It was the revolutionary fundraising model that swept Barack Obama to power – and it could help arts bodies in Britain stay in business as they struggle to deal with the effects of spending cuts.
Internet donations were a crucial element in the US electoral campaign in 2008 and now a website is seeking to use “crowd-funding” – collecting multiple small donations over the internet – to help finance arts projects.
Small arts companies that want to raise money for productions can advertise for backers on a newly launched website, WeFund.
In return for donations, they offer perks that range from a mention in the programme for a small sum to private performances for bigger gifts.
Among companies using the model to solicit donations are Love&Madness, which wants to mount its acclaimed production of Richard III at the Tower of London, and OperaUpClose, which wants £5,000 to fund a production of Madam Butterfly set in present-day Bangkok.
The opera company is offering “a massive thank-you on the website” for donations of £1 or more; a programme credit as a producer for £50 or more; and a promise to “come en masse to your house and perform Madam Butterfly just for you” for £3,000 or more.
OperaUpClose’s production of La bohème at the Cock Tavern in Kilburn, north London, last year received warm reviews.
Michael Troughton, who founded the WeFund website, said he was encouraging arts lovers to engage in “micro-philanthropy”.
“We are not after the John Studzinskis of the world,” he said, referring to an arts patron who has made a series of large donations. “We are talking about the kind of people who, instead of buying a book or a concert ticket, can use the same amount of money to back a new play.”
Some of the groups that had applied to WeFund already received Arts Council funding, but were seeking a “top-up”, he said.
“I think it is good for arts groups to have to engage with their audiences at such an early stage. They have to present their ideas to the public – and if it gets support, [the project] will happen. There is a clear link between funding and the audience.”
Six companies are seeking donations on the website so far, with a further 31 preparing two-minute videos to make their case, including the European Union Chamber Orchestra.
Mr Troughton, a former lawyer with Clifford Chance, said the donations pledged by backers were paid only if the arts company met its target. His company received a 5 per cent commission.
He said the scheme would give patrons, however small, a sense of reward. Backers for one film project on the website are being offered “the biggest hug of your life”, among other perks, for pledges of £1,000 or more.