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Two's company, Tweet's a Crowdfunder

Shubhashish (who goes by only one name) is a business journalist, who wants to study for a Master’s Degree in International Relations in the UK. He had secured admission after his graduation in 2007 but had to give up his dream due to lack of funding. Six years later, he has secured admission again, that too in three colleges, but this time around, he wants to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.


Shubhashish posted requests for donations on Twitter. Pic/Rane Ashish

A month ago, he started a blog Project Hope, asking people to donate R800 each towards his dream and took to Twitter and Facebook to put forth his appeal. This method is better known nowadays as crowdfunding. It came into vogue when new entrepreneurs used it to raise funds for their ventures and later NGOs did the same for causes they support. It has proved quite successful for many, including Shubhashish. He has received Rs 4,16,000 so far and hopes to raise a total of Rs 8 lakh.

He says the response is “absolutely astounding”. “I didn’t think I will get this much money. It still hasn’t sunk in that my bank balance is in the six digits, something I have never imagined. Till now, I have 50 people who have contributed. All of them are not strangers. I have been on Twitter for a long time so relationships have been built, friendships actually. They don’t know me personally but they know me online. I’ve met a few of them offline, but most of them are just acquaintances.

The moment they unfollow you or you unfollow them, the relationship ends right then. Friends know you, so you expect them to help, but when a guy just knows you online, only through your Twitter handle, and they give you money without asking a single question, it is an amazing feeling.” The amount of donations have also surprised him.

“I’ve received Rs 50,000 each from two people, Rs 25,000 from another and Rs 8,000 from another, all of them who only know me online. No one has given me less than the Rs 800 I had asked for.” He fully intends to return the money. “I promise that I will give 8 per cent simple interest every year over a maximum of seven years. It is still roughly half of what a bank will charge me and I don’t have to give any collateral. It is just personal trust which is a much tougher responsibility on me.”

Plan B
He reveals that crowdfunding wasn’t his first option. “People ask me why I don’t take a bank loan. Even in a public sector bank, the interest rate is very expensive. How can you expect a student to afford 13 per cent annual compound interest? Even if I think for a minute that I can afford it, the maximum I can get is R7.5 lakh. For any amount above that, I have to give some kind of security. For an average middle class guy it is absolutely out of the question.

Actually, crowdfunding wasn’t my prime idea. I was just reading this book by Mark Dickinson titled Sleeping in the Homes of Strangers: A Month-Long Journey of Trust. He is a schoolteacher in the US and his idea was to show the world’s benevolence. He set up a blog and asked people to contribute so he can go on a one-month long holiday in Turkey.

He managed to get USD 500 for his vacation. That gave me the idea to give it a try,” says Shubhashish. It took him a few months of soul-searching to take the step. “It is really difficult to open up to the world about your personal life. But when you are standing on the brink of a canyon, either you fall or you fight it out,” he says.

Shubhashish is quick to point out that he is not basing his entire education expenses on this crowdfunding initiative. “I’ve worked for the past six years so I have a little saved. I don’t have collateral so R7.5 lakh is the maximum I will get as loan from the bank. That is about 50 per cent of the total cost. It is the rest that I don’t have. I’ve applied for scholarships but I will know their decision only by June. If at that time I get to know I haven’t won the scholarship, it will be too late to start my crowdfunding as I have to pay my fees by July. So I thought I’ll start my crowdfunding now.”

Minus points
For all the goodwill he has encountered through this initiative, it’s been a difficult process, thanks to the negative attitudes he has had to face. “There have been negative comments that kind of shook me. There were people who called me a ‘scamster’, that this is a Ponzi scheme (named after scamster Charles Ponzi, it is a fraudulent investment scheme in which investors are paid returns from their own money or from that of other investors instead of from the profits made on the investment.)

Better to ignore them, because it is difficult to change their perspective. Instead I should focus on people who are as enthusiastic about this as I am.” Of course if anyone who wishes to donate has any doubts, they can email Shubhashish and he’ll send them his admission letters as proof. “One guy told me ‘Why should I give you the money, I’ll give it to some poor guy who cannot afford education’. My point to him is very simple: it is completely your prerogative whom you want to give it to. I am not forcing anyone to give me money. But if you want to give someone else, do that. Bottomline is that it should help people.”

Why UK?
Then there are those who wonder why he needs to go to the UK to study in the first place when there are several good institutions in India. Says Shubhashish, “It’s not really a question about education in India. It’s about global exposure. I’ve friends, my classmates who have studied in the UK and I can see a change in their perspective.

I think as a journalist it is important to have that kind of global exposure. It is also related to what I do. I am a business journalist, I track economics of the world, political perspectives, why governments take certain decisions, the European Union, what it is going through. I feel that studying in UK at this point of time will give me that perspective.”

He admits that there are people whom he expected will definitely help but they haven’t donated yet. “I have had to broaden my perspective a bit. Just because someone I expected to help didn’t donate doesn’t make me think bad about them. They have helped me in other ways – like spreading the word, telling their friends. Help is not only monetary.”

Trust fund
The contributions he’s received - both monetary and non-monetary - have compelled Shubhashish to take on an additional responsibility. “In a short time, Project Hope became very big. A lot of people said, ‘We don’t want the money back, help someone else instead.’ That’s how the second phase of Project Hope began.

I will match the money I collect from this initiative with my own money and form a trust. All those people who don’t want their money back, I will put their money and the interest I owe them into this fund. The fund will help people like me, people who want to do something with their lives but don’t have the resources to do it. I’ll make sure the top donors are involved in this trust.”

Twitter

The trust is not the only way he intends to “give back” to society. Shubhashish opted for a career in journalism so he could “change the world, one day at a time”. And he is not giving up on that ideal yet. “(Studying in UK) I will gain a lot as a person from my professors and other students, you can’t put a value on that. When I come back at the end of one year, I would try to apply what I have learned. There are a lot of opportunities: I could be working with a government agency, for example, I could be working with public policy, I could join a think tank. The idea is to make a change.”

Dr Vijay Mukhi, cyber expert
Dr Vijay Mukhi, cyber expert

“The positive side (of using social networking sites for spreading your request for funds) is that you can reach all over the world through social media, but there is a negative side to it too – how do you know the person is not a fraud? The minute a fraud jumps in, people will lose faith. If I get an email saying someone needs money, I hesitate to take it seriously because there have been so many scams in the past. If the person is in Mumbai, I can check his credentials but if he is elsewhere how can I check? It’s best to take social media with a pinch of salt.”

Viral Doshi, an education counsellor
Viral Doshi, an education counsellor

“The idea is something new, but I’ll be surprised if he is able to sustain the kind of funds he has got so far. I doubt if it will work unless you have a compelling reason, the way NGOs use social media to generate funds. For exceptionally bright children who get admission into top universities and are unable to fund themselves through family or other funding resources, social media can be a good platform, but I doubt it will become the norm. You may give someone money once or twice, but after that, you are going to be cautious about people asking. It’s a lot like shooting in the dark. This person has first mover advantage, but I think his case is more of an exception.

I hope I am wrong though. It is very difficult to get funds to study in the UK as most of the universities are funded by the government, unlike in the US, which are both privately and government funded. International students who study in the UK pay four to five times the fee that local students pay. Barring Oxford, Cambridge and London School of Economics which are able to offer handsome scholarships to deserving students, most other colleges find it difficult to fund the education of international students and sometimes when they do, give nominal scholarships which barely cover 10 per cent of the fees! I won’t say no one should try this crowdfunding method but I don’t think it will work for everybody.”

Madhav Chavan, CEO and President of Pratham, an NGO which works for education
Madhav Chavan, CEO and President of Pratham, an NGO which works for education

“It is an interesting idea. Crowdfunding has been successful for entrepreneurs. A lot of people have money that they spend on nothing useful. When they see requests like this, they may think, I’ll give him some money.
There are websites where you can post your requests and people will contribute but these sites vet your claims first. A lot of trust is required between the giver and the taker. Asking for donations on Twitter and Facebook is like standing in the middle of the town square and asking for money. These sites don’t provide that level of trust. Anyway, it’s early days yet to say whether the idea will catch on with more students who wish to study abroad.”

Taral Shah, a student planning to study in the US this yea
Taral Shah, a student planning to study in the US this year

“It’s an excellent idea. In India, no scholarships are given in colleges or universities, whereas in the US, at the end of every term, students get grants. On an average, it costs R30-35 lakh per student for a two-year course. Indian students, when they go to the US to study, immediately they start to hunt for jobs on campus or off campus. If there were scholarships then they could spend that time studying instead of working. I had faced financial issues due to which I decided to work in India for a year and then go for further studies. If we could get grants from here, we’ll pose less of a burden on our parents and have a sense of pride in partly funding our education on our own merit. That said, I wouldn’t ask for funds on Twitter or Facebook on an individual level. If there was a campaign or a group doing it, I might have joined. 

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