Crowdsourcing: The generosity of strangers

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With the Indian ice hockey team successfully raising funds online to go for a tournament abroad, crowdsourcing comes of age in India
For several years, whenever the Indian ice hockey team participated in or hosted a tournament, they would have to pool the money required through donations from ice hockey enthusiasts abroad and from team members and their families. Sometimes, a corporate sponsor would chip in. But most would be reluctant because the sport—ice surfaces being such a rarity—had almost no fans in the country.

Ice hockey came to India, it is said, during the time of the British Raj, when British officials began playing the game at an artificial rink in Shimla. The game disappeared after the British left, and was resuscitated several years later in the icy plains of Ladakh. For around two months every winter when the lakes froze, locals and Army personnel would descend, ice skating blades nailed to their boots, ground hockey sticks in hand and a boot polish container for a puck, to play a kind of hockey unfamiliar to most Indians— on ice. They would play without helmets or protection gear, save for the goal keepers who apparently used ground hockey pads for protection. But even as the game’s local popularity grew and better equipment began to be used, its appeal rarely went beyond the region. It stayed trapped in Ladakh.

So each time the pooled donations were found inadequate, members of the Ice Hockey Association of India who had credit cards would use their personal accounts to raise the rest of the sum. Somehow, the team always just about managed to scrape through. But earlier this year, when the Federation began to calculate the likely expenses to be incurred to participate in the 2015 Ice Hockey Federation Challenge Cup, currently being held in Kuwait, they realised they were a little short. “For years, we had been scratching the barrel,” says Akhsay Kumar, director of the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI). “And now there was nothing more to scratch.”

The IHAI calculated that to send a 22-member squad, it would need at least Rs 20 lakh. But all it had was about Rs 1.3 lakh, collected from friends and family, and about Rs 20,000 from each of the 22 team members. If they pulled out, they would face the risk of being internationally blacklisted for many years. The team had begun preparing for the tournament by practising at iSkate, a skating rink at Ambience mall in Gurgaon. The rink is about one-third the size of most international ice hockey arenas, but the team was thrilled just to have a practice venue, since most of Ladakh’s lakes had begun to unfreeze by March. “We had done everything we could to promote and popularise the sport, from trying to get the attention of people to appealing to the Government and corporate world for patronage. But we had failed miserably. The winter sport was too unusual for the country and Ladakh was too remote,” Kumar says. “And now we were facing a black hole.”

During this time, a youngster, Vednank Singh, who followed the sport, asked Kumar for the password of the Indian Ice Hockey team’s Twitter account. The account was mostly dormant—with only around 15 followers. “Vednank’s idea was that he would ask people directly to pitch in money for the expenses,” Kumar says. “He said he wanted to crowdfund [the participation].” After several unsuccessful years of trying to evoke interest in the sport in the country, Kumar was unsure of the plan’s feasibility. “But we were so broke,” he says. “Even a little money any which way would go a long way.”

Within a few hours, however, the Indian ice hockey team’s appeal for help began to reach far and wide. The online world began to buzz with activity. People began to retweet the request, some promised help, and many were surprised an Indian ice hockey team even existed. This unusual tweet, of a national sports team, most of its members from a remote corner of the country, begging people for help, even with small donations, caught several eyeballs. The appeal soon began trending as an online topic that day, and even newspapers and TV channels began to report the story. The next morning, Kumar woke up to the phone call of a real estate firm in Chennai promising to contribute Rs 4 lakh. Then Anand Mahindra offered help, followed by many other corporate donors. Cricketer Gautam Gambhir also pitched in with Rs 4 lakh. BitGiving, a crowdfunding website, contacted the IHAI and began to work along with it to collect donations, ranging from Rs 100 to much larger sums, from Indians online. By the time of the team’s travel date to Kuwait, according to Kumar, the team had more than twice the sum it needed. BitGiving alone collected almost Rs 6 lakh. “We did so well, we are now using the excess money to push the sport in India; to build its foundation here,” Kumar says. “And to think of it, all that was required was a direct appeal to people for help.”

This direct appeal to people for funds— or crowdfunding—is gradually emerging as an alternate and vital fundraising tool in India. The entrepreneur or artist who once had no recourse but to plead for cash grants, or, say, the investor or philan- thropist who needs money for a project, can now turn to the wallet power of crowds. But unlike the proverbial hat that’s passed around, small donations can add up to quite a lot online by sheer force of numbers. Entrepreneurs who are either unable to secure funds from traditional sources or unwilling to part with control over a project by offering equity shares to others, find it useful to invite lots of patrons to help kickstart a business, project or social enterprise. In a way, it is a modern version of the kind of patronage relationship that artists have long had with their rich masters. Except, with a crowd, no single contributor can make an unreasonable demand. In return, donors receive small rewards or perks— a mention in a film’s credit roll, for example, or the free services of a project.

Pioneered in the US, crowdfunding has been around in the West for several years. Barack Obama, for instance, raised $137 million this way during his campaign for the US presidency in 2008. In India, filmmaker Onir raised Rs 1 crore to make the National award-winning 2010 film I Am by asking people to pitch in through social networks. But now the online possibilities of crowdfunding have widened. There are portals that assist fund seekers, offering them a broad platform for crowds to assess and fund projects (apart from tips on how to make a good pitch). From entrepreneurs with interesting ideas to artists and sportspersons who have exhibitions or events coming up, or even novelists who want to self-publish their work, lots of people are now online pitching for your money.

According to Ishita Anand, co-founder and CEO of the Delhi-based crowdfunding platform BitGiving, the manner in which India’s ice hockey team successfully raised money, and the attention its plea received, is likely to become a case study for the mechanism. “A crowdfunding culture, while it is developing, is still very nascent here. It isn’t easy to get people in the country to open their purses to contribute to a project or enterprise,” Anand says. “But the ice hockey team’s appeal changed everything. Almost everyone got involved, from people who were unable to make any donation but urged others to contribute, to people who chipped in with Rs 100 and even a few lakh. This was crowdfunding at its best.”

BitGiving has successfully helped different types of projects raise money from crowds. These include helping an acid attack survivor, Laxmi, raise around Rs 11.8 lakh to rehabilitate other acid attack survivors, although her initial expectation was only Rs 5 lakh; aiding a few IIT Bombay students to raise almost Rs 2.1 lakh to build a library in Barpeta, a distant village in Assam; and enabling a former computer scientist to raise around Rs 5.2 lakh, who is currently using the money to climb Mount Everest.

There are two models of crowdfunding. Some platforms like BitGiving allow the appeal-maker to use the money gathered even if the target figure is not achieved. While others, like the Mumbai-based Wishberry, like Kickstarter, the original Western crowdfunding platform on which it is based, has an all-or-nothing model. Hence if a project fails to hit its target figure, all the money collected is returned to donors. According to Anshulika Dubey, co-founder, Wishberry, such a platform is better for countries like India where the concept is only just picking up. “All-or-nothing gives the project urgency. The chance of procrastinating and the belief that someone else will contribute even if they don’t is reduced. If someone likes an idea,” Dubey says. “He or she must contribute. Otherwise the likelihood of the entire project getting scrapped is very high.”

Earlier this year, Kalyani Ashok Khona, the founder of Wanted Umbrella, an agency that helps people with disabilities find marriage (and other) partners, realised that she needed something that would help those registered with the agency to better connect with others enrolled. A matrimonial registry exclusively for a community of people who are said to number over 80 million globally, according to Khona, ought to have a lot of potential; by her estimate, in India, fewer than 5 per cent find a partner. So far, over 1,000 people have registered with her agency. But Khona felt she was missing a crucial link. That’s when she came up with the idea of a cellphone app that could more efficiently connect prospective partners. But when it came to securing funds, she was hesitant about approaching an investor. “I didn’t want to sell any equity stake to an investor,” she says. “And to an extent, I was also interested in hearing what people had to say about the idea.” Khona has already worked out the details of the app with an app developer and is currently preparing a pitch to ask people to fund it. “I think it should work,” she says, “This is in a way a unique problem. And I have a solution—provided the crowd believes in it too.”

Most crowdfunding portals also highlight the importance of creating attractive rewards. These could be anything, from a credit mention on a website to free copies of a crowdfunded book that would entice funders to chip in with money. For every Rs 500 contribution, for instance, the Indian ice hockey team acknowledges the donor on a social networking platform, while Rs 1 lakh fetches a personalised team jersey along with a team flag, badge, postcard, and the promise of a meeting with the team once they are back.

The rewards played a pivotal role in getting Goonga Pehelwan—a documentary on the deaf and mute wrestler Virender Singh which earlier this year won the National Award for Best First Non-Feature Film of a Director—off the block. The makers of the film, three young finance students from Ahmedabad, had with great difficulty found a producer willing to contribute Rs 3.5 lakh for the making of the film. They were now in need of Rs 2.5 lakh for the film’s post-production work. So the directors did not just offer donors a direct link to download the raw movie, in addition to an ‘executive producer’ mention in the credit roll, they also organised dinner and screenings of the film with the wrestler himself. Within days of the appeal going online, they were able to raise almost Rs 3.3 lakh, with Rs 1 lakh coming from an anonymous US-based contributor. “We organised a dinner of Singh with four people, two meetings of him with a number of other contributors, and around 20 people were mentioned in the credit rolls,” Prateek Gupta says.

According to Dubey, “What you need, as someone looking for funds, is a good story. And a good way to tell that story.” BitGiving and Wishberry, apart from offering advice and platforms, also help fundraisers keep donors engaged and generate momentum. Currently, Wishberry is working with a group of young engineering students from VIT University in Chennai who want to raise Rs 2.5 lakh to build a race-car for an upcoming student engineering competition, Formula Student, in Germany. The students have so far spent several lakh on building the car. They now require more funds to import various parts from other countries.

Shyam Gupta, a third-year mechanical engineering student and one of the car’s designers, claims the race car when ready will be able to do 140 kmph; and because of its relative light weight of 240 kg, the car will be able to accelerate from 0 to 75 kmph in under 4.2 seconds. The Wishberry team is advising the engineering students on how to compress dense engineering knowledge into a breezy 1.8 minute long video testimonial. “Very few people have an idea of what goes into the making of a race car. We hope people are curious enough to watch what we have to say and are then moved enough to contribute,” Gupta says, adding that the project will also help them watch the reaction of people to their idea.

The way that people chipped in with money for the ice hockey team’s campaign in Kuwait, according to Kumar, has lifted the morale of the team. Kumar claims when he met Tsewang Gyaltson, captain of the team, the latter told him that more than the money raised, he was moved by people’s willingness to help and acknowledge the sport. “He told me,” Kumar says, “that it finally feels like he is playing a national sport.”