Kickstarter's not even close to the NEA
Feb 27, 2012 Clay Johnson

Last week, Kickstarter's co-founder Yancey Strickler made an unfortunate comparison. After getting million-dollar projects funded in a row, Strickler told Carl Franzen of Talking Points Memo that "it is probable that Kickstarter will distribute more money this year than the NEA National Endowments for the Arts". His rationale? Kickstarter will distribute over $150 Million to user's projects. NEA's FY 2012 budget is $146 Million.

This comparison is unfortunate because Kickstarter and the NEA are two very different things, and have two very different missions. Comparing what Kickstarter to the NEA is like saying Facebook has organized more working-class americans than the AFL-CIO: it only makes sense if you're completely ignorant of the function of either.

To show you what I mean, I took the top ten funded projects of each category on Kickstarter page, and added them up. Here's a breakdown of the project sums in each category:

The Design category represents the largest portion of highly-funded projects on Kickstarter.com. To give you a sense of what this category is: 6 out of the top ten projects are marketed as accessories for the iPhone or other apple related projects. two are products designed to better the consumption of coffeee, one is a photography tool, and the other is a very expensive pen.

The second largest category is technology at 17.3. While this category is less apple-centric (there is only one iPhone accessory item in this category), we're still not close to finding anything close to the kind of "art" that the National Endowment for the Arts actually funds. Technology's funded projects include a home-brew 3d printer you can buy, a wireless sensor you can buy, and much heralded proto-Kickstarter project, then Anti-Facebook Diaspora.

Let me clarify: This doesn't mean this is where Kickstarter spends most of its money. I don't have access to that data. Instead, this is a breakdown of the sums of the top ten projects on Kickstarter, by category.

Updated: Yancey provided data. Hooray! Go Read This

I don't want to get into a "What is Art" discussion. Rather, let's talk about how much money Kickstarter is giving to the kinds of projects that the NEA supports. The NEA's function is so vastly different than Kickstarter, that this is very hard. See, the NEA is not only worried about the production of art, but also about ensuring access to it both geographically and educationally.

Much of the NEA's money is spent on state and regional partnerships making sure that art happens in North Dakota. Kickstarter's funded $40,000 in the state since 2009. In 2011, the NEA gave $764,000 (what looks to be about the minimum for the NEA) to its state partner, North Dakota Council on the Arts there. In terms of non-state grants, I asked FancyHands to pull the NEA's top grants for 2011.

So if we compare these kinds of grants -- grants for literature, museum, music, musical theater, journalism, and art to what's on KickStarter what do we get? Well, first, it's an unfair comparison: Kickstarter's successful projects usually have direct rewards attached to them for the contributions. People are actually buying something when they're giving on Kickstarter. Remember -- the NEA's not solely looking to foster the creation of art, they're also looking to support access to it.

But let's say you still wanted to compare apples to oranges. What then? Let's be generous and say that 7 of Kickstarter's categories actually overlap in some way with the NEA's general mission: Art, Dance, Film Music, Photography, Publishing, and Theater. That total comes up to about 28% of the top funded projects on Kickstarter. Presuming that distributions are equal amongst all the categories (which they are likely not, but again, it's already an unfair comparison), and you take Strickler's 150 Million dollar projection for 2012, then you get ~$42 Million.

That's if every project in each of those categories overlaps with the NEA's mission -- to "support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities." Which is highly unlikely. Kickstarter's mission is instead to help people find funding to make projects that people are willing to pay for before they're released.

I get that Strickler wants something to benchmark his organization to, and I think Kickstarter's awesome -- it's even part of some content recommendations in my book. But while I admire the cultural contributions that Kickstarter makes -- it's clear Kickstarter's empowering more people to start businesses or at least to make products than it is empowering the creation and access to art.

These kinds of comparisons are unfortunate because it actually can cause harm. Not only does the inaccurate comparison get echoed across the web, but it also makes people say things like this.


Update

I'm happy to have Yancey Strickler come back and comment on the post with some new data. He mentioned that Kickstarter's numbers break down like this:

  • Product Design -- $13.3M.
  • Technology -- $6.5M.
  • Art -- $7.5M.
  • Dance -- $1.4M.
  • Film -- $41.4M.
  • Music -- $28.3M.
  • Photography -- $2.8M.
  • Publishing -- $6.4M.
  • Theater -- $5.7M.

While it looks as though 41.4 Million in film is the runaway leader, also note a couple things:

  1. These are numbers since April of 2009 -- nearly 3 years of funding. I'd rather see YTD numbers, which Strickler says he doesn't have off-hand. Which to me doesn't make sense, because if they're not off-hand, then how does one make a projection like that?
  2. These numbers are missing 37 Million dollars less than Kickstarter's cited 150MM worth of funding since 2009. So if another category (say: Games, Fashion, Food or Comics) has the bulk of that 37 million dollars then the story is quite different.

Again though, it really doesn't matter because the whole comparison is just flat-out wrong. It'd be like saying that Kickstarter hands out more funding for the arts than Coca-Cola spends on walnut shavings. They just do entirely different things.

The other thing I'm trying to point out is that this could be what actual reporting looks like -- where instead of just taking a quote from a CEO and saying "hey, that's a great soundbite. I got my headline" a reporter could actually do some digging. It took me all of 20 minutes to assemble the data used in this post, and had the original story on Talking Points Memo had some data in it, I think it would have been more of-service to the reader.

Instead, it's just a destructive soundbite that only hurts an already struggling and constantly-under-siege agency. And whether or not it's appropriate for government to be charging the average taxpayer a few cents a head to support the arts is certainly within levels of reasonable discussion. But with reasonable discussion so hard to find these days, why fan the flames with inaccurate sound-bites. What happens when a member of Congress cites this story as a reason to get rid of the NEA?

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson