Crowdfunding and Crowdsourcing: An Exciting or Dangerous Trend?

I got an email the other day from a friend who is a full-time missionary. As a unique way to raise funds, he was asking for people to commit to a $5 donation per month -- and he actually urged people NOT to give more than that. His thinking was that with a small commitment from many people, his support would be more stable than it is when people commit to large sums and then back out.

My wife and I like what he is doing and signed up. Maybe you've been asked for something similar, as the trend of "crowdfunding" has exploded recently. I had another friend that published a book using, a popular crowdfunding site. And of course, President Obama famously used crowdfunding to revolutionize campaign fundraising in the 2008 election.

Crowdsourcing comic by Dan Rutledge, 2011.For some reason, though, as I thought more about my friend's $5 campaign, it started to bother me. I began wondering whether the "crowd-everything" trend was a good one. I was reading a book the other day by Richard Swenson. Swenson is a futurist that spends his time tracking trends. He was showing statistics related to the unprecedented pace of progress in the last twenty years and how the graphs are reaching a staggering point on the curve that looks mathematically unsustainable. This escalation trend spans almost every area of life from the number of hours we work each week to the amount of media generated each year. A simple consumer-goods example is that twenty years ago you went into a grocery store to buy coffee and there were a couple simple brands to choose from. Now, there is an entire aisle of choices and options and flavors and price points… and at some point the curve of the graph reaches a mathematical breaking point. That is, there are only so many options you can have for coffee before the whole coffee industry becomes unsustainable and has to consolidate or we all break down in tears in the coffee aisle from decision overload and we just go buy some milk instead. And that breaking point looks to be coming in hundreds of escalating areas of our society.

As I thought about it, there are two primary reasons why crowdfunding and crowdsourcing are increasing right now.

First - technology is enabling this. A $5 campaign never would have worked in the past… because you'd be mailing letters and sending out monthly reminders and getting checks in the mail and depositing them… and you'd end up spending so much time and effort that it wouldn't be worth it. Email and auto-withdrawal and the internet make it all possible. It many ways, it's a great time to be alive.

But the second reason this is happening is because of an increasing lack of commitment from people brought on by their escalating pace of life. There are now so many ways to spend your money and so many things to support… that my friend was finding that no one will commit any longer to giving $50 a month consistently. Because we're all dealing with so much "stuff" - the only way to get things done is to ask for very small amounts of time or money from lots and lots people.

The thing that really bothered me was where this trend is leading. There is a breaking point coming. Sure, it's great that I have one friend that does this $5 idea… but soon I will have 2… then 5… then 100. Before long I'll have hundreds of people asking me for $5 a month to the point that it's going to be overload every time I open my mailbox. What will be next? Some kind of donation technology where you donate a penny on top of every single purchase you make? Think it won't happen? Just wait. I'm happy to support my friend, but I'm exhausted already for where this is headed.

The reason these trends fascinate and concern me, of course, is because SignUpGenius is at the core a crowdsourcing utility. Instead of funds, SignUpGenius breaks down tasks and divides the work amongst lots of people. And I actually created it because the escalation of volunteering requests is already reaching a mathematical breaking point. Families in my stage of life are experiencing "death by paper-cut" with an overwhelming number of tiny commitments that are nearly impossible to organize and maintain. 

Thirty years ago, when I was growing up, there was not as much need for SignUpGenius. When I went to church… my Sunday School teacher Mrs. Irish was there every week and she had committed to that responsibility for nearly ten years. No one needed to organize that. But now, people have so many responsibilities that a church needs to schedule a different volunteer every week and people will only make a commitment of once a month for six months. It's maddening to coordinate that without some kind of electronic tool like SignUpGenius.

So what does this all mean for SignUpGenius? It means first of all, that this tool is INCREASINGLY needed to try and simplify a life of crowdsourcing. We can't stop the freight train of culture and therefore we have to be able to manage it. That's the good part of what SignUpGenius does - and it does it very well. But the danger is that it could also enable further crowdsourcing escalation. The more our site grows, the more I am convinced that it is an important responsibility for each person that uses our tool to think about what they are doing. As much as we're glad to have new users, we don't want to run this site if it just contributes to bombarding people with hundreds of more responsibilities.

School, church, nonprofit, sports leaders… you need to start asking yourself:

Is this event really valuable? Is everything I'm asking for really needed? Is my task something so critical that an entire group of people needs to band together immediately and make it happen? For example, if your child's 3rd grade classroom doesn't have "Friday study snacks" brought by a different parent each week, is anybody really damaged? Is that something that could just be cut? Definitely raise supplies for that orphanage in Africa. And organize meals for that friend that has cancer. But we all have a little bit of responsibility to throttle the crowdsourcing/crowdfunding trend. Please think. Don't just use our tool to overwhelm people and create more busyness.

Otherwise, I'm just going to break down and cry… and go drink some milk.