Innovative Meetings

The Tao of Crowdfunding

How the Buddhist Geeks used Kickstarter to bring their community together.

When Vincent Horn, founder of the Buddhist Geeks, planned his organization’s first conference, held in Los Angeles last July, he did what any good Buddhist would do: He took a Zen-like approach. “ We funded the event,” Horn said, “using ticket sales as we went along.”

The Geeks, as Horn calls his organization’s supporters and conference participants, range from video-game developers to CEOs to scientists – all bound by a common interest in the teachings of Buddhism. Horn, a meditation teacher, started the organization in 2007 to “find the convergence point between Buddhist meditation and philosophy, and technology, business, science, culture, and art.” His goal in bringing different voices together, he said, is to add a modern, forward-thinking viewpoint to the Buddhist community. Think Buddha with an iPad.

The Geeks’ inaugural conference was a success, drawing more than 120 attendees and an outpouring of positive feedback for the two-day hybrid event, which mixed morning meditation sessions with 15-minute, TED -style presentations and intimate workshops. But there was one problem with Horn’s in-the-moment organization of the first conference – the Geeks hadn’t laid any groundwork for funding a follow-up. “We weren’t interested in bootstrapping again,” Horn said. “We thought about raising money through donors or investors, but that didn’t seem to be in the spirit of what we do.”

So the Geeks turned to Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects founded in 2008. How it works: A creator submits a project or idea to the Kickstarter team – it can be an event, film, work of art, book, invention, or other endeavor in one of more than a dozen creative fields. If the project meets Kickstarter’s guidelines, the creator outlines the proposed project on a Kickstarter website page, and backers can pledge financial support in any amount. In return for the pledges, the creator must promise rewards, typically artwork, copies of books – or, as in the Geeks’ case, tickets to an event. The catch: All projects must meet a self-set funding goal within 60 days, or the project is canceled from the website.

The Geeks set their funding goal for this year’s conference at $20,000, to cover overhead, speaker fees, and venue costs, and to provide a cushion in case ticket sales came up short. The rewards the Geeks offered varied depending on the pledge amount – $50 pledges received a limited-edition T-shirt, for example, while $250 pledges received an early-bird ticket to the conference, a T-shirt, and other benefits. Offering items in addition to tickets allowed the organization to raise funds from backers who weren’t necessarily interested in attending the conference, but wanted to support it.

The experiment was a hit, with 150 backers pledging $25,571, far exceeding the Geeks’ Kickstarter goal. Horn expects attendance to double at the event, to be held at the University of Colorado in Boulder on Aug. 9–11. “The Geeks were able to come about because of micro-patronage,” Horn said. “ We like doing things that involve all of our community members, and it felt like the moment was right to use Kickstarter.”

Kickstarting Events

EventStir (which is so new that the site was running a private beta version at press time) applies the crowdfunding concept to social gatherings. Anyone can propose and organize an event, and promote it using Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media platforms built into the application. As with Kickstarter and Groupon, the event is only a go if a certain amount of money is pledged. Because participants are more likely to attend an event they have already paid for, this model is a hedge against one of the biggest risks of networking and social events that are organized online – low attendance.

For a primer on using Kickstarter – along with the story of how a video-game designer raised millions for a game that was rejected by industry investors – from the website.

Jennifer N. Dienst

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.