Friday, July 4, 2014

Kickstarter Ethics

I just participated in a Kickstarter campaign by contributing a premium. And when I examined the other premiums, I noticed something unusual.

The campaign was being run as an act of charity, and more backers would allow more charity to be done. In this case, more copies of a book could be published and distributed to poor people for free. If the campaign raised $20,000, 1,000 extra copies would be produced at $4 per copy. $55,000 would mean 8,000 copies at $4 per. And $95,000 would mean 16,000 copies at $4 apiece. Etc..

This puzzled me, because it doesn't take into account economies of scale. More books cost less, per book, to produce! I asked the campaign's organizer about this, and was told that the reasoning was complicated, but that, for one thing, the savings at higher scale would allow her to recoup some money for her time and effort (it's more work to produce/distribute at higher scale).

It seems eminently reasonable. But it's also not disclosed. And I'm not clear on the ethics. It calls to mind when we asked Chowhound users to pay, on the honor system, for their use of the site (which, at its height, was costing $3,000/month in bandwidth overcharges, plus accounting/tech/graphics and other expenses). The question sat in the back of my mind: what if we raised more than we needed? Would I be ethically at fault if I took a few bucks for my work? The only reason my work wasn't increasing the site's financial burden was that I was, insanely, working for free. That was not long-term viable, and not being evicted from my apartment was unquestionably vital for the web site's survival.

It never became an issue, because income never came near our expenses. But, in hindsight, taking pay for myself would have been perfectly appropriate, because we weren't a charity. We'd installed an honor-system customer payment system for services rendered, period. If I'd spent the revenue on hookers and blow, that would have been my business.

But a Kickstarter campaign isn't a charity, either, and rigorous disclosure isn't part of the model. So it's a no-man's-land. Buying staples for the office is obviously an appropriate expense to take out of contributions. How about reimbursing yourself for your own staples that have been used? How about your cab ride to Staples to buy the staples? How about your time spent taking that cab ride? How about your rent while this is all happening?

When you're part of the campaign, how can you separate yourself from the campaign? Must everyone on Kickstarter (and similar sites) have a saintly devotion to poverty? If not, that creates a hell of a slippery slope.


Anonymous said...

This potato salad kickstarter is up to over 40K!

Interesting and somewhat to see people willing to give the kid a few bucks, maybe Wikipedia should do a french fry kickstarter.

Jim Leff said...

It's one of those things that will only work once.

Of course, a great many people, not understanding this, will now dilute Kickstarter with whimsical anti-campaigns like this.

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