Thursday, March 27, 2008

Where Do Your Donation Dollars Go?

Because I’ve been driving to work, I recently started listening to NPR. This morning, I noticed the hosts were a unit of acceleration above their normal breezy and casual pace. They began talking dollars, and it took me a minute to realize they weren’t talking about the Dow Jones. Gradually, it dawned on me: this was a fundraising drive. I’ve been listening to WBUR for less than a month, and they want to know am I willing to donate sixty, two hundred, maybe a thousand dollars?

To be honest, I’ve never really understood having donations be a major part of one’s financial operations. Except for things like emergency relief, caring for children, or for gifts like grants, endowments, and scholarships, if a large portion of your operating budget comes from donations, methinks you should be rethinking your business strategy. But, hey, it’s kept PBS alive all these years, so what do I know? Needless to say, I didn’t pick up the phone.

Unfortunately for my conscience, many of my favorite sites are, to some extent, donation driven. Tales of MU, Penny and Aggie, Girls with Slingshots, and Something Positive all feature that handy little donation button, all warm and ready to synch up with your PayPal account.

Do I have $20 to spare for some poor, starving writer/artist who has provided me endless hours of entertainment? Probably, but when you start tallying the number of sites I read (okay, I may have a slight illness; where are all those articles on Internet addiction?), we’re talking a hefty penalty. And when my moral debt starts creeping into the two, three hundreds, I start feeling stingy.

Sure, I’m a bad person. I’m no better than all those other people who have ragged on artists for years, talking about how they should be creating art for art’s sake and not for money. But I suspect, in our information-wants-to-be-free society, that I’m not alone. So, aside from advertising, how do online artists monetize?

Alexandra Erin at Tales of MU uses an incentivized donation scheme. Erin’s serial is character-driven, but there are many hidden delights in her careful world-building. And every time her donation box hits $250, she posts a bonus story in addition to her obsessive updates. These often provide a backstory for one or more characters, and reveal a little something about how the MUniverse operates. Given that she’s got twenty-two bonus stories up already, it seems to be working out.

I met Cristi, business manager at Questionable Content (and fiancee of the artist, Jeph Jacques), about a year ago. She told me that she and Jacques make their living off of QC merchandise. I thought that was the greatest thing I’d ever heard and immediately bought a t-shirt.

Since then, I’ve bought a second shirt from the QC merch store, as a gift for someone who doesn’t even read the comic. That's what I love about the QC t-shirts (and the same goes for the items at Diesel Sweeties); they are great on their own, not just as fanwear. In a way, it’s not so much that the shirts are a way to monetize his webcomic than that the webcomic creates a demand for his t-shirt business. It’s probably the reason I see so many of his bearmonster shirts around Harvard Square:

Penny and Aggie started a donation drive in the fall based on a collaborative incentive system – as in, the more money T Campbell and Gisele Lagace receive, the greater the reward for donors and Campbell’s larger audience. Bizarrely, though, the incentives at the lower levels focus more on Campbell’s other projects – Cool Cat Studio and Fans! – than on P&A. The pair also maintain a small store, although the offerings are slim: two P&A paperbacks, which makes sense, and a t-shirt aimed at die-hard fans. The sole print is a somewhat pornographic piece from Cool Cat Studio. I’m sure that it’s a lovely piece behind the blur (P&A’s a family show, folks), but not exactly something I’m going to purchase and hang on my wall. Why not, I wonder, sell P&A art to P&A fans?

The truth is, I’m saving my money for when Campbell comes out with a print Fans! anthology (Pretty please, Mr. Campbell?). But ever web-savvy, Campbell has found a way for his audience to support him without spending a dime. Campell and Lagace paired with Wowio, a distributor of free sponsored ebooks. The more downloads of P&A books, the more money the writer and artist receive. I may be too cheap to donate money for the vague possibility that maybe, someday, Penny and Aggie will be updated five days a week, but I’m not so lazy that I wouldn’t lend my support by clicking a few links.

Perhaps my favorite recent fundraising effort came from Randy Milholland at Something Positive. For several months, Milholland has been running an original art grabbag. For $15 flat (no shipping) he’ll send readers a piece used in the making of his comic. You don’t get to choose the item; you pay, he sends, end of story. It’s a nice win-win. Milholland has the pieces already made and lying around, and fans get to own a physical piece of the comic. I PayPaled my $15 and came away wholly satisfied. I received a preliminary sketch of two of the series’ main characters, and I did, in fact, hang it on my wall.

Meanwhile, the NPR goblins are whispering in my ear, trying to guilt and goad me into picking up the phone. Somehow, all their talk of the value of their programming can’t trump my sense that someone else will fund public radio for another year, and I’m not yet prepared to shell out for their pricey merch. Maybe I’m too cheap, but maybe they need to start selling better t-shirts.