What do books, a CD, a film, potatoes and a legal battle have in common? They are all projects I have invested in.
As with most things digital, I was a latecomer to crowd-funding but it resonated with me for two reasons. First, for all the trappings of the Internet, it is not a new way of funding projects, especially in the Arts. Secondly, crowd-funding allows me to invest in a different type of economy and the kind of society I want to see.
Investment or payment?
In the past 18 months I have supported the production of a documentary film, a CD and two books. As a copy of each book, a CD and cinema tickets will drop though my letterbox at some point, my contributions could simply be called payment with deferred delivery. In some ways they are but in many ways crowd-funding is completely different to wandering into a shop and handing over money, or even pre-ordering an item.
Investing in a crowd-funded project help ideas that appeal to me see the light of day, like Leah Borromeo’s documentary Dirty White Gold, which “follows the thread of our clothing from seed to shop” or Letters to a Beekeeper, a book by Alys Fowler and Steven Benbow. Importantly, crowd-funding allows creators to produce the work they envisage, unconstrained by formats that publishers or producers impose to ‘make the product marketable’.
Take Paul Kingsnorth’s book The Wake. I have just received this beautifully produced book. How many publishers would have paid an advance to allow an author to tell the story of the underground resistance that followed the Norman Conquest, let alone pay him to do so in an invented language that resembles Old English? And how many would have gone to the effort and cost to produce a handsome coptic bound volume?
Supporting the production of a CD not only allows musicians outside the mainstream to share their music. It can also make the difference between an artist being able to pay guest musicians in a timely fashion or having to wait until the CD has been launched and enough copies have been sold. I know that in this day of downloads and streaming, many think music should be available for free or mere pennies. I however prefer a world in which everybody receives a fair and timely wage for their labour. I therefore welcomed the opportunity to support Maz O’Connor’s initiative to finance the production of her second CD This Willowed Light rather than hand over the cover price of the CD to a large corporation.
Investments with edible interest
Whilst some of the investments I have made deliver a fixed return, like a book or CD, others are more speculative.
Potatoes might not sound like an exciting product but the Sarvari Research Trust’s efforts to develop non-GMO, no-spray blight resistant potatoes caught my eye. In 2012 I contributed to a campaign to develop a new variety of Sarpo potato and this year I made a loan so the trust can produce more Sarpo seed potatoes and market them more widely.
In its latest campaign the trust welcomes donations or fixed-term loans, interest on which is partially paid in seed potatoes. When I learnt of this, I knew I wanted to invest by way of a loan but as with any formal transaction, I felt I needed to do some due diligence, especially if I was to encourage others to invest too. Being British, I felt a little awkward about approaching the small not-for-profit association with questions about its business plan and marketing strategy but there was no need. The campaign manager was only too delighted to share more information.
Due to the nature of the Sarvari Trust’s project, I feel considerably more involved in this investment than I ever shall with my pension plan! I enthusiastically read details of its marketing efforts, like last Saturday’s Potato Day, and am excited about every update on its fundraising efforts. The trust has already raised over £33,000 and is looking to get as close to £50,000 as possible by mid March!
My enthusiasm for the Sarpo Potatoes project goes well beyond the interest available on my loan. As much as I look forward to including “x seed potatoes” as income on my tax return, the main reason for investing in this project is a desire to support a business whose product I enjoy and values I support. A business that offers a positive solution to the problem of blight, i.e. seed that delivers a tasty yield in a natural way without adding to soil, water and air pollution.
Speculative but important investments
Then there are the highly speculative but important investment… like supporting Farm Terrace Allotment plot holders engaged in a legal battle to stop their allotments being sold off. Whilst Watford council maintains the sale is necessary to make the new ‘health campus’ more profitable for developers, the majority of the campus will be devoted to housing. There are even doubts about whether the campus will actually include any clinical facilities.**
Rather than being bulldozed by the council and developer, the committed plot holders are challenging the Secretary of State’s decision with a judicial review on the grounds that he did not follow his own policy when approving the sale of the allotment. As a gardener and passionate believer in allotments, I have followed this gutsy campaign closely and when Farm Terrace Allotment plot holders decided to use crowd-funding to cover the legal fees,*** I was happy to make a contribution. Having been a lawyer, I know that court proceedings are risky but this battle is not just about one site. The campaigners are looking to clarify the only laws we have to protect allotments against councils eager to sell off precious land. In my book, that is a battle worth investing in!
Crowd-funding may not be appropriate for every financial decision or business model but it is a lot of fun and creates a very different connection between you, society and economic activity.
* Photo courtesy of the Sarvari Research Trust.
** If you are in the UK and want to learn more about the legal battle for Farm Terrace Allotment, check out this BBC report (starting at 11.06 minutes).
*** Since writing this post, the Save Farm Terrace judicial review has been heard and the judge ruled that the Secretary of State’s decision was invalid as he had not been provided with all the information (i.e. financial updates) to allow him to make a decision on the facts. Unfortunately the judge did not take the opportunity to clarify further the underlying law in respect of the sale of allotments. On this basis of the ruling Farm Terrace Allotment has won and it hopes that the council will not submit a new proposal to the Secretary of State for the sale of the allotments.