I’ve mostly observed this phenomenon through the lens of forward-looking nonprofits in my professional space (Public Lab, Homicide Watch, Open Plans); the early wave of developing world microfinance efforts exemplified by Kiva; and the many game-related Kickstarter efforts that Penny Arcade writes about.
The words “finance”, “lending” and “investing” tend to get applied to these platforms, but that’s obviously wrong. For both legal and practical reasons, the returns are always modest: you’re either overpaying for a service, or for some digital or promotional knick-knacks, or the returns can only be reinvested in the service.
Thanks to the cynically-named JOBS Act, many of the relevant legal restrictions are going to disappear. But is there any reason to believe that practical considerations will? People are overpaying because they want to. It’s not just about making sure that a particular thing happens — look at the DoubleFine Kickstarter, which has now collected more than eight times the budget its creators say it requires (there are plenty of other examples, too). It reminds me of all the talk at the DNC about Republican defense spending proposals that vastly exceed the Pentagon’s own statements about their needs.
These expenditures are about spending money not just because we want what it will buy us, but because we wish to promote the values associated with this kind of use. It’s a subsidy to a particular class of thing and, perhaps just as importantly, an act of self-expression on the part of the funder. This latter aspect is deeply entangled with our human appetite for narrative: crowdfunders appear to value the consumption experience of (for example) picking out the village where a new well will be drilled over the knowledge of funding a venture that issues quarterly reports on the total number of wells it drilled. You can see this clearly in the emphasis on video storytelling on Kickstarter, or the upset that erupted when it became clear that Kiva aggregates funds since (gasp) money is fungible. If we cannot cast the act of funding into a meaningful narrative, it becomes much less satisfying.
For the types of projects that are most emblematic of this movement, it seems unlikely that the possibility of positive returns will attract many marginal investors. Rather, returns will attract a different kind of investor — and probably a different kind of project. After all, the kinds of projects that currently succeed at attracting funding will have no reason to put equity on the menu when a well-produced video presentation can suffice. Sure, the possibility of actual returns can presumably matter for investors for whom altruism isn’t the sole motivator. But there are existing vehicles for that kind of investing that come with a proper layer of regulation and diligence. I worry that we’ll soon see projects that promise to satisfy our values, but which offer promised returns as a substitute for an established track record (I expect many of these to come out of Silicon Valley).
There’s a huge disconnect between people who support the JOBS act because they are inspired by Kickstarter and those who are worried about hedge funds bilking seniors. I’ve got friends with strongly-held opinions on both sides of this; I have to admit that I don’t understand the dynamics well enough to know where I come down. I will say that slowly expanding the SEC compliance burden is the only realistic mechanism I see for leveling the transparency playing field between corporations and consumers — from that perspective, JOBS is tremendously disappointing.
But I suppose I’m generally heartened by Kickstarterism. It’s obviously not a rational way to allocate resources. To a large extent, it’s counting on investors to optimistically fill in the blanks about games and causes and projects, and many of the results will inevitably disappoint. You know how much less excited you feel flipping through movies in iTunes versus when you saw their trailers in the theater? It’s like that. There is money to be made by charging your entry fee on the early side of that declining enthusiasm function.
Still, overpaying talented people and trusting them to make something great is a model that has, at times, produced some pretty wonderful things. At some point we mostly gave that up: efficiencies were sought, and the patronage model was abandoned in favor of a coordinating layer of fund managers and NGO executives and the like. As with any occupation whose practitioners take their duties seriously, expertise and rationality-esteeming professional norms tended to accumulate at that layer, and consequently funds were aggregated and disbursed on a (supposedly) dispassionate basis.
But now, thanks to the internet, we can cut out those irritatingly Spock-like middle-men. In a world of scarce resources, it’s hard to wholeheartedly defend this return to romanticism. But those middle-men were only human themselves, after all (honestly, who were they kidding?). There are worse ideas than octupling DoubleFine’s budget and then waiting to see what happens — as long as we’re not conning seniors into spending their IRAs to do so.