31 October 2018

Crowdfunding in academia: exception or future reality?

If you can’t persuade official funding bodies of the merit of your research proposal, is crowdfunding a viable alternative? Some researchers are already using online platforms and social media campaigns to raise money for their work. Here, Chahinda Ghossein-Doha and Marieke Hopman talk about their experiences with crowdfunding. Does the effort outweigh the benefits?


Marieke Hopman and Chahinda Ghossein-Doha

Persuasive speaker

Based on the new research material she received an innovation grant from the Heart Foundation, which entailed raising a portion of the money herself through crowdfunding. “We were given workshops on presenting, they made a video and we were able to use their platform. I learnt to explain my research in an accessible way and to pique people’s interest. Social media worked best, I found. Many of the reactions applauded the fact that I was raising the money myself. Initially you use your own network: family and friends. My husband was my first donor, and it spread from there. The highest individual contribution was €150, the larger amounts came from businesses. I still give many lectures about my research even though the crowdfunding campaign is over, because it’s important to stay in touch with your donors. You never know when you’ll come across that one really rich donor.” Evidently, Ghossein-Doha is a persuasive speaker: she managed to raise €43,000 in three months. The Heart Foundation matches every euro up to a maximum of €30,000, which gave her a total of €73,000 to run her pilot study. This, she is hoping, will ultimately turn into a full-fledged research project funded by the Heart Foundation.

Making a difference

Two stories, one conclusion: you need an unshakeable belief in your research and a great deal of perseverance. “I’ve always been ambitious,” Ghossein-Doha says. “My parents fled Lebanon and had to give up a lot. They did that for their children. I want to get the most out of the sacrifices my parents made – but also I just enjoy doing it.” It was a personal choice to focus on pre-eclampsia. “I’m a mother of three myself. Although I didn’t have pre-eclampsia, I know how it feels when something goes wrong during pregnancy: my first daughter died of a genetic disorder at 10 days old. You always carry that with you. Six years later I still have unanswered questions: what does it mean for me, for my other children? I don’t study that genetic disorder myself, it’s too close to home, but I hope my research can provide answers for mothers in a comparable situation. Just as I hope other researchers will someday be able to give me answers.”

Hopman, too, is certain her research can make a difference. “During my PhD I came up with a new way of researching children’s rights. It’s not so much about what the law says, but about how children experience that law in their everyday lives. The method is based on Socratic dialogue, talking with children openly and on equal terms and really listening to them. I want to give them a voice, so that local authorities can make better policies and NGOs can improve their interventions.” She hopes to complete her PhD later this year, and is already writing a grant application for a follow-up study. “It’s an NWO grant worth half a million euros, which, with my crowdfunding experience, I’ll be able to turn into €800,000. I’ve already approached the NGOs I collaborate with to see if they want to contribute time or money, and personally I’ll do more work than I’m paid for. That way I’ll be able to support two PhD students in Somaliland. Stretching money like this is in my blood: I grew up with very little, so I’m very aware of the value of money and I can live very frugally. And I’m an idealist.”


For young researchers, crowdfunding is not yet the goose that lays golden eggs. “It takes a lot of time and work, an incredible amount of energy,” Hopman says. “I found the experience instructive, but also intense,” says Ghossein-Doha. “For me it was a third job, alongside my specialist training and my research.”


By: Annelotte Huiskes (text), Paul van der Veer (photography)