Challenges, Risks and Questions
Although the North American Thebaid Project has been in development for over a year, there are still unavoidable risks and unknowns. To the best of our knowledge, nothing quite like this has ever been done in the Orthodox Church before, so we are truly in uncharted territory.
Here is an overview of some concerns expressed to us already, in a Q&A format:
1. I’ve never heard of crowdfunding. How does this work, and is it realistic?
That’s a great first question which I’ve responded to in a blog post on the Thebaid website. Basically, as the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo puts it,
Crowdfunding is “the process of raising money online through contributions made by many different people, sometimes hundreds or thousands, who share the same passion for your project.”
In the case of the North American Thebaid, in the Orthodox Christian Churches in North America alone there are millions of members, which realistically should mean thousands, if not tens of thousands, of potential supporters, perhaps more.
The Project may also find backers from Roman Catholic and other Christian confessions, as well as from those who love photography, unique cultures and religions, etc. Orthodoxy is global, much in the news now, and its worship is very visual, very compelling, and is a wonderful subject for photography, so we hope many people will be drawn to the uniqueness of the Thebaid Project.
Lastly, Indiegogo is a unique crowdfunding platform, and its members and visitors often donate to other projects they find interesting. In exploring other photography projects, I found two that I though were very unique, and to which I made small donations.
2. How does it work? I don’t get the “rewards” concept.
Supporters of crowdfunded projects typically receive rewards, or “perks”, in compensation for their contributions. It is our way of thanking our supporters with a tangible expression of our appreciation.
Since the Thebaid Project is about photography, we’ve set up our crowdfunding perks so that even the entry level donors (at $10 and $25) will receive valuable photographic rewards in the form of unique images of Mount Athos, all but one of which have never been published.
Beginning at the $50 level, supporters will receive first edition copies of the finished book. Those who would like to provide more support have a number of levels at which they receive higher value rewards, including signed books, signed and matted museum quality fine-art prints, and a leather-bound Limited Edition. We really hope people will find the Thebaid Project looks interesting and will want to support it as best they can. And we feel the rewards are both a good value, as well as fascinating photographic journeys which our supporters can return to again and again.
Lastly, it seems to me that the Church has always been about crowdfunding, ever since St Paul collected donations during his missionary journeys to help the church in Jerusalem (cf. 1 COR 16:1-3). Now, through the internet and social media, it is easier than ever before to reach large groups of supporters to help fund endeavors such as the North American Thebaid Photographic Pilgrimage Project.
2. Why didn’t you set your crowdfunding target to cover the full budget of $60,000+?
In our research into crowdfunding, we learned that there are realistic numbers, beyond which potential supporters might understandably be “spooked”, and consider the entire project to be unfeasible, “pie in the sky.” So, not only did we divide up our crowdfunding targets, but we also developed a multi-pronged fundraising strategy, so no single method had to raise the entire amount. We feel the combination of two crowdfunding drives, with some hoped-for matching funds from grants, and pre-sales of the Founding Subscribers’ Limited Edition Book offers a strong recipe for success.
We developed the Founding Subscribers’ Limited Edition book concept based on conversations with an author who has successfully published two niche coffee table books using that method alone, by networking with interested target markets and pre-selling her finished product. The book pre-sale method is really a venerable and well-proven path to publishing which has been used by artists from John J. Audubon in the 19th century, to the great photographer Ansel Adams in the 20th. We feel we’re in good company and are very hopeful our strategy will succeed.
3. What if you don’t meet your initial $15,000 target for the crowdfunding?
In a word, if we miss our target, then we simply downsize out initial expenditures, and strive to begin travel and photography in September-October 2016 as planned, just with a more modest initial outlay.
Realizing the possibility of missing our initial crowdfunding target, we built in a realistic flexibility to our business plan. This is why we designed a multi-phase fundraising plan, with four different components (crowdfunding (in two phases), direct donations via PayPal link on the website, grants, and book pre-sales), as well as a flexible budget, with graduated levels in both the equipment and travel categories.
For instance, our full Photographic and Technical Budget has a total of just under $8500. However, we can begin photography with as little as $2350 being spent. Same principle for travel and lodging expenses. Much of the travel budget is spread out over a 6-12 month period, so we could conceivably begin travel and photography with under $9,000 raised, less than 60% of our target. That is not optimal, of course, but we could work with it.
Also, thanks to Indiegogo’s “flexible funding” option (and our own multi-faceted fundraising business plan), we are not locked into an “all or nothing” crowdfunding situation, where failing to hit our target means pulling the plug on the entire project. Whatever total amount we hit through the Indiegogo campaign, we receive the funds. The fact that we have some strong up-front commitments from supporters helps too.
4. What if you have breakdowns on the road?
First of all, I have a recent model car (2006) with only 90,000 miles on it, which I keep well serviced and maintained. In late 2014 I did a 3500 mile pilgrimage to monasteries and destinations in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.
One of the key components of the travel budget is AAA Premium, which actually provides for a tow of up to 200 miles, plus other advanced benefits. We also budgeted for tires, and both scheduled and unexpected maintenance, hotel stays in-between monastery visits, etc. We worked this out calculating a realistic driving distance each day, expected stops, etc. Of course, the unexpected can always happen, but we have worked hard to budget within reason for the unforeseen.
5. How will you get the word out? Doesn’t this require a large response to succeed?
Yes! A large response is essential, and we are already seeing evidence of great interest in the Thebaid Project, especially when it comes to Orthodox bloggers and news sites. We already have had a strong response from readers of the blog Byzantine TX, who posted our Pre-Launch Announcement, and we have a commitment from a major Orthodox news site (Pravoslavie) who did a feature story when we launched the Crowdfunding.
We’ve already had over two thousand views on the thebaid.org website (and we haven’t officially launched yet!), and several hundred views on our Facebook page, so we hope that will translate into firm support when the time comes.
We may do some targeted ads, but we are hoping the announcements go viral and that interest will grow organically.
Once the trek and photography begins, I’ll be posting images from the road using Instagram, as well as Facebook and Twitter, and of course the Thebaid website. I’m not a social media maven by any stretch of the imagination, but our consultations have made it clear that in our day and age, it is essential that we cast a wide net for supporters and interest, and this is the way forward for the Thebaid Project to succeed.
Also, the main camera for the project, the Canon EOS 6D, has GPS built in, so I’ll be able to geo-tag images with precise coordinates, and am looking at solutions for an interactive map to make it easy and interesting to see graphically where I’ve been, and click on the map to see galleries of the images. This may prove especially interesting for younger followers of the Project.
We ask everyone to share the Thebaid Project with their church, family and friends. In addition, I am planning to schedule parish visits in between the monastery stays, where I will give digital slide presentations of the work in progress, and hope to take up collections and see advance book sales.
The initial crowdfunding duration is rather long, just over 50 days, which will give us time for interest to grow. We are placing the Thebaid Project under the protection of the Mother of God (who is considered the Abbess of all Monastics) to bless the Project, and have coordinated the initial crowdfunding campaign to conclude during the Feast of the Dormition on the Old Calendar.
Ultimately we are trusting in God on all this. As my priest, Fr. Steven, likes to remind us, “Man proposes, but God disposes.”