Crowdfunding for education in Egypt: Funding for civil society democratised

Rowan El Shimi, Tuesday 8 Jul 2014

Five alternative education initiatives launch crowdfunding campaigns on indiegogo and Facebook simultaneously; Ahram Online talks to the initiatives about their challenges and opportunities

ADEF Picture
ADEF camps (Photo: ADEF crowdfunding campaign)

In a country where the creative economy is challenged and where few opportunities exist for non-charitable civil society initiatives to raise money, crowdfunding is explored as a viable substitute by various independent artists and educational organisations.

Over the past six weeks, five crowdfunding campaigns have been launched - all raising money through the internet for education-related projects - with some already coming to a close.

Crowdfunding has been steadily growing in popularity around the world as an alternative fundraising tool; over the past three years, Egypt has been catching up with the global trend. In 2012 and 2013, several initiatives and artists successfully used crowdfunding platforms such as indiegogo, kickstarter and the Lebanon-based Zoomal to raise funds for their projects, such as independent media collective Mosireen, urban-discourse platform Cairobserver, revolution graffiti book Walls of Freedom and for films by Omar Robert Hamilton and Sherief Elkatsha.

Although simple, the crowdfunding process remains challenging for many. Initiatives and individuals post their projects’ information on the campaign page, usually alongside an inspiring video explaining their story, and people contribute in their chosen amounts directly on the page. Some initiatives offer their donors perks, give-aways and gifts, which are delivered after the campaign ends. The hosting platforms take a small percentage of the total amount donated, which increases if the campaign fails to reach its goal.

Campaign challenges

The Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF) was the first to launch a campaign on indiegogo. Their campaign, which ended merely days ago, aimed to raise USD35,000 to host the Arab Digital Expression Camp, which is one of ADEF’s most valuable projects.

For eight years in a row, ADEF has hosted two-week regional summer camps for youth (12-15 years) to venture into self-expression through technology and to promote an open source culture. Previously, it was funded through the Ashoka grant given to the project’s founder Ranwa Yehia, along with individual donations, in-kind donations by companies and some grants by foreign culture institutions.

The camps cost USD 100,000 and ADEF were aiming to raise around 30 percent of that cost through their campaign. However, in spite of many generous donations, they only managed to raise USD7.800.

“We had hoped to reach our goal,” Ahmad Gharbeia, Knowledge Projects Manager at ADEF told Ahram Online. “It’s difficult to tell now the reasons we didn’t, but my initial feeling is that the network [of people who would give to these projects] is exhausted. However, we learned from the experience and we will try again,” Gharbeia confirmed.

While ADEF did not manage to raise the amount they needed, they did manage to use several online resources to raise awareness about their camps.

Crowdfunding, in essence, democratises the process of obtaining money for projects. Instead of previously having only a few foundations or grant-giving bodies who decide on which projects happen on the ground, now, an individual has a say in what kind of projects they want to see in their society.

Mini-Medina, whose campaign is still live, aim at hosting simulated activities for children to create their own city. The simulation, which they already hosted in Muqattam, Alexandria, Darb 1718 and Abu Sir, gives children the opportunity to play city where they have businesses, make laws, negotiate boundaries and play with the concept of citizenship. The idea is similar to the popular “Kidzania” which takes place in the high-income suburb of Kattameya, except that Mini-Medina is for free, and does not promote any corporation within the activity.

The initiative is aiming to raise EUR 8,000 to cover hosting the simulations, establishing an alternative education network, renting a workspace and sending 10 children and four adults to Mini-Munich which is a meeting point for several Mini-City initiatives around the world.

Their campaign, which has merely days to go, has only managed to raise EUR 1,391 to date. According to Paloma Yáñez, one of the founders and facilitators of Mini-Medina, the first week was when they got most of the funds, then things became rather stagnant.

“Among the lessons learned is that maybe the campaign needs to be more personal and specialised, such as having more information about the kids we want to take to Mini-Munich,” she reflected. “Also an offline event to go with the online campaign could serve in both collecting money offline and raising awareness about the campaign.”

Online money collection has been a key issue in most crowdfunding campaigns in Egypt. In a country where online shopping is still a very limited market, and the general culture is sceptical of online payments, this challenge falls into place.

The Contemporary Dance Centre, which until 30 June 2013 operated under the Ministry of Culture, has been independently running its three-year dance programme for dancers seeking a career in professional contemporary dance along with classes open for the public for several months now. The centre launched its own crowdfunding campaign weeks ago, and has only collected USD350 out of the USD8.500 aimed for.

The centre’s founder and artistic director Karima Mansour believes that while crowdfunding is a useful tool to some extent in Egypt, it cannot be a real alternative for established structures to fund independent culture and education ventures.

“Crowdfunding does not fix the issue at all,” Mansour told Ahram Online. “There is a limit to the money you ask for and it needs to be specific, it cannot carry a project from A to Z.”

Of most campaigns launched in Egypt over the past few years, the ones with a specific goal, or outcome, proved the easier to raise money for, while those that raised money for structural funding -- such as the dance centre -- have faced more challenges. The exception to this rule has been Mosireen’s 2012 campaign which managed to raise over USD 40,000 for the structural funding of their activities.

While four of the crowdfunding initiatives have opted to use indiegogo, Educate Me -- who host a learning centre in Al-Konayyesa neighbourhood in Giza -- are raising LE 400,000 through their Facebook page to buy the space they are working in. So far they have managed to collect LE 100,000. People donate through a contact person whose number is on their page.

This method has proven successful in the initiative’s past activities and partially serves to alleviate most Egyptians’ fear of online payment. However, the initiative probably loses on potential donors outside of Egypt who would support them with only a few clicks on a trackpad.

Lessons learned from successes and pitfalls

Analysing the successes and challenges experienced by the current campaigns, some conclusions may be drawn on how crowdfunding could prove worthwhile.

A valuable observation is that crowdfunding campaigns with a stronger focus on creating a buzz than on the donation process, have higher chances of success.

Baladna, a board game about Egypt for children, which aims to raise over USD 8,000 over the next month, proved to be the most successful campaign to date. The initiative by Weladna, a company aiming to create toys and games for children inspired by local culture, has managed to raise more than 50 percent of their target within less than two weeks of their launch.

For example, Baladna’s team spent months planning their campaign, studying previous successful crowdfunding campaigns, and creating a detailed plan of promotion and dissemination. They also reached out through personal email to contacts they collected over the years to ensure the campaign reaches people beyond online social networks.

According to Fatma Azmy, Weladna’s founder, the personal emails were the most successful form of outreach they established, with most donors reaching their campaign through email and not Facebook or Twitter.

If we look at Mosireen's campaign in 2012, the collective focused on involving people in the process of campaigning. They reached out to several other activists, journalists and social media icons to spread the word on their campaign. Mosireen had 352 funders donating more than USD 40,000.

One other element which contributes to campaign successes is the perks system. People are more likely to donate money if they receive a gift or a souvenir of the project. Last year, graffiti book Walls of Freedom offered donors several perks -- from wallpapers, to original artworks to the book itself -- and the campaign reached 187 percent of its goal. This year, Baladna followed in Walls of Freedom's footsteps and also visualised the perks so potential donors could have a clear image of what they would get.

On a final note, from the study of several crowdfunding campaigns in Egypt and beyond, it seems clear that campaigns which inspire people to be part of something bigger than the project have had more success. Whether it’s changing the market of children’s toys to more authentic local products such as Baladna’s case, or supporting the documentation of an art form associated with revolutionary activities, as in Walls of Freedom, or, as in Mosireen’s case, being part of financing an independent alternative to media, individuals seem more likely to give to a cause or a belief manifested within a project by some inspired individuals.

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