Annals of dubious statistics, crowdfunding edition

By Felix Salmon
July 27, 2012

Are crowdfunding statistics the new counterfeiting statistics? Certainly they seem to have become a meme. If you know that crowdfunding is a big deal, it’s probably because you read all about it in TechCrunch, in May (“these portals raised $1.5 billion and successfully funded more than 1 million campaigns in 2011″), USA Today, a few weeks later (“About $1.5 billion was raised in 2011 by about 450 crowd-sourcing Internet sites worldwide”), or maybe the Economist, a week after that (“$2.8 billion will be raised worldwide this year, up from $1.5 billion in 2011″). More recently, Forbes upped the ante even further: “This year alone, an estimated $3.2 billion dollars is expected to be raised through donation-based crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter”.

All of these statistics, you won’t be surprised to hear, come from the same place: a May report from Crowdfunding.org and its research arm, Massolution. The report lists — by placing their logos on five successive pages of the report, so that their names can’t be searched — 135 different “participating companies”, starting with Lending Club and Kiva, and ending with… um, hang on a sec. Lending Club and Kiva? Since when are they “crowdfunding platforms”?

It turns out, if you look at the definition of a “crowdfunding platform” that the report uses, it’s incredibly broad: “an operator of a funding platform that facilitates monetary exchange between funders and fundraisers.” Which turns out to include not only peer-to-peer lenders but also FirstGiving, a website which non-profits use to accept donations, and which claims to have moved $1 billion of funds through its system. For that matter, the definition doesn’t even say that the crowdfunding platform needs to be online: I reckon that if anybody hosting a political fundraiser probably counts as a crowdfunding platform under this definition. Hell, the New York Stock Exchange would even qualify.

Oh, and guess what: if you add up all the money raised in 2011 from all 135 companies listed, it doesn’t come to $1.47 billion at all. It comes to just $575 million. Where does the other $895 million come from? The report basically pulls it out of thin air, reckoning that since it didn’t manage to get numbers from all of the crowdfunding companies in the world, it would try to extrapolate, somehow. Or, in the language of the report:

Each CFP was modelled individually based on key metrics, market growth dynamics and other characteristics for a number of large CFPs that did not provide data in order to estimate the total funds.

It’s very hard to know what this means, but when it comes to crowdfunding platforms, all of the big ones, including Kickstarter, are already on the list. It beggars belief to assert that there’s a whole bunch of other platforms out there which together raise more money than those 135 companies put together.

In any case, you won’t find it in the abridged version of the report, but the key chart is this one:

crowd.tiff

According to this chart, of the $575 million that Massolution managed to total up, fully 49% is “donation based”, from companies like FirstGiving. And another 22% is “lending-based”, from companies like Lending Club. (I don’t know which bucket Kiva is in; I suspect it’s lending, but it’s certainly one or the other.) I don’t consider peer-to-peer lending to be crowdfunding, and I don’t think that giving money to charity online counts as crowdfunding either. So what happens if you exclude those two categories? You get $63 million in reward-based crowdfunding (think Kickstarter, which is now up to $247 million in total funds raised), and another $103 million in equity-based crowdfunding, all of which comes from outside the US.

Recently, SecondMarket has been moving into the business of raising money for fund managers of various descriptions — this too counts as crowdfunding under the Massolution definition, even if it’s just a couple of high net worth individuals putting their money into an art fund. And SecondMarket is adamant that it does not want to get into the crowdfunding game.

All of which is to say that Massolution has done a very good job of taking the relatively small amount of genuine crowdfunding which is going on out there, throwing it into a bucket with a lot of stuff which is not crowdfunding, and persuading the media that crowdfunding has already become a billion-dollar business, even before all the new activity legalized by the JOBS Act kicks in.

So what are the real numbers? Well, if you take only the “reward-based” and “equity-based” slices from the Massolution pie, they come to $165 million for 2011. That’s more or less in line with the $123 million number which the Daily Crowdsource came up with earlier this year. It’s not chump change, but it makes the entire global crowdsourcing space roughly half as big, in revenue terms, as, say, the Fifth Avenue Apple Store.

The lesson of this story is that we shouldn’t be getting ahead of ourselves, and we certainly shouldn’t be accepting uncritically any statistics which come from Massolution. Carl Esposti, Massolution’s CEO, is on the executive board of the Crowdfunding Professionals Association — which is to say he very much has a dog in this fight. Next time he starts throwing out statistics on the size of the crowdfunding market, it would behoove any journalist to double-check exactly what he means by that. And whether he thinks it includes things like online donations to the Red Cross.

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