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Crowdfunding the Statue of Liberty

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Putting Liberty on a Pedestal

Most Americans know that the Statue of Liberty by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi was a gift to the American people from the citizens of France. The deal was that the French people will pay for the statue but its pedestal had to be financed and built by the Americans.

Across the big water, the American Committee of the Statue of Liberty began raising the $250,000 required for the pedestal. Benefit events, auctions, sales of miniatures, and exhibitions of the hand and torch section brought in some donations but at a slow rate. Neither Congress nor the state or city of New York had any interest in helping. Many Americans couldn't understand why we'd want such a thing much less pay for it.

A Slow Start

The press in general was critical of the project but Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, was outraged by the lack of support. He told his readers that "more appropriate would be the gift of a statue of parsimony than a statue of liberty, if this is the appreciation we show of a friendly nation's sentiment and generosity."

Pulitzer's constant appeals for donations over two months only managed to raise $135.75. (Of course, at that time, the circulation of The World was only a few thousand.) Meanwhile Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and San Francisco began to push to have the statue relocated to their cities.

Gaining Momentum

Two years later, the Pedestal Fund was still $100,000 short of its goal but The World's circulation had surpassed 100,000 and Pulitzer decided to try again. This time, though, instead of haranguing readers, he appealed to their interests (and egos). Using his talent for connecting with the common man, he created an exciting narrative that captivated the nation. "It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America."

Within a few weeks, more than 2,500 people contributed $2,359.67. Every donor, no matter the gift size, had their name listed in the paper. Pulitzer published human interest stories about contributors: "A young girl alone in the world donated 60 cents, the result of self denial" and "five cents as a poor office boy's mite toward the Pedestal Fund."

In April, Pulitzer announced that the statue was ready to be sent to the U.S. and would soon be loaded on a ship for transportation. On April 15, donations had reached $25,000 and within a month it had doubled to $50,000. Hoping to latch on to the growing buzz, Fletcher's Castoria (a laxative) offered another $25,000 in exchange for placing their name on top of the pedestal for one year. The offer was declined.

The funding of the statue became a major national news story and people across the country sent in their small change. The World published daily totals and people would buy the paper every day just to keep up with the progress. The June 19 edition announced that the Pedestal Fund had reached 75% of its goal and in July the pieces of the statue arrived in New York inciting a new wave of excitement and donations.

19th Century Success Factors Still Hold True Today

On August 11 Pulitzer announced that the funding goal had been met with $102,006.39 raised. More than 120,000 people contributed and the average gift size was $0.83 per person. These small gifts represented 80% of all donations received.

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It took three years to raise the money needed for the pedestal with 40% being raised by Pulitzer and his newspaper in the last six months. This is the equivalent of raising $2.4 million from individuals without using email, social media, or crowdfunding web platform. In a modern online crowdfunding campaign, you will generally be raising smaller amounts ($10,000 or less) over a shorter time period (three to six weeks) but there are 19th Century tactics we can still learn from:

  • Know your audience and appeal to their interests (donor centered communication)
  • People want to be part of a success story. Share milestones to show progress and build urgency.
  • Acknowledge the participation of all donors regardless of gift size. Share their stories about why they are supporters.
  • The size of your network (potential donors) matters.
Tagged in: Fundraising History

For me, fundraising and communications go together like peanut butter and jelly – delicious & filling!

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