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05
See3 Date
JUN
Author: Laura Wilson

Solar FREAKIN' Roadways: A Case Study in Crowdfunding and Activism

If you haven’t seen the “Solar Roadways” crowdfunding campaign and viral video, you have to check it out. It’s one of the hottest crowdfunding campaigns ever and it’s captured the attention and imagination of millions of people.

You can watch it right here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlTA3rnpgzU

The response to this campaign has been nothing short of amazing. As of today, the campaign is on the verge of crossing the $2 million mark, with about 45,000 individual contributors. In a matter of a few weeks! Wow.

And so this campaign is relevant to anyone interested in social good, fundraising and crowdfunding.

Can this really work? Does it matter?

Of course, anything with this kind of traction will also attract critics. Surprisingly (or not) some of the leading critics come from the environmental community, including my friend Shea Gunther, who wrote this scathing critique.

Gunther points out that this solar roadways idea is too expensive, too complicated and not the best way to get solar power, which can come at much less cost by putting traditional panels in places where cars don’t go.

While Gunther and other critics are not wrong on technical details, they miss the point, and the opportunity.

Capturing the Imagination

I see all the flaws in this idea and yet I am one of those donors. Why? Because this is an environmental moon shot — an idea that’s large and impossible and yet captures the imagination and attention of our community. Going to the moon made no practical sense but the effort built a national community and funded important science.

Many of these critics point out that the solutions to our problem are not about technology. They think projects like this distract us from the real work we need to do.  And?  Saying it doesn’t change a thing. Those of us who care about the planet, and social good generally, should be very interested in anything that gets people to act. Instead of saying “those people are so dumb,” which is what the critics are saying about the people funding this project, we should be discovering what it is that’s working here, and figuring out how we can harness this energy for more good.

Why does this campaign — for a radical idea — have an impact on people when most environmental campaigns get no traction? That’s the question we should be asking. And that’s my challenge to the critics. Point out the technical flaws, but offer something in it’s place or you just sound like all the critics on the right.

These 45,000 donors now have skin in the game of positive environmental change. For me that’s something to celebrate and harness, not to belittle.

What Makes It Different?

So why is this campaign different from all other campaigns? Let me offer a few ideas that you can keep in mind as we work for a better planet.

1. It presents a positive vision of a future. Most of the environmental messaging I see is doom and gloom, all the time. "We're all gonna die!" isn't the best rallying cry -- and yet that’s the primary message of the environmental movement. Instead of telling us to just stop the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, give me a positive vision of the future to hold on to. Something to work towards and not just against.

2. It makes ordinary people into heroes who can change the world. My donation can mean something and is part of a tangible vision (if not a practical one), rather than a vague promise of some kind of action.

3. The people at the center are "just like us" — not celebrities, not preaching. We want to help them achieve their dream as much as we want to see something cool and important happen (which is a big part of crowdfunding psychology generally). This campaign doesn’t support the big organizational brand. Rather, it supports people who care. Take note big environmental brands.

4. The main viral video is funny and super shareable. It also was done by someone who is not them — a kind of third-party validation. The video is more than a little “over-the-top” but that’s what makes it funny and shareable.

5. They are running a good ground game. With 115 campaign updates already, the campaign team is communicating with their constituents to promote engagement and sharing. They share every press pick-up and milestone and make the donors feel like they are sharing the success.

Will we see “solar roadways” crisscrossing the U.S. any time soon, or ever? I don’t think so. But so what? Let’s help people with vision move nimbly on those visions. There’s no shortage of money to do whatever it is we want to do. There’s only shortage of imagination and positive vision.

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Danny Alpert, Executive Producer Laura Wilson Katie Young Lisa Colton
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