How to Hit Your Fundraising Goals

Terrell Starr, Photo Courtesy of Black Diplomats
Terrell Starr, Photo Courtesy of Black Diplomats

Strategic fundraisers give shows the gas they need to either get started or level up.

The advent of subscription services like Patreon have expanded the funding tools available to podcasters. Those consistent, monthly funds can be great sources of support, but for special projects sometimes you need an extra boost. Even well-known media personalities sometimes need donor drives or fixed-funded campaigns to finance production.

Design-centered podcast 99% Invisible, for example, has long used crowdfunding to hit some of their loftier goals. is the crowdfunding gold standard. Its unique look at the outsized impact of planning details imperceptible to the world at-large made the show a cult hit. But even its creators were surprised by its resonance when they ran their first campaign in 2012. That year they raised more than $170,000, a sum that dwarfed the initial goal of $42,000. The show topped itself a year later when it collected an even larger total of $375,000 to finance season 4.

If one show can raise more than half a million dollars several years ago, surely more modest goals are achievable today. At least, Terrell Starr thought so. In early 2020, The Root senior reporter turned to Kickstarter to launch his own show, Black Diplomats. A former Peace Corps volunteer with a master’s degree in Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies, he developed an idea for a culturally black show focusing on international relations.

“It’s a global podcast about black people,” Starr says. “I want every black person to feel they’re a diplomat, and I want it to be accessible to the common person. I don't want it to be a think tank type of thing for people with a certain educational background.”

Starr was hesitant to self-fund this type of program, or to launch on a shoestring budget. To afford the quality he wanted, he needed to fundraise.

The campaign before the campaign

Mapping out a crowdfunding campaign is the first essential step. It’s here that success can be reasonably assured before any link goes live. A comprehensive checklist should include creating all necessary visuals, and locating signal boosting opportunities, such as feed drops or press interviews, to lean on after the clock begins ticking.

This is also the ideal time to reach out to advisors at crowdfunding platforms. Oriana Leckert, senior journalism outreach lead at Kickstarter, which encompasses all podcasting projects, assists creators on their crowdfunding journey. Sometimes she’ll find them, other times projects come to her. Either way she urges creators to stand out with a sound strategy and unique idea.

“You want your campaign to be fleshed out, and you want it to be telling a compelling story. We prefer most campaigns have a video. Your story should be detailed, but not overly,” she says. “We like to see folks who are, already on their own, doing a good job of promotion.”

Leckert says pre-planning is generally a four- to six-week process, and that even people who have no intention of partnering with crowdfunding experts will benefit from the early effort. “The more of that work that you can do at first, the better of a time you're going to have during the actual period of the campaign, which is going to be intense and scary and exhilarating.”

Set realistic goals

“I thought I could raise $50,000, because I have 50,000 followers on Twitter and I’m like, ‘everyone will give a dollar,’” Starr says. “I learned that not everybody follows you because they necessarily like you.”

Working with Kickstarter, Starr edited his goal down to $16,000. The amount reflected what he would need to get started. A third would go to his tech budget, another third to salaries for himself and the production team, with the final third held in reserve for unforeseen expenses. He also factored in the cost of Kickstarter’s fees, which are 5% of the total amount raised plus another 3 to 5% for credit card processing.

But his crowdfunding goal also reflected what he and Kickstarter estimated was doable at the level of his social network. While $16,000 is less than the $50,000 Starr initially sought, Leckert says its larger than most podcast crowdfunding, which typically run four-figure drives. It was achievable for Starr precisely because of his 50,000 Twitter followers.

“You can assume that 5 to 10% of people who see your campaign will back it,” Leckert says.

Social media followers only comprise one component of a creator’s total network. Another bucket is the inner circle that cares about creators on a personal level and are likely to offer some sort of support if they can afford to do so. A third category should be reserved for people whose greatest contributions are the ability to amplify an on-going campaign. Starr found success leaning heavily on the third category. His fellow journalists may not have the deepest pockets, but they possess oversized influence. So, he asked roughly 20 of them to promote his campaign on Twitter. It worked.

“There’s something about blue checkmarks that galvanize people,” he says, referring to the official account symbol that appears on many Twitter users’ profiles.

Goalsetting should also include the project timeline. Tempting though it may be to keep drives open for long stretches in hopes of more money, the reality is that burnout will creep in for both creators and followers at some point. Truncated campaigns meanwhile can create a sense of urgency. The ideal time frame is a little over a month, Leckert says. Starr chose to wrap his up in five weeks. At its close on March 6, Black Diplomats was successfully funded, recording pledges totaling $17,118.

Get creative with your gifts

“Everybody thinks about the funding, but not everybody thinks about the crowd,” Eckert says, “If you have 30 days to promote this campaign, you can’t just tweet ‘my Kickstarter’ every day and think that’s going to make people excited.” That’s why people so often offer gifts to contributors. According to Leckert, a successful rewards strategy requires resisting the standard offerings of a trade show. “There's a persistent belief that if you're going to run a Kickstarter campaign, you also have to turn yourself into a swag production facility and create all kinds of tote bags and t-shirts and beer koozies and a bunch of junk that people don't really want, and is not built to support the story you're telling,” Leckert says.

Creative thinking around rewards connects backers more deeply to a project. Allowing people to sit in on an editorial meeting can be an enticing offer that centers on the creative journey and doesn’t require a physical item. This perk was actually offered as a reward for high-dollar donors during 99% Invisible’s Season 4 campaign. People are also more likely to tell others about this type of singular experience than about a tote bag and stickers. Many of the backers will themselves have things to promote, so offering up an ad roll slot is also an outside-the-box option to secure high-value contributions.

Starr’s own campaign was heavy on non-physical rewards. The only merchandise promised was a single pin given to backers at all levels. The rest of his tiers were loaded with digital booklets, video diaries, free access to live events, and a private audience with Starr himself. And now, after a June launch, the rest of us can check out Black Diplomats releases its first episodes later this year.

-Zach Brooke