Kickstarter pioneered a set of rules and an uncluttered visual grammar that has become the familiar frame for online fundraising, and many other such crowdfunding portals have since copied or adapted their formula — even sites that started earlier. Now, an explosion of cheap and easy new tools and services makes crowdfunding more democratic than ever, by empowering fundraisers to bypass portals like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo entirely.
Some of these tools enable people to create standalone campaigns on their own websites, where they don’t have to give up the 5 percent-or-so commission that commercial portals typically charge, and they also retain full control over the user experience and their relationship with the funders. In other words, the crowdfunding page will have your branding and domain, not the portal’s, and a portal won’t track and bug your funders for their own promotional purposes.
Other new tools and services empower people to “be their own Kickstarter” and create a multi-user portal of their own, where they can host other people’s crowdfunding campaigns and collect the commissions themselves, or choose not to. They can launch these crowdfunding portals from their own dedicated domain, or else as funding pages integrated within an already-existing web presence.
The trend-story takeaway here is that a new wave of infrastructure is decentralizing crowdfunding — which, given crowdfunding’s democratic nature, seems only fitting. WordPress plugins like IgnitionDeck, Astoundify, and WPMU DEV Crowdfunding have already supported numerous successful crowdfunding campaigns, including some in the million-dollar plus category. And build-your-own crowdfunding platform services like Crowdhoster, Invested.In, and Mimoona now let people launch both standalone campaigns and multi-user crowdfunding portals without touching a line of code, and without paying a dime or giving up any commissions.
In the interest of service journalism, the rest of this article explains how these new options differ and how they work. Much of the information comes from an 85-page industry report and online directory that I recently contributed to, Massolution’s “2013CF Crowdfunding Market: Software and Solutions Report.” If you want an overview of the latest, just skim from here on down. But if you’re planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign or portal and are still deciding how, the “2013CF Software and Solutions Report” will give you the next few levels of detail on all the options discussed here, plus many others — including crowdfunding platforms that support peer lending and equity investing, which for the most part are not legal yet in the U.S. and which this article does not cover.
WordPress, Platform Services, Code, and APIs
Options for cheap, DIY crowdfunding come in four flavors, two easy and two requiring some tech effort. The easy ones are WordPress add-ons (plug-ins and themes), which enable any standard, commodity WordPress installation to support crowdfunding operations; and platform services, which let you build and run a crowdfunding site through your browser without worrying about issues like software installation and hosting. The platform services (aka PaaS, for Platform as a Service) enable anyone to launch a crowdfunding site, but if you already have a WordPress installation, extending it to support crowdfunding might be a better deal.
Some platform services take a commission, some charge a flat subscription fee, and some combine the two. Different pricing models will suit different crowdfunding sites. Low-volume sites will generally do better on commission, but if you’re running a multi-user portal that charges a commission itself, then having to turn around and pay a commission to your service provider will strongly impact your bottom line. For example, if you assume that your users won’t pay more than the standard 5 percent commission to your portal, then your having to turn around and pay even a 1 percent commission to your platform service provider means giving up 20 percent of your revenues.
Because crowdfunding hosting is an infinitely expandable commodity, we can also expect commissions to go down in the future. The standard 5 percent could become 4 percent, then 3 percent, and so on, down to the limit of viability, as competing platforms undercut one another. This would further erode what a self-sustaining portal could give up in commissions to a service provider.
The two more technically involved options are free software that’s available for building crowdfunding sites; and APIs that let programmers connect their crowdfunding front ends to already-working back-ends for database, account management, payment processing, and other behind-the-scenes functions. The commission issue impacts these options as well; your own free software install will incur no commission, but calling someone else’s API most likely will, unless it’s for donations only.
With any of these options, you will still have to pay for your domain registration, unless you are crowdfunding on an existing site. More significantly, you will also give up fees or commissions on the money your site raises to your payment gateway (aka payment processing service) that performs the actual transactions. Popular gateways include PayPal and Amazon Payments, which work with wide ranges of currencies, but others are region- or country-specific. Payment gateway prices and terms can change, and new companies like Dwolla are springing up to offer lower-cost options. Given this competitive and changing landscape, shopping around is good and locking yourself into one gateway long-term is bad.
The popular online publishing platform WordPress is free, to a point. The WordPress software itself is free and open-source, and it costs nothing to run a basic blog at wordpress.com. But if you want to use WP for more than basic blogging — such as to support financial transactions for crowdfunding — you need a WordPress installation that can be specifically configured with additional software, which wordpress.com does not support. You need your own WP install, which you can get by subscribing to a WordPress platform/hosting service, or by installing WP yourself on your own server or general hosting service. WordPress hosting typically cost $20/month or less, depending on traffic and CPU usage — and note that running a crowdfunding portal on a WP platform will likely require more CPU overhead than running a functionally comparable portal running on purpose-built crowdfunding platform software.
These add-ons fall into two categories: plug-ins and themes. Plug-ins are software routines that run behind the scenes to perform specific functions when triggered by WordPress-internal events. For example, when a user clicks “Donate Now,” a plug-in is what sends the amount and credit card info to the payment gateway. Some plug-ins work on their own, while others, called extensions, depend on other plug-ins. WP plug-ins generally range in price from free to anywhere between a few dollars and $60 as a one-time payment, rather than a monthly license.
On the WP installation itself, plug-ins reside in the
wp-content/plugins folder. You can install and activate them manually, or through the Dashboard (Admin Panel) via Plugins –> Add New.
Themes determine a WP page’s appearance and interface. WP comes with a set of standard themes pre-installed, but if you want a site that looks more distinctive and supports the specific interaction design that you need, you need to create or buy a custom theme. There’s a whole cottage industry of programming-savvy designers who create WordPress themes for sale at themeforest for $20-$60 each, depending on complexity. In addition to standalone themes that define a site’s interaction layer completely by themselves, designers can also create framework themes that define a general, shareable grammar of layout and functions that multiple themes can share. This allows other theme designers to create child themes that inherit the properties of the framework, and work within it to define a specific layout.
On a WP server, themes sit in the
wp-content/themes folder. You can install and activate them manually, or through the Dashboard (Admin Panel) via Appearance –> Themes.
With most WP crowdfunding solutions, a plug-in handles the payment processing while a theme defines the interface and triggers the plug-in when needed. Here are the leading contenders, primarily organized by plug-ins and with compatible themes listed at the end of each.
Plug-in for standalone campaigns (with a multi-user portal plug-in coming soon)
As the first WP plug-in for crowdfunding, IgnitionDeck has the longest track record. Its poster child is the beautifully-rendered multiplayer space simulation game Star Citizen, which has raised more money than any other crowdfunding campaign, $17 million and rising as of this writing. The Star Citizen campaign started with simultaneous raises through both Kickstarter and an IgnitionDeck site. The game project’s Kickstarter campaign raised $2.1 million while it was running, against the IgnitionDeck’s commission-free $4.1 million, and since then, the IgnitionDeck site has collected over $10 million more. IgnitionDeck has also powered successful campaigns for the band A House for Lions, the UFO documentary “Sirius,” and The Public Domain Review.
IgnitionDeck uses PayPal by default, and optional $49 extensions support WePay, Stripe, and Bitcoin. Other extensions, priced at $19-$39, add site analytics and other admin function enhancements. A subscription option, the $20/month “Maker Kit,” includes every IgnitionDeck plug-in, extension, and theme available from IgnitionDeck maker Virtuous Giant, plus ongoing support. Open-source translation files support IgnitionDeck installs in Arabic, Catalan, Dutch, French and Spanish.
IgnitionDeck can support multiple campaigns on a single page, and the plugin’s PHP code has been extended to support multi-user portals with a front-end submission feature, but it wasn’t designed for such use. For that, Virtuous Giant expects to release its IgnitionDeck Enterprise plug-in this Fall.
- 500 framework and child themes 500 Classic and 500 Midnight, included free with IgnitionDeck
- Be Human, for Charity / Nonprofit, $45
- GoodWork, $55
- Gig, for musicians and bands, $50
- Mission, for churches, $60
Virtuous Giant has also published resources for WP theme designers (“themers”) who want to build their own IgnitionDeck-compatible themes.
Plug-in for standalone campaigns and multi-user portals
This free, open-source plug-in is an extension of Easy Digital Downloads, a popular open-source WP plug-in that supports payments through dozens of gateways. Astoundify can use WePay, Stripe, and PayPal Adaptive Payments for crowdfunding-style pledges that fulfill when the funding completes, plus any of the other Easy Digital Download supported gateways for collecting immediate payments.
- Campaignify, standalone campaign, $55
- Fundify, multiple campaigns / portal, $60
- CrowdPress, standalone campaign or multi-user portal, $45
- Franklin, standalone campaign or multi-user portal, $45
For anyone who wants to download, develop, or integrate with Crowdfunding by Astoundify, the code is available on GitHub.
Fundraising, from WPMU DEV, $19
Plug-in for standalone campaigns, can be configured for multi-user portals
This plug-in lets you create and fund campaigns via PayPal, and you can also use it in a multi-user portal under a WordPress “Buddypress Multisite” configuration, i.e., in Multisite mode and with the popular BuddyPress social networking plug-in installed. The plug-in costs $19 on its own, or else you can get it with full support and an ecosystem of inter-compatible add-ons by joining the WPMU DEV network for $99/month.
Current sites using the Fundraising plug-in include Going Beyond Borders, which raises money for projects in developing countries, the Rebuild Southern Africa Association, which funds food aid parcels and fruit trees, and Save Brutus, a drive to repay the Weimaraner rescue group Wonder Weims.
Theme for standalone campaigns and multi-user portals
Unlike other WP crowdfunding solutions, FundingPress is a standalone theme that requires no plug-in; instead, it makes calls to Paypal Adaptive Payments directly. This bare-bones approach streamlines site development and may also reduce CPU usage.
Crowdfunding sites that use FundingPress include Project Verde, a project to build a school in rural Guatemala from inorganic trash “eco bricks,” Teatro en Grupo, a portal for theater projects in Spain, and MyClassCam, a portal for classroom projects.
Platform Services: Build-It-Yourself
If you don’t want to run your own platform infrastructure, WordPress or otherwise, these companies let you build your own crowdfunding site online for free, arranging its layout through a design tool and uploading your own graphics for a custom look and branding — although it may need to include a small “Powered by” credit. Then they will host it for you, following a PaaS (Platform as a Service) pricing model. You pay a monthly fee, or give up a commission, or some combination of the two, and they take care of hosting, maintenance, and all of that.
Design your portal entirely through CrowdfundHQ’s build interface, or else directly edit the CSS style sheets and header/footer HTML for additional control. Payments through WePay, and pricing for the service is tiered: $79/month for accounts processing less than $50,000 per month, and $199 per month for higher volumes. Current customers include Crowdfunding Change/WeTheTrees.
Create your own site and pick a theme, or design your own. Payments through Balanced Payments, Stripe, and Braintree, with more gateways to come, including international; 1% fee collected on all transactions, billed monthly.
This new standalone-campaign offering comes from crowdfunding portal leader Invested.In (see below). WYSIWYG editor creates site with a small “GoodCleanFund” credit in corner, or you can pay extra for a fully white-label and brand-free version. It’s currently free to use, to attract users, but a flat-rate subscription fee will be charged in the future. Invested.In has a policy against platform services charging commissions.
This platform is more expensive than other offerings listed here, and it needs to be installed for you rather your just building it yourself online, but it offers unique features that change the dynamics of crowdfunding. For example Ebay-style bidding and a “Buy Now” option let a single funder replace all previous pledges and assume full ownership of a project. Funders can also earmark their contributions for specific project variants, or apply to contribute their time. Fees are 1,000 pounds ($1,587) for basic platform with 12 months hosting and maintenance, with no commission.
Invested.In has launched custom portals for big clients like Coca-Cola Mexico, Alberta BoostR, and the Avril Lavigne Foundation, and claims to have built more crowdfunding sites than anyone else in the business. Now the company is releasing a build-it-yourself tool for smaller organizations, Invested.In Enterprise, which was originally developed for Invested.In’s own internal use. The WYSIWYG interface lets you design the look of your portal, edit templates for email notifications, change funding terms, and switch payment gateways. Pricing for the new Enterprise service has not yet been determined, but it will be a flat monthly fee, and there may be no charge at all for sites under a certain number of users.
Mimoona’s “Plug & Fund” lets you build and customize your own crowdfunding portal for free and run it at its own domain or embed it in your existing website. Pages include a small “powered by Mimoona” credit at the bottom. The company uses the WePay gateway and charges no monthly fee to portals, but takes half of any commissions that the portals deduct, with a 2.5% minimum. Mimoona started out as Israel’s most popular crowdfunding site, and its admin dashboard includes unique tools that streamline the workload of operating a portal. Mimoona also powers Street Soccer USA and several other portals.
If you code, free and battle-tested software is available for crowdfunding. Selfstarter, which supports standalone projects, was originally developed for the $2 million Lockitron campaign and now underlies Crowdhoster’s service offering (described above). Catarse, was originally written for Brazil’s largest crowdfunding portal, and has become the software foundation for many successful multi-user portals. To install a custom Catarse site, developers on Freelancer.com typically bid $2,000 to $3,500 and 15- to 40-day project times. Both Selfstarter and Catarse codebases are written in Rails (aka Ruby on Rails), which can be hosted from cloud platform services like Heroku or Engine Yard.
Meanwhile, the Canadian web development shop Taskforce-1 is working on all-in-one open-source crowdfunding software project Thrinacia, which it plans to run its own installation of as a platform service.
A growing number of crowdfunding portals offer APIs, which allow software written by anyone and running anywhere to use their portals’ databases and back-end functions, such as serving pitch page content and processing payments. This enables anyone to build their own crowdfunding site and make it look the way they want it to, and then use simple software calls to handle the site’s behind-the-scenes functions. This means not having to build a back end for the site, which is a big development shortcut, but it comes with a price: The APIs will typically deduct a commission, just like they do on their native portals. The exceptions are APIs that support donations-only sites, like the free Donors Choose API and the FirstGiving API, which charges a small flat fee.
Paul Spinrad is a former editor at MAKE and Wired magazines, and a crowdfunding thought leader who catalyzed the movement for the JOBS Act’s crowdfunding provision. He began his career as a software engineer for government and business applications.