How Culture Influences Fundraising: Leveling Up for Artists, Crowdfunders, Grantmakers, and Equity Investors

A great idea + a crowd = money! :-)

With a biology degree from Stanford University, I got my first real job at a global health communications firm that represented clients such as the CDC, NIH, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Global Health Program.

It was exciting for awhile, raising awareness of critical health issues like maternal health, child mortality, cancer, and HIV/AIDS prevention. I designed presentations and wrote media briefs summarizing news of all the great things our clients, global thought leaders, were doing. It was an entry-level position, but I was guaranteed to move up as long as I was quick and efficient, which I was.

But I got bored. It felt like I was disappearing.

Everyday I would come to work and sit in my cubicle, staring at my potted plant and a daily calendar of words of hope and courage by the late Dr. Maya Angelou. It was filled with hope-y, change-y stuff like: Courage allows the successful person to fail — and to learn powerful lessons from the failure — so that in the end, it was not a failure at all.

I definitely felt like a failure. Since I’d decided not to become a doctor, after graduating with a biology degree, taking the communications job was a plan B. Not only was it not working out, but I suddenly had no idea what else I was supposed to do with my life. Each day, I grew more and more depressed. Eventually, my boss, Clark, called me into his office.

“You don’t seem engaged. Is something wrong?” he asked, leaning forward in his office chair.

A bunch of words tumbled out of my mouth, mostly about not feeling passionate about the work. Thinking back to all the performing arts I’d done in college, I wanted to use my creativity more.

Clark was really understanding and we discussed a 3-month transition period to hire my replacement while I looked for another job. After I left the company, it would be another couple of years before I found myself in NYU Tisch Graduate Film school.

Driven to combine my passion for social change and the arts, I dove head first into film school. In hindsight, I could’ve never imagined what an uphill battle making movies would be — until I had to raise money for my second-year short film.

But let’s back up a minute.

My Story

As the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, I grew up in a tiny apartment in downtown Albany, New York. I shared a bedroom with my three sisters until my parents got good-paying jobs, moved us to the suburbs, and I only had to share with one.

We didn’t have a lot of money, but what my parents lacked in finances they more than made up for with love, a focus on education, and a rich African immigrant community that gave us the social support we needed.

At Stanford, I was a biology pre-med, largely because my parents wanted me to become a doctor. Secretly, I’d always wanted to make movies, but I didn’t consider myself someone who came from a cinema culture. (Though Nollywood — what people commonly call Nigeria’s film industry — is booming, to date, there is only one cinema in my parents’ home state of Akwa Ibom. It opened three years ago.)

Growing up, most mainstream American TV and films didn’t feature people of color, women, Africans, immigrants, and their families in a way that reflected my experiences. Similarly, at film school, I encountered a curriculum that didn’t reflect my world view at all.

Coming from a predominantly white high school, to a historically white university and grad school, I was used to sometimes being the only black/African/first generation kid in class. At film school, though, it seemed pretty clear that these institutional factors could have ripple effects all across the industry.

I struggled to get through the program financially, going on academic leave after the first year to work and save money. Three years later, I returned with a script for a short film inspired by Nafissatou Diallo, the African immigrant maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then-head of the International Monetary Fund, of sexual assault.

Years before the #MeToo movement, I was surprised how few people believed her and how easily the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, dropped the case. It was a story ripe for the telling, but, given that nobody knew me, none of my classmates agreed to work on my film.

My excitement turned to panic when I faced a major obstacle of having to raise enough money to hire my entire crew.

My Fundraiser

So I went back to my roots, snail mailing letters to friends and family across the U.S. I launched an Indiegogo campaign with fiscal sponsorship through Fractured Atlas. I built a mailing list, sending a dozen emails to everyone in my network. Ultimately, I garnered the attention of an equity investor and exceeded my fundraising goal by a few thousand dollars.

In hindsight, I’m amazed at my chutzpah. I was too naive to know what barriers I faced: limited cultural understanding about money and asking for money; few high net worth friends; not feeling comfortable asking people in my personal circle for donations, especially low-income folks.

Growing up, most of the fundraising that occurred in our African immigrant community was geared toward repatriating the bodies of the deceased back to their native countries, or sending remittances back home for the day-to-day upkeep of relatives. (In 2017, the World Bank reported the largest remittance recipients in Sub-Saharan Africa were Nigeria [$21.9 billion], Senegal [$2.2 billion], and Ghana [$2.2 billion].)

Even so, I wasn’t sure if people would give me money for a film. But there were some things I intuitively knew:

  • Older Africans would likely give more money and mail me a check, rather than donating online;
  • Africans in general were more likely to give if the project had an academic component or institutional affiliation, like Fractured Atlas; and
  • My peers would likely give less online, but share my campaign more, even if they couldn’t donate.

Most importantly, I knew the strength of my relationships gave people a personal stake in my success or failure. So I didn’t approach the fundraiser as a transactional exercise, but rather an opportunity to reconnect, share what I was working on, and build community around the film.

It reminded me of that old African proverb that my late mother used to say: It takes a village to raise a child. My village came through for me in a big way. And since 2012, when the campaign ended, I’ve helped other artists and arts nonprofits raise thousands more in funding.

The Problem

Since I started down this long path, both personally and professionally, I’ve learned a lot more:

  • Studies show that, in the nonprofit world, many organizations take a traditional fundraising approach, raising money outside of the marginalized communities they serve.
  • The Blackbaud Diversity in Giving study found that: “The under-representation of African-Americans and Hispanics [in the donor universe] suggests that organized philanthropy is not doing an adequate job of engaging non-white communities…[Changing this] may necessitate shifts in fundraising channels, in messaging and language, and even in governance.”
  • Foundations are scrambling to scale up on diversity and inclusion, in hopes of removing systemic and structural barriers for people of color (and women, immigrants, LGBTQI folks, non-English speakers, and people with disabilities, although most have limited understanding/bandwidth to address all these).
  • In the crowdfunding world, there’s little understanding of the particular challenges faced by self-producing artists and creatives from underrepresented populations.
  • Digital platforms are viewed as equalizers that level the playing field, when in many cases they highlight existing inequities. On a well-known online microfinance lending site, researchers found that charitable lenders favored more attractive, lighter-skinned, and less obese borrowers.
  • Little research has been done on the impact of culture on fundraising. A study that compared crowdfunding in China versus the United States found that, in the former, a collectivist culture, “stronger feelings of being involved in and contributing to the collective as a whole and of benefiting other people” yielded a positive impact on crowdfunding performance — as compared to the U.S., an individualistic culture.
  • But most of the (limited) cross-cultural research looks at the U.S. as a monolith, rather than a collection of smaller communities and subcultures. It’s a huge pitfall that almost nobody is addressing.

I’ve seen countless crowdfunding campaigns fail because artists lacked access to basic fundraising and marketing tools, video production and copywriting resources, campaign best practices, and a plan for adapting their approach to meet their specific needs and communities.

I’ve also seen firsthand the lack of cultural competency, transparency, and even feedback in the recruitment, application, and selection processes of many well-respected grants and fellowships — and understand how that may deter applicants from diverse groups while perpetuating inequities in arts and cultural production.

The Solution

I don’t know whether crowdfunding sites, grantmakers, or fellowships will ever fully scale up on equity and inclusion. Recently, a foundation officer explained it to me this way: “It’s work. And nobody wants to do more work.”

But what I know for sure is we can each find our village, no matter how small.

So I’m planning a webinar to help move the needle forward for artists and creatives who, like me, are in desperate need of culturally-relevant fundraising tools that meet our needs. Yes, it’s work, but the alternative is constantly complaining about how none of these tools fully speak to me or my experience. (If you’d like to keep in touch for when the webinar happens, join my mailing list!)

Until then, I’d love to know:

  • What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in funding your creative projects?
  • Do you find grants, fellowships, and crowdfunding platforms useful or frustrating? Why or why not?
  • What questions do you have about diversifying your fundraising strategy to meet your specific needs?

I look forward to hearing from you! If this resonated with you, please clap it up, so people outside of my network will get a chance to read it, too. Thanks for your help! :-)

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Iquo B. Essien is a writer, director, and business consultant. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, or visit

#fundraising #crowdfunding #equity #philanthropy #grantmaking #artists #creatives

Writer, creator, and consultant to artists and entrepreneurs. NYU Film & Stanford alumna. Let’s chat:

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