossing the street, a friend intercepts me and insists I use his shop’s wifi. He assures me the connection is reliable, so I nestle into a seat in his open store. My MacBook Pro is clearly visible to passers-by. It attracts attention, and I overhear several men ask “What country is she from?” as I type away.
The internet is slow, but I’m able to upload more information. I try to insert photos into my pitch before giving up and linking to external pages instead. This distresses me because I know how powerful images are to readers (and potential sponsors). As graciously as possible, I move to a nearby restaurant. At this point, my laptop battery is almost exhausted, so I frantically edit.
I proofread and make changes to text in between bites of aloo paratha and veggie momos. Several adaptations later, the campaign is launched, just in time for New Yorkers to order their morning coffee.
Mosquitos feast on my legs and I’m tired, but the wifi is strong and I send messages on various social media channels — twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. People who know me are familiar with my work, so the campaign doesn’t come as much of a surprise. What is surprising, however, is how quickly support starts coming in.
My thank-you emails aren’t as “perfect” as when I’m in the States. My writing in Nepal is quick, and I compose messages hurriedly. Blackouts are frequent. If an establishment doesn’t have a generator, wifi signals vanish along with the lights. “Copy and paste” methods often result in formatting errors that make me cringe. Regardless, in less than 24 hours, our campaign is fully funded.
Most of my Nepali friends couldn’t achieve this same success. Here’s why:
1. I have a computer.
I’ve heard “How much did that cost?” countless times. My 13-inch, late 2011 MacBook Pro is like a new Ferrari here. Many do not have access to such machinery.
2. I know how to use it.
Computer skills take time and practice to develop. No computer, no practice, no skills. I’m familiar with systems and know where to go for particular outcomes. Indiegogo? Kickstarter? Kiva? These are not as commonly-known as you might think.
3. I am fast.
See No. 2. Because I’ve had the opportunity to practice, I’m efficient. And with incredibly slow internet speeds, this is a huge advantage.
4. I speak English.
One of our teachers shared our campaign with a friend in Hong Kong. He asked me to review his message before he sent it. “I don’t know grammar,” he pleaded. Though basic English is taught in government schools, education is rote and routine. Conversational skills and the confidence to communicate is not universal.
USB sticks with wifi are costly, and monthly data packages aren’t cheap, either. When signals are operating, they‘re not necessarily reliable or fast. The alternative of cafe-squatting is available in certain areas, but in places where the “coffee shop culture” has yet to become accepted, sitting for extended periods can elicit stares and result in an uncomfortable environment. Any way you shake it — sitting in a restaurant with wifi or buying a USB stick — you need money to get online or know someone who can help.
In summary: microloans and crowdfunding are available to those with access and knowledge.
The internet is fueling the global economy! Economic gaps are shrinking! Everyone can be an entrepreneur! We’re great at pontificating ways developing countries can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and create business.
The problem: “one size fits all” doesn’t apply to global development. Countries cannot be lumped in the same category. Different regions have different needs, and communities have different resources available to them. Assistance for entrepreneurs needs to be relevant. If we are going to encourage entrepreneurs around the world, we need to make sure they have the knowledge, platforms, and resources to get going.
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Michelle’s next piece: I’m Turning 30. And I Live in a Monastery