Crowdfunding: do the famous and talented deserve our financial support?

kickstarter-logo-k-colorSpike Lee and Zach Braff are amongst those who are raising funds on sites such as Kickstarter. But aren’t there other more pressing charity cases to give to?

You could be forgiven for thinking that artists are society’s most pressing charity cases.

Film-makers, musicians, performers and other creatives have rushed to embrace crowd funding on US-based websites KickstarterIndiegogo and their Australian equivalent, Pozible. On Twitter and Facebook, they hassle friends and fans to donate to their latest enterprise in return for token rewards such as postcards and stickers. And those soliciting money aren’t just bohemians starving in garrets – many of them are well-known names.

In the US, film director Spike Lee has so far raised nearly $1m on Kickstarter to make a new movie, while James Franco recently raised $320,000 on Indiegogo to produce a trilogy of films based on his book. Marina Abramović has attracted over $280,000 in pledges to fund her eponymous institute for performance art (with a little help from Lady Gaga, who contributed a promotional video of herself cavorting naked with a giant crystal). Last year, singer Amanda Palmer famously raised $1.2m to fund her solo album. Their efforts pale beside the $3.1m raised by Zach Braff to make a follow-up to Garden State.

The latest high-profile figure to jump on board the crowd funding bandwagon is one of Australia’s most renowned theatre companies. Belvoir, which has nurtured such luminaries as Geoffrey Rush and Cate Blanchett, launched a crowd funding campaign on Pozible last week. In its whimsically worded campaign page, the company is seeking $10,000 from supporters to “help Peter Pan fly” and send its production of the J M Barrie play to New York City.

As with other recent crowd funding campaigns launched by big names, the move has attracted controversy. Belvoir received nearly $2m last year in government funding and noted in its latest annual report that it has been “performing well financially”. According to some in the arts community, thriving enterprises such as Belvoir shouldn’t be using their reputation to raise crowd-sourced money that is better spent on struggling grass-roots artists.

That may be so – but I think there’s a more fundamental concern. The theatre’s general manager has asked the federal arts minister to retweet its appeal “for a good cause”. But is it, really, such a good cause? I think that likening a Broadway show to a charity is a kind of category error.

On its Pozible campaign page, Belvoir provides a familiar list of suggested donation levels and what each gift achieves. For example, $50 will pay for an actor to catch a taxi from JFK airport to Manhattan. By comparison, a donation of $50 can buy 15 insecticide-treated mosquito nets for some of the world’s poorest children in malaria-prone parts of Africa. Preventing malaria is less glamorous than putting on a show for the kids of Manhattan, but it makes a far greater impact. Indeed, it has been shown to be one of the most cost-effective ways to save a person’s life.

Suggesting that charitable giving should be as effective as possible isn’t a novel argument. It’s the central tenet of the effective altruism movement being led by philosopher Peter Singer and groups such as Oxford-based society Giving What We Can. The idea is that our giving should be informed by solid evidence of its impact on others, not by the emotions we feel towards the cause.

Robert Wiblin, research director for Giving What We Can, says it would be “tragic” if crowd funding unintentionally shifted people’s donations away from those in severe poverty. “I would encourage people to budget for this kind of thing separately from what they give to really help others, which usually requires looking at the developing world,” he says.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t support new plays, films or albums by talented artists; we should. But we need to ensure that financing creative ventures doesn’t become a substitute for proven interventions to help the world’s poorest. Crowd funding isn’t a shiny new 21st century form of almsgiving, which traditionally has focused on the needy – not the famous, beautiful and talented.

What’s more, using our charitable spend to make a difference to those who need it most could be better for us, too. A study published earlier this year found that giving to causes that make a clear impact on others leaves us happier than supporting charities which offer nebulous benefits.

In its marketing copy, Belvoir writes: “You will sleep well at night knowing you have helped us make some magic on Broadway.” I think most of us would sleep even better knowing our donation has, almost certainly, helped to save a child’s life.

[Source: Chris Rodney @ The Guardian UK]

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