InternationalUncategorizedTo what extent does the crowdfunding model lead to positive social outcomes?

October 20, 2020
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To what extent does the crowdfunding model lead to positive social outcomes? Discuss in terms of social projects in both the developed and developing world, social entrepreneurship and socially responsible accounting.

Author: Mr. Charalambos Papasavvas
Co – founder of Flywit Corporation Ltd
Founder of Neocourses Innovation Center

 

Introduction

As the financial crisis led to a dramatic reduction in the volume of bank loans and angel investment, crowdfunding has emerged as an alternative way for businesses to fund their enterprises. It has been estimated that $2.7 billion USD has been raised for crowdfunding projects worldwide, with the vast majority of that financing taking place in North America and Europe. Only $110 million USD has been raised across the rest of the world and this suggests there is considerable scope for crowdfunding to develop in these regions. Although a wide variety of projects have been crowdfunded to date (including virtual currency initiatives, films, computer software, games and smart technology) crowdfunding has provided a particularly good opportunity for projects to be carried out that result in benefits for society.

 

Crowdfunding is particularly suitable for financing in the third sector for several reasons. For example, not only does crowdfunding enable individuals to engage in commercial activity who may otherwise have been marginalised by traditional financial institutions due to their demographic or socioeconomic status but it also provides an inherently democratic mechanism by which parties can pool their resources for mutual benefit, in pursuance of common interests or shared beliefs. Moreover, because crowdfunding is usually based on shared opinions about the value of a project, crowdfunding often attracts those projects that are most popular with the public and these often include projects that have charitable purposes.

 

Finally, because charitable purposes are highly suitable for crowd investing, many commentators have suggested that crowdfunding presents significant opportunities for social entrepreneurs; those who pursue charitable objectives as part of a for-profit enterprise, as suggested by Lehner, “[s]ocial crowdfunding has emerged as a separate niche market and includes very different forms of rewards, narrations and discourses … compared to traditional financial markets. In this way, it is arguable that crowdfunding brings socially advantageous benefits both in principle and practice.

 

For these reasons, crowdfunding arguably has great potential to increase social welfare and benefit the public good. The present essay will therefore consider the degree to which crowdfunding can lead to positive social outcomes and improve socioeconomic justice, namely by increasing social participation and economic activity and encouraging more marginalised individuals to engage in the social economy. The essay begins by defining crowdfunding and discussing how it is regulated in the United Kingdom (UK). It then goes on to discuss several ways in which crowdfunding can lead to socially advantageous outcomes, including encouraging social enterprise by emerging social entrepreneurs; developing the tools and culture of accounting for social value and including environmental concerns into financial analysis; increasing the participation of traditionally marginalised sectors in the economy and finally, helping to develop economies in the developing world, both through the fulfilment of socially advantageous projects but also through the stimulation of economic activity in general.

 

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding describes the situation where a group of separate investors all decide to contribute finance to the same project or enterprise. Crowdfunding works on a democratic principle, where a number of investors are all of the view that a project should be funded and this leads to the raising of the full funds necessary for the project. Crowdfunding is therefore able to fund any project where there is sufficient intellectual agreement. Research by Davies suggests that the average civic crowdfunding project goal is $7,534 although the average donation is $68. That study also found that the top 10% of projects generally account for 80% of the total funds raised. Larger project are also more likely to obtain most of their funding from a small number of large value donations.

 

Crowdfunding projects usually involve the participation of three main parties, namely; the project owner, the online crowdfunding the platform that hosts the funding transaction and the investor who decides to fund the project. Much literature has discussed the roles and regulation of each of these parties. For example, it is recognised that the project owner will need to possess the entrepreneurial and managerial qualities necessary to rally support and get the project funded. Different platforms are made possible by the rise of Internet telecommunication and exert varying degrees of influence over the crowdfunding transaction. Platforms also carry out varying levels of due diligence on the project owner and vary according to the levels of fees charged and technical support they provide.

 

In terms of investors, research suggests that access to social media is more important than access to the Internet where crowdfunding is concerned. As such, crowdfunding is closely tied to the social aspect of online crowd dynamics. As is often the case, project owners may seek to raise funds from their close friends and families in the first instance, which can imbue the project with legitimacy in the eyes of the wider public.

 

Much empirical research has been conducted into examining the determinants of investor activity in crowdfunded markets. For example, a study by Ming, Gan and Ramasamy looked at the influence of perceived consumer effectiveness and willingness to invest. Perceived consumer effectiveness posits that consumers will respond to a social problem if they believe their actions will be able to do something about it. For example, studies have found that people who live in highly polluted areas are more likely to be concerned about environmental protection issues than those who do not live in such areas. In terms of green initiatives, studies found that funding behaviour is affected by the presence of a benefit for investors, the reputation of the platform and the degree of participation in the transaction by the platform. Other research suggests that the expected profitability of the project is a key factor.

 

Projects are crowdfunded in four main ways depending on the type of return the project provides. Investment-based crowdfunding involves an investment made through the purchase of shares or bonds. Loan-based crowdfunding, also referred to as peer-2-peer lending, involves finance in return for interest or repayment of capital over time. Donations-based crowdfunding is where members of the public give money to a project they want to support and rewards-based crowdfunding involves finance in return for some kind of benefit, such as a service or product. Crowdfunding pools the resources of potentially any party who can access the internet and this diversity in structure opens the door to a potentially wide range of investors who each have different types of investment needs. Some social ventures rely on funds from more than one type of source.

 

Research has also found that certain types of enterprise attract certain types of crowdfunding. For example, donation-based crowdfunding is considered most suitable for art or community-related projects, microfinance considered most suitable for micro-development, social lending considered most appropriate to cash flow-positive small enterprises and crowdfund investing most appropriate for high-growth and technology-focused entrepreneurs. Equity crowdfunding is also, “applicable to businesses that have a sale, merger, or IPO strategy. Debt crowdfunding is more applicable to businesses that do not have a sale strategy, need short-term cash and have cash flow to pay off the debt”. A number of supporting networks are also emerging that are specifically dedicated to socially beneficial and sustainable outcomes, providing for example advice as well as networking.

 

In the United Kingdom (UK), the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) only regulates crowdfunding that provides the investor with some form of financial return and this is because of the risk to the investor through such activities. Loan-based and investment crowdfunding are therefore regulated while donation and rewards-based crowdfunding are not. According to the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (FSMA), regulated activity is engagement in particular types of investment identified in the FSMA. Activity is regulated where for example, a party seeks to encourage other parties to invest in a project in the course of a business. Those that perform this function must be authorised.  The project owner is also required to comply with various rules contained in the FCA prospectus if they seek to raise over €5 million euros and the platform operator must also be authorised by the FCA.

 

Crowdfunding and Social Benefit

As this essay will discuss, crowdfunding is a financing mechanism that results in a number of socially-advantageous outcomes. Alexander sees the concept of economic justice as meaning distributive justice and defines distributive justice as, “[j]ustice owed by a community to its members, including the fair disbursement of common advantages and sharing of common burdens”. Šergo and Floricic have discussed the role of crowdfunding in social enterprise in terms of the multi level perspective, which explains, “long-term transformations as interactions between socio-technical regimes, broader landscape developments and innovative niches”. Crowdfunding is popular among projects and enterprises that seek to meet some social need and thereby provide social benefit this is because crowdfunding works by pulling resources together on the basis of, “everyday people’s values and opinions”.

 

Davies suggests that the success of companies such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo have led to a number of other platforms emerging that are meeting community needs. His paper states that a typical type of crowdfunding behaviour is emerging, which tends to be small-scale gardening project in cities that lead to public benefits for a community that is not otherwise well-assisted by the state. These types of projects are the most numerous although have attracted less attention than the larger scale initiatives.

 

Much literature has been generated on the socially advantageous outcomes and suggests that crowdfunding has been responsible for the success of several eco-friendly projects. For example, crowdfunding has been used for projects that improve the aesthetics of the outdoor environment, which a locality as a whole can benefit from. Projects have also been created for example that lead to the installation of useful and environmentally useful utilities. These have included renewable energy plants, the promotion of energy efficiency, sustainable agriculture and waste management systems.

 

When the American Kickstarter launched in the UK in 2012, one of its’ first most successful projects was an architecture project to design a new pavilion for a park owned by the National Trust Conservation Charity. Similarly, the Mansfeld Business Improvement District successfully raised £38,000 through Spacehive.com to create a free wi-fi access area in the town centre of Mansfeld. A platform called Brickstarter based in Helsinki claims it will allow, “everyday people, using everyday technology and culture, to articulate and progress sustainable ideas about their community”. Community projects are often crowdfunded on a local community basis and this can encourage collaborative and mutually beneficial communication between members of the public. In this way, crowdfunding can encourage community participation and development of mutually beneficial objectives.

 

Moreover, communities are able to choose for themselves which projects will come into effect, encouraging stakeholder empowerment. This militates against the traditional top-down level of governance, which requires the authorisation of government before a new community-based plan can be implemented. Even where government bodies are in agreement with a new measure, it may still take a lot of time before the measure is authorised and this can serve to delay the delivery of socially-beneficial projects. Davies’ paper for example discusses a case in Wales in 2012, where an ex-mining community was finally able to receive all the funding it needed to build a new community centre after seven years of failed funding bids. The project had turned to a recently launched website called Spacehive, which enabled them to raise the remaining £39,000 pounds within a couple of weeks.

 

Crowdfunding can also lead to more significant projects being funded that help the environment. For example, the paper by Bonzanini, Giudici and Patrucco looked at the success of renewable energy crowdfunding campaigns and suggested the success rate is very high, with most of the platforms being able to fund all of the projects listed in the renewable energy centre sector. Only one platform seemed to be underperforming. Their paper suggested crowdfunding can improve access to finance for campaigns that are taking part in renewable energy and climate change prevention and pointed to several platforms dedicated to transactions in this field, including photovoltaic modules, wind farms and biomass engines. Crowdfunding for social causes can also encourage investors to become more actively engaged in the energy systems created, in this way, crowdfunding can, “shape positive feedback loops between technological, market, social and political dimensions of energy system transformation”.

 

The Rise of Social Entrepreneurs and Social Enterprise

Due to the ability to raise funds based on social causes, a number of social entrepreneurial companies are relying on crowdfunding to achieve their objectives. Lehner distinguishes the social enterprise from the corporation on the basis that the corporation is focused on purely commercial aims whereas the social enterprise is a commercial entity that seeks to find a balance between both commercial and social outcomes. Whereas fragmented ownership in a private enterprise may be difficult in a commercial context, diverse stakeholder control reflects positively on the social enterprise and provides further validation that its social objectives are sound. Some have suggested that the popularity of crowdfunding social enterprises is because of the possibility for double or triple bottom line outcomes by combining service delivery with environmental and social aims.

 

Social enterprises are often run by individuals who have become highly motivated by a cause or opportunity and seek to transmit their enthusiasm to funders. It is the social engineer who first identifies a problem or need and then puts together a plan to resolve it. An important aspect of the social enterprise is therefore the trustworthiness of the social entrepreneur who intends to carry out the project and this can sometimes be considered even more important than the social aim itself. Social entrepreneurs also have to be adept at navigating the online social media environment, which is particularly vulnerable to media shocks and outrage.

 

Literature has however discussed the problems that are associated with this type of financial activity. For example, in the case of social enterprise, project owners are often less focused on the business details of the project and more on the core values that the project provides, such as the vision, impact or outcomes. As such, they may spend less time planning and presenting data on cash flow liquidity, financial returns and planning. Banks however are more likely to lend when they are confident there will be long-term and stable returns. For example, Trampoline Systems UK was a commercial venture that raised £1 million GBP through crowdfunding but a failure to conduct proper diligence the business being significantly jeopardised. This may lead to a loss of confidence in social crowdfunding from an investor’s perspective, particularly where the crowdfunder had been seeking some kind of financial return from the venture.

Brown and Murphy also suggest that the pitches of some social entrepreneurs are lacking the managerial expertise that is standard in the private sector and this can further serve to make potential investors skeptical. This has been another factor that has made it more difficult for social enterprises to access traditional debt finance. Lehner suggests there are ‘cultural and cognitive distance-related barriers’ between for-profit investors and social enterprises and that traditional investors may be reluctant to participate in structures and business plans they are unfamiliar with.

 

This is a potential barrier to the ability of the crowdfunding platform to lead to socially advantageous outcomes. In this context, some scholars have suggested that reporting measures will be critical to proving a project’s trustworthiness. The ability of a social enterprise to therefore demonstrate its ability to provide additional social, economic and environmental benefits is very important for funding in the third sector. The following section will discuss financial reporting in a crowdfunding context and discuss how this may help to raise accounting practices elsewhere in the private sector.

 

Crowdfunding and Accounting Practices

 

Accounting for a social enterprise context means having to prepare information for a diverse range of investors and, as discussed, a social entrepreneur may be lacking the administration expertise necessary to meet the requirements of traditional lenders. They do however have to put forward a compelling and cogent business plan and this involves the provision of accounting material that overcomes doubts held by investors. Some research has studied the reporting practices of social entrepreneurs in regard to the community interest company in the UK. For example, the research by Nicholls found there was a significant correlation between reporting practices and financial performance and this can also impact upon the social and environmental impact of the project. Adequate reporting will be particularly important where there may be diverse categories of investor with differing levels of commercial knowledge and expertise.

 

In this respect, a report by the UK Cabinet Office discusses the practice of accounting for social value and suggests this includes seeking to reduce inequality and harm to the environment, as well as increasing feelings of wellbeing amongst the public and project stakeholders. Nicholls for example spoke of the blended value accounting method, where both financial performance, but also information on social and environmental environmental impacts of is disclosed. One such measure that has emerged is the social return on investment (SROI). SROI is based on the principle of assigning a monetary value to the social and environmental returns, which is then calculated in relation to the cost of achieving those benefits. According to the Cabinet Office, “SROI is about value, rather than money. Money is simply a common unit and as such is a useful and widely accepted way of conveying value”.

 

SROI can be measured on an evaluative basis, which is a review of the outcomes of a project that have already taken place, as well as forecast analysis, which seeks to predict how much social value will be created if the project succeeds in meeting its objectives. These measures are useful because of the potential for crossover into the commercial sector; while private commercial companies have traditionally only provided reports about their financial status, SROI accounting may be a way to demonstrate corporate social responsibility (CSR).

 

Within the UK, policy makers have actively encouraged project owners to apply the SROI model in their reporting and the SROI model is increasingly being applied around the world, including in China and France and organisations such as the SROI Network is bringing parties together from around the world as well. This may help to ensure that SROI measures continue to gain global acceptance, which can help them crystallise into international standards. However, there is currently limited empirical material on its adoption by social enterprises and this suggests further research is needed to help ensure these measures come into effect in practice. Moreover, some of the literature that does exist suggests a number of practical  implementation problems persist. Defining appropriate measures is important because in the absence of clear principles, procedures and strategies corporations may be disinclined to integrate the necessary measures.

 

Crowdfunding and Increased Participation in the Economy

 

Crowdfunding is also recognised as a way to diversify the demographics of investors. Banks have traditionally been the institutions most likely to provide finance but as mentioned, banks typically prefer highly professional accounting documents, which can be costly for the smaller enterprise. This has meant however that banks have typically been responsible for lending and have dictated patterns of commercial activity. Banks have also been able to reap the returns of the investment as well. Crowdfunding on the other hand often leads to investors from local communities.

 

She also states that, “[e]conomic marginalization in the United States undeniably has a racial, ethnic, classed, gendered, and spatial dimension”. In terms of the spatial dimension, she notes that banks had often redlined certain areas and demarcated the residents within those locations as a substantial credit risk, solely on the basis of where they lived. As such, even individuals who were creditworthy in those areas were discriminated against. She also notes that geographic location is often demarcated on the basis of race and ethnic origin and this was meaning that people were being discriminated against, simply by virtue of their ethnicity. This was made worse by the fact that some banks chose not to set up branches in those areas, further reducing the inhabitants’ knowledge about their investment opportunities. In this respect, Alexander suggests the law must prevent this limitation based on geographical grounds from arising.

 

Alexander also suggests that, “spatial dynamics of economic marginalization can also affect an individual’s ability to access social networks that might lead to greater economic empowerment”. In this way, he suggests that those with greater social connections have greater economic opportunities and in this way, the social network itself can be thought of as having economic value. In this way, even if an individual starts to increase their financial wealth they may still be at a disadvantage if they remain living in poorer geographic locations because of the social isolation from more sophisticated economic activity.

 

As crowdfunding platforms are online, individuals are no longer restricted by their geographic location and are free to engage with those who are willing and able to engage with them. Since crowdfunding initiatives are published on the social networks, marginalised individuals are able to have at least some technological connection with the wider world; while many people in impoverished areas may not have heard of micro-finance they may well have heard of crowdfunding and art can access it with ease by through an ordinary web browser. In this way, the crowdfunding process is greatly facilitated by the online revolution in social networking sites. Online capability also provides a way for project creators to provide information about the project to potential investors, which can help address information asymmetry.

 

Despite these opportunities, some suggest that cyber finance regulation still needs to be modified to maximise economic justice and the process of exchange between the wealthy and poor. Commenting on the case of the US, Alexander has suggested that the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is regulating crowdfunding markets in such a way that ultimately limits the degree to which marginalised parties can participate. For example, Alexander points to over-regulation as something that increases the costs of participation and therefore limits access to certain parties.

 

Crowdfunding in Developing Countries

 

A report by infoDev suggests there could be between $90 and $95 billion USD invested in developing countries through crowdfunding over the next 20 years. Data from the World Bank suggests that China’s crowdfunding markets for example could amount $250 billion USD in 2025, which is over half the total amount of funds raised raised through crowdfunding in the developed world.

 

A report by infoDev in 2013 looked at 70 crowdfunding projects that have taken place across the world. They pout out there has been a steady increase in the number of crowdfunding platforms in sub-Saharan Africa and the number has been doubling every year. This has been explained as a result of a rising middle class as well as the recent and rapid uptake of mobile technology. Their report points to sites such as Startme in Africa, which, which funds both entrepreneurial and cause related campaigns. At the time of the report, the site was listing 20 entrepreneurial campaigns, four of which had raised over $4,500.00. In Latin America and the Caribbean, Ideame was founded in 2011 and covers campaigns in Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay). By the time of the report, over US$150,000 had been raised for ventures in donation-based, equity crowdfund investing and social lending in those countries.

 

It has also been found that crowdfunding can impact the levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) to a country. Much academic literature has discussed the potential for FDI to improve developing economies and in this way, crowdfunding may be an important catalyst mechanism within the social economy of the third world.

 

Some research has suggested that crowdfunding can also reflect the degree of interest that parties have in investing in a particular country. This may be the case for example, where there has been a diasporic of people who had originally shared a common homeland and therefore common ethnicity. Patterns of crowdfunding in these circumstances may be based on various cultural and religious behaviours. Crowdfunding can be a way for members of that community to reflect their beliefs, attitudes and wishes regarding their country of origin.

 

The report identified however that they are a number of factors that can have a significant impact on the ability of crowdfunding to improve social ventures or achieve social objectives in these developing economies. For example, crowdfunding needs adequate regulation to ensure participants are treated fairly and so that the system does not lead to unexpected disadvantages for the economy. The degree and nature of domestic regulation therefore will be important in shaping the opportunities available to the public and thereby serve to either encourage or restrict national participation.

 

Legislation will be important for example the laws regarding the ease with which an individual can start their own business, as well as market entry costs and the investor protection regime. The report suggests policymakers should implement further measures in these respects. For example, China’s economy continues to be dominated by state-owned banks and, compared with loans, initial public offerings or bonds, equity-based crowdfunding is still relatively rare. This can be compared with the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act in the United States or the FSMA in the UK. The report also identifies that countries must implement appropriate policy in relation to developing national infrastructure.

Where social projects are crowdfunded by investors from within developing countries themselves, the rates and patterns of investment will  depends on the number of households with in the country who are able to make such investments. The report by infoDev for example suggests that parties in the developing world are unlikely to invest in a crowdfunded enterprise unless they have at least $10,000 USD.

 

This inevitably ends up meaning that many individuals in the developing world simply cannot afford to participate in economic activity and are priced out of the market. Culture can also be a significant factor in investor behaviour and this is often affected by socioeconomic status. For example, the paper by  Šergo and Floricic pointed out that Chinese consumers are generally more interested in a product’s qualities and the benefits they can get as a result of the purchase and are less likely to show support for entrepreneurial spirit, which some have attributed as the reason for the rapid uptake of crowdfunding in the United States.

 

The second infoDev report discusses some of the projects that have been carried out in developing countries. For example, they mention a project called ‘Pebblewatch’ in Canada which connected people’s watch to their smartphones. This ended up being one of the most successful crowdfunded projects, achieving $10.3 million USD in contributions. An enterprise called  ‘Core Nava developed an environmentally-friendly water bottle and filtration device. That project received 523% of its original goal of $50,000 (raising $261,667). FlameStower in Ghana concerned a project that converted fire into electricity. This was useful for enabling the charging of mobile devices during times of power outages. That project was able to raise $23,809, which was 160% of the original goal (which was $15,000). A project that provided protection from mosquitoes for 48 hours through the form of an adhesive patch (the ‘Kite Patch’) was conducted in Kenya. That project achieved 743% of its original goal of $75,000 (raising $5,572.254).

 

A project called WakaWaka Power in Haiti sought to provide solar power through the provision of contact solar stations. The device was able to charge smart devices using only solar power. There have also been other projects, for example, in Africa in India. A project called Gravity Light was able to provide illumination in parts of both Africa in India. That project received 726% of its original goal of $55,000. Finally, a project called Kenya Stove was able to provide an oven that runs on wood chip alone, which were very cheap to buy in parts of Kenya. This project received 126% of its $15000 goal. These projects show the potential for environmentally-friendly projects to be funded in the developing world through crowdfunding.

 

There have however been some reported cases of investor fraud, lending scams and other forms of financial malpractice. For example, they mention the case of Ezubao in China, which was accused of operating a Ponzi scheme and which ultimately took 50 billion yuan ($7.6 billion) from about 900,000 investors. Scandals such as these can serve to diminish confidence in the crowdfunding system and reduce finance for social entrepreneurs.

 

It is mentioned that several forms of alternative finance are already operational in developing countries, including micro-credit companies and village banks and other non-traditional forms of digital finance. Indeed, alternative forms of finance-raising has been used widely throughout the developing world for centuries. In Alexander’s view. his pooling of resources between tightly knit groups serves as a form of community economic development for economically marginalised groups. This can however have disadvantages where unregulated financial systems are manipulated by illegitimate force and people are exploited to ensure they continue to pay into the system.

 

Conclusion

 

The present essay has considered the ways in which the crowdfunding model can lead to socially advantageous benefits for the social economy in both the developed world. The essay discussed that crowdfunding projects, led by social entrepreneurs through various forms of social enterprise, can lead to the timely completion of projects that benefit communities in both the developed and developing world. This investment in the social economy can provide a number of advantages for all those who are involved in the crowdfunding process and also encourage the private sector to raise socially-conscious reporting standards. Due to these potential benefits, governments and policy makers should continue to ensure the legislative infrastructure necessary for investors to take part, including education and investor protection measures.

 

 

 

 

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