Crowd-Funding for Award-Winning Artists: USA Projects to Hold Houston Workshop

by Bill Davenport May 15, 2012

In 2010, nonprofit grant making org United States Artists launched its own online fundraising platform, USA Projects. Kira Shewfelt, Artist Relations Specialist and Education Coordinator for USA will be giving a free talk about the new venture on May 17 at the Glassell School of Art in Houston. RSVP by emailing [email protected].

Like Kickstarter, the micro-philanthropy website solicits small contributions from individuals to fund artists’ projects, with a couple important differences: being a charity, donations are tax deductible (Kickstarter is a for-profit business); and participating artists must have already been recognized by one or more of a long and growing list of arts organizations (anyone can start a Kickstarter project, and it’s not limited to arts projects) USA Projects They also boasts a75% a success rate, half again Kickstarter’s 45%.

From the user’s point of view, the two crowd-funding systems are similar, but the mechanisms behind them are fundamentally different. Kickstarter is a business with the free-for-all energy (and stupidities) of the marketplace;  USA Projects is a charity, with a top-down interest in funneling money to projects and artist with demonstrated (if predictable) value. Rather than giving money to artists directly, donors give money to USA Projects, with a recommendation for their chosen project; if enough donors recommend a project, USA funds it; if not, the donations are used for other projects or overhead. On Kickstarter, a project must reach its funding goal before time runs out or no money changes hands.

Overhead costs for the two crowd-finding models are much the same. In their terms of use agreement, USA Projects says that 19% of donations are retained by USA for “furthering the general charitable, educational and artistic purposes of USA Projects” and overhead, of which 9% is reinvested in direct funding to artists, leaving 10% for administrative costs. Kickstarter takes 5-10% for itself.


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Robert Boyd May 15, 2012 - 15:08

Where does Indie-a-go-go fit in? The main difference between Kickstarter and Indie-a-go-go that I can observe is that even though you have a goal, you get to kepp all the money you raise even if you don’t reach that goal. But I don’t know if Indie-a-go-go is non-profit like USA projects or for-profit like Kickstarter.

By the way, for folks who remember Jim Woodring drawing with his giant nib pen at Lawndale last year, that was financed through USA Projects.

Jenni Rebecca May 16, 2012 - 11:43

There are subtle differences between IndieGoGo and Kickstarter, including: a slightly different fee structure, if and how money is distributed if goal is not met (as Robert mentioned above, IndieGoGo will let you keep your money if you don’t meet your goal, but you will be paying a slightly higher fee), as well as the ability to tie the campaign in with the fiscal sponsorship services of orgs like Fractured Atlas (allowing donations to be considered charitable donations just like USA Projects). That said, there are pros and cons to all these systems… for some, Kickstarter’s insistence on meeting goals is problematic. For others, it’s motivation.

Two recent Houston examples: Two Star Symphony raised $7K+ on IndieGoGo for time in the recording studio and Horse Head Theatre raised $12K+ on Kickstarter for a new production with Terry Allen. That said, both IndieGoGo and Kickstarter should be thought of as enhanced fundraising tools– not magic bullets. All the same fundraising rules apply. (In the case of Two Star, the group had formed a fundraising committee before they launched the campaign to help ensure its success.)

I’m curious about the comparisons between USA Projects and Kickstarter. I would point out that the more popular crowdfunding platforms are not, in fact, soliciting general donations. They are quick to point out that it is very rare for unaffiliated philanthropists and do-gooders to browse the site looking for random projects to fund. Most, if not all the traffic on these websites is driven by those trying to get projects funded and their networks. Despite USA Projects’ air of legitimacy (and at-a-glance consistency in project quality), I suspect this rings true for them, as well. It’s likely these artists are the prime force drawing a cultivated audience to the site– particularly if they’re focusing on artists with “demonstrated value.” (I will obviously have to wait for the presentation on the 17th to learn more.)

I’d also hesitate to compare the success rate of the two sites… if only for fear of giving artist hopefuls the wrong impression. If curation is involved on the part of USA Projects, the results are already skewed.

Worthy of note is the fact that the Houston Arts Alliance has chosen to move forward in a formal partnership with yet another crowdfunding platform called Power2Give, which- as I currently understand it- focuses strictly on arts organizations. ( During a recent info session, the Power2Give team (from the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte) similarly stressed that random gifts made by benevolent web surfers are rare. However, they have successfully partnered with the local business community in Charlotte to create employee campaigns driving more unaffiliated traffic to the site- a bit like a United Way for the arts. Yet, in order for it to be more useful than the preexisting tools like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, there has to be an independent local agent marketing the site to folks (doubtlessly hoards?) looking for art projects to fund. Either way, their fees are significantly higher than IndieGoGo. (Fiscally sponsored projects with Fractured Atlas pay a flat 6% fee.)

Fresh Arts (formerly Spacetaker) has hosted a handful of workshops on this subject, as well as hosted one of the founders from IndieGoGo and Fractured Atlas’ fiscal sponsorship program. If anyone is curious about materials from those presentations, feel free to email [email protected] and we’ll gladly share. Meanwhile, we’ll look forward to attending the presentation on USA Projects and adding that info to the list. Regardless of the details, another tool to empower artists can only be a good thing.

Russell Lee Hansen October 27, 2012 - 11:15

USA Projects have been contacting me to get a project started. I was suspicious about how much actual funding was provided by the artist’s friends and family verses actual corporate donations. I wondered about costs to me as they haven’t said anything about that. Without knowing a lot I decided not to get involved with them because anything that’s advertised to be (free) is usually not free at all. I am a poor unknown artist master photographer and I will probably die the same and what will it matter if I had “money” for my project. You can only feel pride up until your last breath and life is short so it seems like a waste of my time on earth to pursue. I didn’t care about the fame I just want to earn a living. And then I read the forms to sign up for this “grant”. It’s too intrusive and looks like friends and family fundraising. Well family and friends wouldn’t give me a dime so I opted out.


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