Recovering: Robert Fridjhon (centre) with Craig Jackson and Bronwyn Gottwald in Sherlock
Recovering: Robert Fridjhon (centre) with Craig Jackson and Bronwyn Gottwald in Sherlock

Crowdfunding, in theory, is a godsend — asking large numbers of people to donate small amounts of money for a worthy project or cause. And in an arts environment where formal funding is hard to come by and can take ages to secure, the notion of a virtual "crowd" tossing virtual bank notes into a virtual hat may seem like manna from heaven for creative professionals trying to finance their dreams.

But, warn some freelance and independent SA arts practitioners who have gone the crowdfunding route, it’s by no means easy money. You don’t just set up a page through an online crowdfunding platform, sit back and watch the money roll in. It’s hard work and high on administration. And there’s no guarantee of success.

Plus, many crowdfunding websites charge a commission on funds raised, others set a time limit, and some charge penalties or return money to donors if you fail to reach your funding goal.

I know how difficult it is to raise capital when you have an idea but no proof of concept. How do people know it’s worthwhile?

Ultimately, though, it’s worth it — and, converts say, crowdfunding adds a gloss of professionalism and legitimacy to your project, while raising its public profile.

Earlier this year, Afrikaans rock band Fokofpolisiekar raked in more than R1m through SA crowdfunding platform Thundafund to finance their new album. Independent filmmakers Dineo Lusenga and Sihle Hlophe also used Thundafund to fund their short film Nomfundo, which was recently screened at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

In this model, backers are offered incentives or "rewards" such as tickets, albums or merchandise — making them de facto investors in a project.

Thundafund CEO Patrick Schofield has an extensive background in social entrepreneurship — combining commercial strategies with innovative ideas to change society for the better — and says: "I know how difficult it is to raise capital when you have an idea but no proof of concept. How do people know it’s worthwhile? Through crowd verification."

You needn’t have a strong Twitter or Facebook following for an online campaign to succeed, he adds — even a church notice board constitutes a community network.

Schofield says that about a third of Thundafund’s successfully funded projects are in the publishing and visual/performing arts field.

Robert Fridjhon and Russel Savadier in The Play That Goes Wrong. Picture: CHRISTIAAN KOTZE
Robert Fridjhon and Russel Savadier in The Play That Goes Wrong. Picture: CHRISTIAAN KOTZE

"With the current focus on self-publishing, a crowdfunding campaign can help test the waters and pre-sell books — it’s a powerful and effective way to publish," he explains. "Crowdfunding puts your endeavour into perspective: if you want to write for your bedroom, that’s one thing. If you want to sell your writing, ask your audience. It’s about perceptions of value and gauging demand."

He believes that crowdfunding can add to the bona fides of a project, citing the example of Meg Rickards’s film Tess, whose Thundafund campaign provided the springboard for her to raise the remaining budget elsewhere.

Journalist and Financial Mail columnist Carmel Rickard founded and ran the Platteland Preview festival in the tiny Free State town of Smithfield until recently. With Smithfield being about halfway between Johannesburg and Grahamstown, the festival was tipped as an "appetiser" to the National Arts Festival where a handful of fringe productions could iron out their creases ahead of the main event.

"There was always going to be community building in mind, targeting kids who’d never been to a theatre and grown-ups too," she says. With the help of ProBono.org, she registered an NPO and began seeking funding — "but the problem was that people wanted a track record".

She turned to Thundafund to crowdfund her mini arts festival. "Thundafund were great when we told them what we wanted ... we could have a proper relationship with them. We even made a little movie to go on the campaign page and everything worked beautifully. We raised almost as much as we needed.

"As we looked to become more greybearded and gain more gravitas, they were helpful in getting our name out, establishing the brand and profile, and determining what the brand was — a community business."

De-Apart-Hate: Aphiwe Livi and Mamela Nyamza. Picture: VAL ADAMS
De-Apart-Hate: Aphiwe Livi and Mamela Nyamza. Picture: VAL ADAMS

In return for contributions, backers would receive backstage experiences, beanies, scarves or photos signed by the children of Smithfield.

"It did shock the sleepy community of Smithfield," Rickard laughs, "as it was a novel concept. But it brought together the people of the town, who saw how overseas people supported us. It made them proud. It also forged longer-term relationships between the project and its supporters. Through the campaign, people took us seriously — that we are a ‘somebody’ of a kind of a festival."

Cape Town dancer, activist and choreographer Mamela Nyamza used the GoGetFunding platform for her production Rock to the Core, which is being staged with De-Apart-Hate at the Baxter Theatre on October 17 to 28.

"We needed money to create work at that specific time and could not wait for the next funding cycle," she explains. "If we’d waited, we would not have had the edge to create the work in an urgent manner. Also, to wait for money when you don’t know if you’ll get funding or not was going to kill the idea I had."

She raised R23,000 — well short of her goal — but says this helped buy costumes and props, and provide the dancers with transport money and a stipend. "And Spielart from Germany saw the crowdfunding and decided to co-produce us [to perform at the Munich festival in November] — so something big came out of this."

Nyamza concedes it was not an easy process: "It was hard and it was draining for me, as I had to concentrate on the creative side and raise money, which was a bit too much. I can recommend it but it’s a lot of work."

It’s not just arts projects that are getting crowdfunded — people and causes are also benefiting. Earlier this year, more than R300,000 was raised via GoGetFunding to subsidise veteran Durban theatre director Themi Venturas’s treatment for pancreatic cancer. Sadly, last month Venturas succumbed to his illness, having written that the generosity of his almost 250 backers was "life-affirming in itself and has filled me with positive energy to fight my disease".

Another individual who has benefited from the cyber-kindness of strangers — and loved ones — is Johannesburg actor and playwright Robert Fridjhon. He suffered a debilitating stroke in August, leaving him paralysed on the left side of his body. Like many freelance actors, Fridjhon is not on a medical aid — and a comprehensive rehabilitation programme costs R30,000 a week.

Rock to the Core: Indalo Bennet. Picture: OSCAR O’RYAN
Rock to the Core: Indalo Bennet. Picture: OSCAR O’RYAN

Fellow actor Ashleigh Harvey, in consultation with Fridjhon’s family, set up the Robert’s Recovery crowdfunding page via the no-fee platform Generosity, run through US site Indiegogo.

"Rob has been a very good friend for the better part of a decade, and I knew the financial implications [of the stroke] would be a huge burden on him and his fiancée, Bronwyn [Gottwald]," she says.

"We have a target of US$75,000 — some platforms send the money back to donors if you don’t reach your target, but this one doesn’t. Social media has been instrumental in getting the word out, but most other media have sadly said no to coverage. I think they must get a lot of chancers."

She is thrilled at how the arts community has rallied to support Fridjhon. "Some people have been hesitant to donate via an American site — the dollar thing scares them — but you just have to do the conversion to rand, and it’s secure and open. It’s very transparent.

Platteland Preview festival: Nhlanhla Xipu, Maryke Smit and Lesley Jennings. Picture: CRYSTELLE WILSON
Platteland Preview festival: Nhlanhla Xipu, Maryke Smit and Lesley Jennings. Picture: CRYSTELLE WILSON

"I would definitely recommend crowdfunding — I think it has been successful for this particular project because Rob is well-liked and popular, and it was the rest of his life as a writer and actor we were talking about. It’s important to have an angle that people can buy into. With Rob, we also focused on the rehabilitation work he’s done with animals [to get people’s buy-in]."

So far, almost R200,000 has been crowdfunded for Fridjhon and, thanks to the "incredible" private care that the campaign has funded, he is being sent home to complete his recuperation.

"He’s already writing stuff again," Harvey laughs — with Fridjhon, known for his dark sense of humour, taking to Facebook to skewer the absurdities of stroke patients being served spaghetti bolognaise, for example. "Luckily the left side of his brain, which deals with creativity, hasn’t been affected!"

The cast of Road to Recovery: At the Platteland Preview festival. Picture: CRYSTELLE WILSON
The cast of Road to Recovery: At the Platteland Preview festival. Picture: CRYSTELLE WILSON

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