Interview: Why the ICRC is Turning to Crowdfunding

CrowdfundingA few weeks ago, I was surprised to hear that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has launched their own crowdfunding platform, promising individual donors to “cut through the noise” and to get “project updates and real-time news” related to the projects they support. The ICRC has an annual budget of 2 billion USD, they get 90% of their funding from governments (private donations make up only 4%) and they have always been fairly resistant to earmarking. Why would they suddenly start to crowdfund projects that are comparatively small and where funds would be very tightly earmarked? Coline Rapneau, ICRC’s crowdfunding project manager was kind enough to answer my questions.

At the time of the interview, ICRC’s first crowdfunding campaign to support clubfoot treatment in Pakistan had been running for two out of four weeks and attracted just over 5,000 USD of funding compared to the funding goal of 100,000 USD.

Timo Luege: Why has ICRC started to crowdfund?

Coline Rapneau: In crowdfunding, you have the word “fund”, but you also have the word “crowd” – and when we talk about a crowd, we talk about communication, about engaging people! Crowdfunding allows us to show what exactly we are doing in the field and to ask people to support us, in one way or another. It’s a different way to build a community of support for the ICRC, and in the medium and longer term, for the [Red Cross Red Crescent] Movement and for the humanitarian cause in general.

There are a lot of people, who do not donate to the ICRC or other organizations yet, because they are reluctant to give to a big “black box” where they are not able to track where their money is going. Crowdfunding is an opportunity to create an emotional link between the donor and the affected people, because donors will be able to easily see where their money is going and how it is spent; they will be able to follow the beneficiaries and see how the project is developing almost on a day to day basis. Crowdfunding favours storytelling and enables us to follow affected people to better understand what they’re facing on the ground and what the solution is to help them. This is a great way to encourage  people not only to donate, but also to become supporters/ambassadors of the ICRC values, mandate and mission, to say: ‘we are supporting ICRC in general because we like the values, we like what they are doing.’

Another essential thing, probably as important as diversifying our funds, is that crowdfunding gives the chance to ICRC offices/delegations to talk about humanitarian issues that are too often forgotten, unnoticed, or just disregarded by other organizations and by donors in general.

TL: Your first project is asking for 100,000 dollars, but it is only five per cent funded after two weeks. Will future projects have smaller funding goals?

CR: This is a pilot phase and we’re trying different things, but I would say that it would be more relevant and realistic to promote smaller projects, approximatively 10,000, 15,000, up to 60,000 dollars. Potentially, we might have projects that require more money but can be started with smaller amounts.

I’m not very surprised that we are only at five per cent, because we are facing a lot of internal and external obstacles, particularly in terms of geographical targeting. For instance, due to National [Red Cross or Red Crescent] Societies’ primacy, we cannot proactively target their markets as we would have liked. Therefore, we are aware that it’s not as good as we would like in terms of funding, but we’re learning considerably and drawing conclusions, also taking into consideration all the restrictions that we have. It’s our first crowdfunding pilot and the final financial objective is very high. However, in terms of visibility, we’re good and satisfied. The engagement rate is high on social media:  people are sharing, commenting and liking, which is extremely encouraging and positive.

As I have said, we are in a pilot phase where we have the right to fail and based on that, to draw conclusions in order to improve.

TL: How are the projects selected?

CR: The way we select projects is very simple: Delegations approach us with their project that must ideally be small, concrete and easily implementable on the ground.

There is a list of criteria that helps our team to choose the type of projects we select:

Projects must improve the situation of people affected by armed conflict or other situations of violence very concretely. They need to help categories of people with specific vulnerabilities, such as, for instance, children, people with disabilities or the elderly. It should also be projects that are appealing to the public – something that will provide a compelling message or promote a very specific cause so that the audience can really connect to it. As mentioned, projects should be easily and quickly implemented, with simple and measurable outcomes. Finally, the final amount to be raised should be reasonable to guarantee the success of the project.

TL: What happens with the project, if you don’t reach the funding goal?

CR: In the case of [the clubfoot project in] Pakistan, it’s pretty easy. We know that with 246 US-dollars, you can treat a child between 3 and 6 months. So we will divide the final amount we have managed to crowdfund by 246, to get the total number of children we will be able to treat.

TL: A lot of organizations like ICRC or MSF are very reluctant to accept earmarking. But in this case, you’re earmarking not just for a country but for a specific project.

CR: I would even go further… We are mostly earmarking not for a project, but for specific people. Crowdfunding is not about the project, it’s about the people who will benefit from it.

TL: Has that been difficult to sell within ICRC?

CR: Strangely, not too much. We have recently made a lot of internal communications and the feedback from colleagues is rather very positive so far. People are enthusiastic and thrilled to see that ICRC is innovating through such a crowdfunding platform. People see this initiative not only as a boundless way of raising funds and awareness but also as an opportunity to communicate about what we do, where and how and give an opportunity to people to be part of the change.

TL: Thank you very much!

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