A couple of years ago, I received an unsolicited invitation to participate in Benefunder, a sort of Kickstarter for scientists. I talked with the people running it a couple of times. They proposed a very intriguing idea: All I needed to do was come up with a snappy description of my research, some compelling images, and $500. They would promote my research as part of a portfolio that wealthy investors would contribute to both because they were interested in the research and because the contributions were structured in a way that provided substantial tax benefits, a donor-advised fund. I was tempted because it sounded like a very promising idea. In the end, though, I just couldn’t see investing $500 in the project. It seemed too unlikely that a donor would be interested in supporting the esoteric research that I do.
It appears that my skepticism was well founded.
[E]ven as Benefunder bulged with projects, donors remained scarce. “We were never able to get off the ground,” [Christian] Braemer [one of the Benefunder founders] says. Donor funds “were not willing to take the reputational risk [on] an unknown entity,” he says. And the firm received just a few “small transactions … a bit out of the blue.”
To stay afloat, Benefunder ramped up sales of the profiles and videos. In 2014 and 2015, it earned more than $660,000 this way but attracted just $62,000 in gifts, tax forms show. In late 2015, as the firm ran out of cash, it abruptly stopped recruiting researchers, left some videos unfinished, and laid off all but three of the 12 employees who worked for it and an allied firm. (Ambitious web fundraising startup fails to meet big goals, by Mark Harris, Science 354: 534; 2016 doi: 10.1126/science.354.6312.534 )