Civic crowdfunding and the Climate Council

By Kat Jenkins
from Multitude

Climate Commission public forum in Melbourne

Climate Commission public forum in Melbourne
Photo Climate Commission (Creative Commons)

The term ‘civic crowdfunding’ has become a buzzword in crowdfunding circles recently. In a nutshell, it is the act of taking a function normally funded or performed by local or central government, and providing it privately via crowdfunding. There are a number of examples popping up around the world, but it’s possible that the most interesting one comes from Australia.

In February 2011, the former Australian Government, under the leadership of Julia Gillard, set up the Climate Commission. They were to act as a conduit between the scientific community and the Australian people, with a mandate to be an “authoritative, independent source of information” about climate change.

Between their inception and September 2013, the non-partisan Commission launched a series of 27 climate reports, as well as undertaking speeches and community briefings on climate issues. However, after election in September 2013, the new Australian Government scrapped the Commission as part of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s attack on the former government’s climate change legislation. But, of course, that’s not where the story ends.

Soon after the news broke of their closure, former Chief Commissioner Professor Tim Flannery found that even with the new political climate, the Commission’s work was still highly valued by the Australian public.

The people who contacted us really feel quite strongly that they don’t want to be left in the dark over climate change. We have had hundreds of folks get in touch from, I have to say, across the political spectrum, from hardcore libertarians to the deepest greenies. You would be astonished to know who is supporting us.

Professor Tim Flannery, former Climate Commissioner

Less than five days after their closure, the Climate Commission was relaunched by the former Commissioners as the non-profit Climate Council. The council was to be funded by public donations collected through a private crowdfunding campaign, hosted on their own website.

The crowdfunding campaign itself smashed it out of the park, immediately gaining donations through its first night, before ultimately raising over a million dollars in the space of a week from over 20,000 donors to secure the first year’s funding. But many have criticised the crowdfunding approach, and this is where things get really interesting.

Here is an organisation which is valued by the public so much that they will fund it out of their own pocket when its public funding is cut. Now that they have their initial operating budget, what happens when that runs out?

Philanthropy Australia call crowdfunding an “unsustainable” model for long-term funding. They have urged the Climate Council to look for a small number of larger donors to cover “key operational costs”. This call is based on the concept that crowdfunding “works best when you’re raising money for a particular project or program”.

But just because this is how crowdfunding has worked to date, does that mean it’s how it will always work? Afterall, the limits of what crowdfunding can do are pushed every day. Do Philanthropy Australia’s comments hold any weight?

An important part of the Climate Council’s madate is to be independant. It might be naive to say a ‘large donor’ wouldn’t expect to have any input, involvement or influence over the Council’s work. This is, afterall, the way business, non-profits and governments have worked together for a long time. The independence of the Council is not at threat, however, with Flannery stating:

Our common resolve is that the second that anyone asks us to do anything or say anything, they will get their money back. Independence is central to our credibility.

Is it possible then to expect donors to hand over large cheques with very little personal return? Maybe, but this flies in the face of what we know about the world, and given the controversial nature of work in the climate change field, is it worth the risk? Conversely, many smaller donations remove the threat to their impartiality, while reinforcing the Council’s impact on everyday Australians. How much influence could anyone ever hope to gain with a $15 donation?

The Climate Council has committed to running itself independently, though it has also stated that the method of raising the required capital may be adjusted as their experience grows. Crowdfunding is a technique that’s both very new, and very old. Charities have existed for many years on higher-touch “crowdfunding” efforts in the past. Collection days and awareness weeks are a great example of this in action. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that, with a combination of recurring payments and awareness campaigns, the Climate Council could stay afloat for as long as the Australian public believe they are of service.

And that’s what it boils down to. Crowdfunding, like more traditional collection methods, is dependent on having an audience who care about the cause. If people care, then the campaign will be funded. By narrowing their focus to online collection methods, the Climate Council may well be saving themselves thousands of dollars that more traditional fundraising may throw at catching ‘the big fish’.

In this case, there is no doubt about it. Civic crowdfunding resulted in a win for the Australian public with the almost-immediate formation of the Climate Council. From here, I guess we’ll all have to wait and see how the story unfolds.


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