What The Patreon-Crowdfunding-Model Teaches Us About Leadership

I am a supporter on Patreon. Patreon is a crowdfunding website where people with budgets of any size can support creators by giving money to allow them to do what they love to do and do well. As a Patreon-supporter you can fund musicians, illustrators, writers, video-editors, painters — anyone who creates something they believe in that is worth sharing with the world. In exchange for the creator sharing what they love to do, their audience supports them by giving anything from as little as a dollar to as much as they would like. The patrons commit to pay the creator either on a monthly basis or per THING created and subsequently released. Either way, as a supporter you are in it for the long run — you back the creator and their work and pledge to do so unconditionally — unless you choose to withdraw your support for any reason. The creator has thus a reliable income in exchange for their creation. The supporters are often unaware in advance what exactly they are helping to fund. I believe the Patreon model provides an interesting case study for leaders who are interested in engaging their employees with mind and soul and who are looking for different ways to engage the key stakeholders in their organisations & businesses.

I currently support the musician and performer Amanda Palmer with 10 Dollars for every THING that she puts out. What she deems worthy to be a THING (and thus bill me and the other supporters for it) is down to her judgement. Amanda is the most successful artists on Patreon with over 7,000 supporters who pay her 33,500 USD for every THING she releases. Just recently, she wowed her supporters with a David Bowie tribute album “Strung Out In Heaven: A David Bowie String Quartet Tribute” which she recorded together with her partner in crime Jherek Bischoff as well and a number of wonderful guest artists. The money Amanda received from her Patreon supporters pays for everything that goes into the production of a record: Herself, Jherek, every guest recording artist on the record, the studio, the visual artists who supplied the artwork, the recording studio, the babysitter for her baby, the back-office. Without Patreon, this (wonderful) record would probably have never seen the light of day.

What Does This Have to Do with Leadership?

This is all well and good for artists, you might think. But what does the Patreon model have to do with leadership or life in a “normal” organization? A lot, I claim.

Here are the things the Patreon model can teach us about leadership:

  1. People thrive when they are supported to do what they love and people thrive when they support out of love.
  2. When you share responsibility, people assume ownership and use their power mindfully.
  3. The more people feel part of the creation process, the more excited they are about the end product.
  4. People are generous at heart. And they strive for balance between receiving and giving.

Let us look at each of these points in more detail.

1. People thrive when they are supported to do what they love and people thrive when they support out of love.

Most of us have (hopefully) had the experience of receiving support for doing something we love; our artwork, running a marathon, doing volunteer work, starting an initiative or even starting a business. The feeling of being supported for doing our THING is one of the most elating feelings in the world. It nourishes our sense of meaning, our sense of contribution to the world and to be supported by others in this makes us feel seen, acknowledged by others for our essence. The author Howard Thurman once famously said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Likewise, if someone creates something of quality, something that touches people’s hearts and lives in some meaningful way, people recognize this and joyfully support this creative act. My wife happens to support three creators on Patreon. Each creator she selected for bringing something wonderful into the world that would have very likely, without the financial backing of their supporters, would never have gotten created. Via a different channel, I also support Maria Popova who publishes Brainpickings a lovingly curated newsletter combining in-depth book reviews with beautiful artwork.

To know that our support enables the creation of something worthwhile gives my wife and I a sense of profound pleasure, which transcends the satisfaction of “consuming” the product that has been created. Actively supporting someone is a gift of love yet it also means to assume ownership for shaping the world we want to live in by supporting people who create things of beauty and relevance. If you want to be a more inspirational leader consider these two core approaches:

a) Articulate your vision in a way that creates space for others to support you actively in its realization.

b) Be committed to making others come alive by helping them to express more of their own talents and strengths. Allow them to flourish secure in the knowledge that you support them in doing something that really matters to them.

2. When you share responsibility people assume ownership and use their power mindfully.

As a facilitator/coach, I would say: At Patreon, people vote with their feet (a term taken from Open Space methodology). Every supporter makes the decision if they want to invest in a creator or not. If they like what the creator stands for and if their creations make sense to them or bring them joy, they support the creator financially with as much or as little as they can or want to. If they are not aligned with the creator any longer, they walk away. Every person who supports creators on Patreon manages their own budget and makes sensible decisions about how to spend their money. It is therefore the creator’s job to get supporters to buy into their vision/art, to create followership. Not surprisingly, this means a lot of responsibility for a creator who is entrusted with money from their supporters. The 33,500 USD that Amanda is paid for every THING is like a budget someone could be entrusted with as an employee of a company. She needs to spend the money wisely, or else the support she receives will drop significantly. In order to get to the point where 7,000 people are willing to give 33,500 USD for every THING she releases, Amanda worked very hard. For years she toured in small clubs, produced her own records, couch surfed with friends and fans, and enlisted the support of other artists (if you are interested in knowing more about her journey, I highly recommend the excellent TEDtalk “The Art of Asking” as well as her book with the same title “The Art of Asking”). In other words: She earned the support she receives today. Nobody handed her fans to her on a silver platter — she created a loyal following by delivering consistent quality and by staying in constant dialogue with her fans around her vision and her beliefs.

All too often leaders in organizations gain influence not because of the followership they created but rather because of how many important people they know or how long they have belonged to the organization. If leaders actually saw it as their job to earn and to continue to earn their laurels, they would practice what we might call “servant leadership”. To be a servant leader does not mean to follow every whim of every employee in the organization just in order to be liked; No, to be a servant leader means to hold oneself accountable to present a compelling vision that clearly explains the benefits of the future you wish to create. It means to operate on the understanding that followership is something you have to earn, not something you are handed or entitled to. It means to encourage true dialogue within the organization and to listen to your followers with interest.

If you resonate with the idea of servant leadership, you can experiment with different ways of empowering your people with trust. When you actively empower your people to take responsibility, you might be surprised how inspired they are to take ownership and act and think entrepreneurial. 
For e.g., instead of allowing only a handful of people high up in the organizational hierarchy to make financial decisions behind closed doors, 
try involving more people from different levels of the organization to decide on the size of a budget and on who might be the best person/project to invest in.

3. The more people feel part of the creation process, the more excited they are about the end product.

It is not just one person who decides the size of the budget that a creator receives via Patreon, but the collective decision of many, sometimes thousands, of supporters who decide how much the creator receives. This also means that it is the responsibility of the creator to sustain a dialogue with their supporters and to get a feel for how big the overlap is between what they would love to create and what their supporters would love to see or hear. This does not mean that the creators are, or should feel, obliged to please their audience and create only that which others want — but it obviously means that if there isn’t enough overlap between tastes and wants from both sides, the creator doesn’t have a market. This is why Patreon creators are actively involved with their audience. They blog, they post videos, they ask questions and they receive answers. In return, the supporters don’t just support the THING being created, they support the person creating the thing, the artist whose vision and talent they want to see thrive. As a supporter, I trust that the creator I support will do something I love.

Amanda Palmer for one has always been masterful in involving her audience in the entire process of creation; we get clues, questions, snippets or artwork and sound recordings, she shares her thoughts and feelings during the process of creating. By the time she releases her THING, I feel as if I have been a mid-wife to this piece of art and a part of me is proud of “co-creating” the creation through my financial and energetic support.

This approach of interacting with your audience is very much aligned with the principles behind Design Thinking. The Design Thinking-approach challenges creators to involve their future audience every step of the way, to have them be part of the development process in order to design something they actually want and that has relevance in their lives. Imagine what might happen if you involved your audience, clients, customers and other stakeholders in the development phase — instead of slaving away behind closed doors before miraculously revealing a finished product or service.

People like to be asked, to feel that their opinions matter. And they feel proud if they see something of themselves integrated in the “what” or the “how” of a project. I find that many of the leaders I interact with don’t do this for multiple reasons:

o Before they became leaders, nobody ever asked them for their input, so it doesn’t cross their mind to ask others.

o They feel vulnerable if perceived as the guy who doesn’t have all the answers, or

o they are afraid that mayhem breaks loose if they begin to ask employees for their input.

In reality, I have never seen this happen. Vulnerability on the part of a leader is mostly met with true interest and compassion and employees by and large are no more interested in anarchy than the people leading them.

As a leader, how could you create dialogue around your vision, your initiatives, your projects? What if you presented an idea before it was finished, have it discussed and challenged and be open to hear what your stakeholders have to say about it?

4. People are generous at heart. And they strive for balance between receiving and giving.

You might think that people who invested their own hard earned money into supporting a creator on Patreon would like to have exclusive rights to the THING that has been created. You might also think that the more money someone invested, the more eager they feel to sustain exclusivity. Curiously, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Amanda Palmer has repeatedly asked the question if we, her supporters, would like to keep the THINGS she creates private or if we are ok with her putting them out to people WHO DID NOT PAY FOR THEM. The majority of supporters says “Go for it. Bring it to the people.” And so she does. Patrons always get “first dibs”, we get access to the song, video or record before anyone else does, but ultimately, we agree for her to share ‘OUR’ creation for free with anyone else. But why would we do this? After all, we paid for it while others didn’t. We do this because we all agree that her creations make the world a better place. That they enrich people’s lives and hearts and are therefore worth sharing.

Every time Amanda releases one of her Patreon funded creations to the world, it results in more people signing up to Patreon to support her future creations. This is interesting because most people know that they could continue to get her art for free in the future if they just sit tight. Even so, they decide to become a supporter because they want to maintain the balance between receiving and giving. Humans (most of them at any rate) have an intuitive understanding of this. We are all generous beings at heart but we do not feel well when the balance is repeatedly offset and it is our natural inclination to restore the equilibrium. Imagine that you held the mindset that people have a natural inclination to honor the balance between receiving and giving. What might be different in your behaviour as a leader? What could you do to promote a culture of sharing resources and knowledge? How could you create opportunities for your team to practice the art of giving and receiving and experience the joy created through generosity?

Now, you might think that this way of operating is impractical in the “real world”, that this would never work in a “normal organization” producing products or providing services. Again, you might be surprised. Over the past three years in particular, I have started to see more and more examples of companies who operate differently, who assume a “new normal” in business. In 2014, Frederic Laloux published his inspiring book “Reinventing Organizations” in which he presents his insight into ninety organizations he researched worldwide, which already successfully integrate the above described lessons (and more). The organizations range from a tomato-paste producer in the US to a medical care provider in the Netherlands. Other examples are presented in the German documentary “Auf Augenhöhe” (“On Eyelevel” — available with English subs and free streaming options on their website), a crowd funded documentary about organizations in Germany fuelled by so called “21st century values” and intrinsic motivation to co-create with all stakeholders.

The lessons contained in the Patreon-model are therefore neither new nor impractical — they are alive and well in many organizations across the globe. Still, despite the successes of companies such as the ones researched by Laloux and the team behind “Auf Augenhöhe”, I am baffled at how alien these ideas are to most of the client organizations I serve as a coach and facilitator. Fear of failure, resistance to change and mistrust in the human potential for self-regulating and ethical behaviour run deep. The news we are exposed to daily paint a very different picture of human intentions and lead us to believe that greed, hunger for power and protectionism are humanities natural state.

I believe that in order to create the mindset shift needed to see more of these types of organizations in the world, we need to engage the entire spectrum of human experience; the individual, the collective, that which is visible and that which is experienced.

We need to facilitate dialogue that allow us to investigate our assumptions and our habitual ways of thinking and being — as individuals and in the collectives we are part of. And we need to collect more stories about different models that work (like Patreon) and continue to build a library of processes, ideas and methodologies that help us develop the best of the human potential.

As a coach and facilitator I know that tapping into this potential takes as little as a well facilitated dialogue where people are invited to share and to listen. Please mention any project or website in the comments below that you feel adds to this conversation.


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