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Don’t poison the hearts and minds you’re trying to win

Could hybrid crowdfunding allow public Institutions to support citizen-driven projects without killing them in the cradle?

This is the second of several posts posts written in reaction to Luc van den Brande’s Reaching out to EU Citizens: A New Opportunity, which was widely reported as prescribing:

“a fresh “hearts and minds” strategy, including better use of social media and celebrity ambassadors… to reach out to its citizens”
- EurActiv

It actually suggests a lot more than roping in bemused sports stars to plug the EU, but whatever — the EU has been trying to win Europeans’ hearts and minds for years, generally concluding that throwing Europeans’ own money at them would do the trick.

hat doesn’t work, as a quick consultation of the poorer inhabitants of England’s poorer regions revealed in 2016. Few people are pro- or anti-EU on economically rational grounds, because — despite what economists and technocrats may think — few people are economically rational thinkers.

Something else is required.

Crowdfunded = People-driven = People First

Thankfully, Brand’s report does not openly call for propaganda, which the EC explored in 2014–2015 (pdf), but hopefully may have discarded after seeing the Russians do it so much better. I loathe propaganda and have been seeking that Something Else since Brexit.

ence my interest in helping Madeleina Key (aka EU SuperGirl, @albawhitewolf) with her crowdfunded Letters2EU project. As I set out last month, this is an entirely bottom-up cultural exchange project aiming to minimise the damage Brexit will wreak on the Britain-EU relationship:

  • British people send in hand-written letters to ‘their unknown European friends’ to express their Brexit dismay
  • Madeleina and friends come to Brussels this week to deliver these letters to random Europeans (and a few VIPs), along with copies of her children’s book (alba white wolf goes to europe), Brexmas postcards (below), etc.
  • Europeans write and give her their letters and postcards to ‘their unknown British friends’, to take back to Britain.

A band-aid? Certainly. But that’s no reason to do nothing.

To see where Doing Nothing leads, compare Madeleina’s Christmas cards (left) with the cards some people have been getting (below).

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while a band-aid, it’s a 100% citizen-driven, citizen-funded band-aid. Join us.

Inevitably, I and others started dreaming up ways Letters2EU could scale. My favourite idea so far is to build a ‘parent2parent’ community across Europe, co-creating childrens’ books modelled on alba white wolf goes to europe, but many other ideas are floating around. Join us in Brussels later this week for some beer and brainstorming.

But Continent-scale projects inevitably require significant resources, if only to tackle multilingualism. How could something larger be supported?

Poisoning the well

In Brussels, answers to that question usually involve EC funding programmes.

But Letters2EU works because it’s a bottom-up, people-oriented celebration of Europe, completely crowdfunded and volunteer-driven. It will almost certainly lose that character the moment it gets EC-funding.

At the very least there’ll be an EC Project Officer checking every word, box-ticking monthly reports, preventing innovation and agility and — in some cases — treating the project as a Personal Career Advancement Plan, with an audience limited to the nearest three Directors on the organigramme.

from a project about Europe by Europeans into a project by, about and for the EU Institutions… poisoning the hearts and minds you’re trying to reach

Even if you avoid all that, no matter: Institutional involvement will transform it from a project about Europe by Europeans into a project by, about and for the EU Institutions. The merest hint of EC support is enough to poison perceptions — just look at how BlogActiv’s EC-free launch was perceived by the ancestors of today’s Brexiteers to get a foretaste of what to expect.

Hybrid Crowdfunding

If EU funding risks poisoning the hearts and minds you’re trying to reach, one possible solution is for the EU to support crowdfunded projects after they have gathered support from enough citizens in enough countries.

“Crowdsourcing may also help increase the dissemination of knowledge…”
- Reaching out to EU Citizens: A New Opportunity

I mention crowdfunding not just due to Madeleina’s example and Brand’s report. Most startup mentors I know recommend that startups launch crowdfunders… mainly to see if people actually want the product.

So imagine an EC programme designed to ‘pitch in’ to help crowdfunder projects — compatible with the programme’s goals — once they’d already gathered widespread support. Such a programme would:

  • support bottom-up, citizen-led projects
    (EC projects are organisation-led, top-down and bureaucratic)
  • which have already proven their appeal to citizens and developed an active network
    (most EC projects are selected without evidence of citizen interest, and must build their audience from scratch)
  • while keeping bureaucratic interference to a minimum

And it might not poison the well because the EC would be one of many supporters, pitching in after citizens across Europe endorsed the idea.

European force multiplier

But it could also act as a European force multiplier, helping promising projects — already validited by winning support from citizens in some countries — to reach more people in more countries. For example by:

  • helping a project win (say) the last 30% of its target via a ‘matching fund’ mechanism (e.g., “we’ll match every payment until the target is reached”)
  • promoting the project via the EC’s physical and social networks
  • providing translation resources to help reach new audiences.

Small-scale, low-risk pilot

Of course, there will be objections — there always are, and it is true that care must be taken when spending taxpayers’ money.

But the EU must innovate, and that means taking risks. Those risks could be minimised by piloting the idea with small sums until lessons are learnt. And the lack of bureaucratic oversight would massively increase RoI.

Just a thought. If anyone knows of programmes exploring this, drop me a line.

If you found this interesting, your Applause will help others find it

My Hub curates many resources about crowdfunding, propaganda and much more, along with my posts written in reaction to van den Brande’s report. Subscribe (left) to get the best of the stuff I curate in your Inbox, or get just the High3lights from my CuratorBot. He can also put us in touch, or we can connect here.

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Piloting innovative online communications since 1995. Editor: medium.com/Knowledge4Policy. Founder: MyHub.ai. Personal Hub: https://myhub.ai/@mathewlowry/

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