Maya Dinerstein dresses as Kaylee Frye, a character from SyFys Firefly… (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
Ryan Goldman's dream was to find a way to Burning Man, the annual art festival held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.
But with a job in retail and a recent move to Chicago behind him, money was tight.
His solution? Ask people for cash online.
"Honestly, if I saw someone that posted [a campaign like mine], I would say, 'Why would I give you money for that?' " said Goldman, 23, of Lakeview. "Why just give someone money?"
But people do.
Goldman raised just short of $100—about $400 less than his goal—mostly from friends and family, in a campaign titled "Bring Ryan to the Playa." At the suggestion of a friend, he turned to Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing site with few restrictions on who can raise money for what.
Ultimately, the effort was moot because his plans changed, he moved and he ended up not going. Even though he ended up returning the money, it demonstrated the success of finding extra cash online.
The idea of crowdfunding on the Internet has been around for about a decade, but it hasn't been until recently that sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo and RocketHub have brought the idea of asking the masses for money into the mainstream—particularly for people seeking donations for personal projects.
The idea doesn't come without controversy. In the last year, actor Zach Braff and director Spike Lee both launched crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter to ask for millions in funding for films—the Hollywood stars were widely panned for soliciting money from fans. Actor James Franco also caught flak for asking fans for $500,000 to fund a film trilogy based on his book of short stories. Even users who have had successful campaigns say they sometimes had second thoughts about soliciting money for their more personal pursuits. In the end, however, they say it was worth it.
"I've always said this: If you don't ask, you won't receive," Goldman said. "You don't know if someone out there is willing to help or not. You won't know if you don't inquire."
Research supports that point. Liz Gerber, an assistant professor of design at Northwestern University, has been studying crowdfunding along with her students for two years. Instead of asking a few people for a lot of money, online campaigns ask a lot of people for a little bit of money—which makes it easier for folks to open their wallets.
And it's not like the money is totally free, either. Gerber's preliminary research shows the average crowdfunder spends three to eight hours a day managing his or her campaign. As it becomes more socially acceptable to ask for digital donations, she said, she's found there's a simple secret to success: You have to ask.
"We've always asked our mother for money, forever. We've asked the rich uncle. But we're no longer just asking the rich uncle, we're asking a lot more people for smaller amounts," she said. "It's a much smaller ask."
Tiffany T. Smith, 23, of Lincoln Park puts it this way: "A closed mouth won't get fed."
At first, Smith was wary of asking friends, family and strangers to open their wallets to fund her trip to a six-week summer musical theater program in New York last year.
"At first, I did feel like I was begging people," she said, adding that she provided almost daily updates on her Facebook page about the campaign to raise $4,000. "I'm not the type of person to do that or ask for money; I've been taking care of myself for so long. But everyone has a network, it's getting them together."
Smith was able to raise the entire amount of her goal from friends, family, classmates and fellow churchgoers. She said critics of the idea are mistaken if they think a crowdfunding campaign isn't hard work.
"I am putting all this time, doing all this other stuff, I do think this is work," she said. "I worked really hard for this campaign. I felt great about that."
Not everyone is persuaded they should crowdfund all their hopes and dreams. Maya Dinerstein, 19, of Evanston, said she was thrilled when she surpassed her $1,000 goal in June. As a cosplayer, or a fan who dresses like characters from TV or movies for conventions, she has built a following on Facebook and Tumblr for her striking resemblance to Kaylee Frye, a character from Fox's canceled TV show "Firefly" and the movie "Serenity." She said she had received multiple requests from fans and fellow cosplayers to meet up at different conventions like DragonCon in Atlanta and New York Comic Con, but as a college student, she wasn't able to fund the trips. She said the $1,000 helped pay for tickets, travel, costume expenses and other line times for her trips.