The Crowdfunding Grind: Why It’s Not Paying for an Unpaid Internship

Crowdfunding seemed like such a great idea back before I started this whole unpaid internship. This internship was advertised clearly as being unpaid; no living income or stipend could be provided. I could only ask for so much help from my parents for another “international adventure” because I’m still stuck paying off student loans from my undergrad (which they are graciously helping out with). There was also no help from the Canadian government (unlike other governments) for unpaid interns doing this kind of work, and there are little to no organizations or foundations that provide stipends or even partial funding for promising young people to work at the UN (for free). But with no real jobs back home in Canada, it seems like getting on the internship grind was the only way to get that work experience that has apparently become necessary for securing at least precarious, entry-level employment.

It was looking like I wasn’t actually going to have another choice if I wanted to do real work related to my field (economics, politics, and public policy) instead of having to work at Starbucks, doing manual work, or sitting around unemployed that would delay getting into a policy career track where the required “3+ years of experience in the policy/comms/etc. field” was needed for even the most basic jobs out there on Canadian LinkedIn. I’m not dismissing these service or blue collar jobs. I’ve done them myself, I was born and raised around these kinds of jobs, and they aren’t all bad. But doing 3 years of barista-ing or home renovations doesn’t cut it on the CV for my career track and it’s not what I’ve been preparing myself for all this time, what with all the going to university and getting two masters degrees, studying economics and social sciences. I worked through actually having to do math at a university-level even though I incredibly suck at it. It would be kind of a waste of all my time studying econometrics to rise the ranks of managing a KFC again or working the shop floor with my dad.

An unpaid internship at the United Nations sounded better than a lot of the other unpaid internships at most other organizations or companies based close enough to home. It’s the UN, for crying out loud. How could I possibly remain jobless after doing an internship over there, right? But how do I at least earn something resembling an income?

Why crowdfunding? Simply: what else do I got?

Crowdfunding an unpaid intern is a pretty popular idea. With the spread of crowdfunding success stories about young people soliciting funds for their unpaid work through crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and GoFundMe, it seemed to me like a bright idea to try it. But this idea has been floating around for the past three years or so. Because of that, if you search on any of these Crowdfunding platforms right now, you’ll see dozens or maybe hundreds of campaign pages from unpaid interns asking for help. A lot of them are just plain appeals without any return expected to the donor. Furthermore, a lot those campaigns don’t reach their goals.

So, I felt the need to differentiate myself. I decided to get into podcasting and blogging about my experience. The documentation part seemed like a great idea because, after anxiously Googling what the internship was going to be like, I couldn’t find anything recent or relevant to what the experience was actually like. Was the work terrible or great? Where the supervisors understanding or did they come straight from hell? What were the perks? What were the challenges? The Internet couldn’t even answer whether it paid off in the end.

But to be frank, the podcast isn’t all just about documenting this kind of crappy quirk of the modern labour market. It was intentionally self-serving, in a way, to draw attention to my own crowdfunding campaign and make it more visible for potential donors. Before leaving for New York, I even made a proper pitch video and promised “perks” to donors which a lot of other campaigns don’t even offer. The perks included UN swag and paraphernalia that you actually can’t buy online and can only buy at UN offices for the “$100 or more class” donors.

A $100 donation could come with this simple perk.

I also felt like my media skills and experience could be put to good use for effective and shameless self-promotion. I wanted to go viral to help pay for working for 6 months (as illogical as that sounds). In the wider scheme of things, getting active with the Fair Internship Initiative and organizing an intern network in New York were also in an effort to hopefully/shamelessly expand my own reach when it came to making ends meet with the internship.

I was also supported by friends that encouraged me to try crowdfunding to get through the internship. With my crazy international grad school experience, it seemed like a good idea at the time to tap into my global network to meet a minimal standard of living. Despite all of this encouragement, I still had major hesitations that this would work. I’m not a huge fan of crowdfunding and the ultimate beneficiaries aren’t necessarily the people doing the crowdfunding, but the platforms themselves that hedge on failure campaigns with their particular disbursement schemes and in taking cuts out of the final total. Crowdfunding is definitely not the best way to support yourself for your work. Actually, a basic income or living stipend would be. But since those apparently are in short supply or simply do not exist in the millennial-level labour market, how else do you work but for free?

There are also no scholarships or government support (from Canada) available for Canadian interns at the UN. After e-mailing and asking the Canadian Mission to the UN about potential funding sources for a UN internship, I still couldn’t find any answers or leads to financing an unpaid internship from external sources. Canadian UN Mission interns themselves are unpaid. I’m completely unaware of any sort of external funding that could have been available for this internship, but not for trying and weeks of anxious research. Some governments or foundations in other countries exist to provide UN interns with financial support, but none of them are Canadian. Crowdfunding, again, seemed like the only way.

I also couldn’t do side jobs or anything like that while in New York. I’m here on a B1 Visa, that most non-American interns acquire, which does not allow me to work for income. That requires a different Visa. I would have to apply for another Visa at this point in order to work at like a bar or something. It isn’t quite worth it either. The UN internship is a full-time gig that sometimes takes you into evening hours. Even trying to get a part-time evening gig, under the table at like a bar or something, is definitely something I’ve considered but the payoff comes with incredible exhaustion and continued precarity. I’ve done part-time work during undergrad and grad school before, but that’s a whole different thing from having to full-on work for 4–6 more hours after a 9-to-5 day.

In any case, the amount of money I would be able to earn part-time (20 hours a week), from a minimum wage ($9/hour in New York state), under-the-table job (which may not be at minimum wage if so) would not equal the $1000/month bare minimum budget I’ve given myself for living. That would theoretically work out to $720/month. So basically there’s no point in doing a full-time UN internships and a part-time minimum wage job at the same time, because there is only so much time in a week. There are weekends, sure. It still means I won’t make enough for the month if I work minimum wage doing double shifts on a weekend at like a restaurant, under-the-table (because bars only operate at night, duh). Essentially, crowdfunding is also the only way for me to get enough money to do an unpaid UN internship, without violating any US immigration and labour laws or delaying my parents’ retirement.

An artist’s rendition of a potential donors’ appearance.

The Challenges of Crowdfunding an Unpaid Internship

I had some initial success with my crowdfunding run. I chose Generosity, IndieGoGo’s personal fundraising version, as the crowdfunding platform. Generosity works like GoFundMe, where there is no set expiry date for your fundraising campaign and funds are disbursed on a regular, rolling basis, but I also think it looks a lot more aesthetically pleasing than GoFundMe. There’s also the perks option that came with choosing Generosity which I felt was a bit needed to help incentivize contributions.

Most of the contributions I’ve received came at the very start of my crowdfunding campaign; two weeks before leaving for New York. It was helped along by an initial of wave of people liking and sharing my campaign, the accompanying pitch video, and the first podcast episode on social media networks. Friends and family were the first contributors to the campaign and after the first month, it seemed like I was going to make it after all.

But things hit a wall around mid-June. To date, I’ve gathered $2160 through crowdfunding (both on and offline; on Generosity it clocks in at $1610 at the moment). Just past the 6 month halfway point with a $6000 end goal for fundraising, I came out $840 short at 3 months in, with doubts that things will pick up again for August.

Despite a crafty social media campaign, the growing audience of The Internship Grind podcast, and a large, international social network, I’ve come up short from these crowdfunding goals. I have a few ideas as to why this campaign isn’t working.

Social Network Composition

Crowdfunding largely depends on your network. Because these sorts of campaigns are pretty much social media based, it’s the members of the network that become contributors. For a personal fundraising effort like this, unlike crowdfunding to make an innovative product or creative thing, a social network is also needed to build trust. Contributing to a campaign like this doesn’t necessarily mean buy-in to a particular product and there are no expected returns. It’s harder to ask for money when the giver doesn’t really see any tangible rewards in the end (except for seeing me kickstart a career), so being somehow connected already to the donor is needed to establish trust. Potential donors need to know that I actually need the money and am not soliciting funds for a nefarious purpose.

While personal crowdfunding often needs a strong social network, which I think I have with global connections gained through my international work and grad school, it’s the composition of those networks that also plays a factor in a crowdfunding campaign’s success. But what does my social network look like?

Through my whirlwind journey since starting my undergrad at the University of Toronto, I’ve gotten to know many, mostly young, people from diverse backgrounds. While it may be a strong social network, young people are more likely to be in precarious employment positions, low-income, and just starting out in their careers. Most people in my network are basically in the same position that I’m in. From that, it’s challenging to ask people who are earning very little or nothing at all to help me.

It should be noted, though, that I have received a majority of my funds from those same, young people in precarious positions. But, I’ve been finding it hard to continue on asking people for money from my network of friends and acquaintances when they don’t exactly have a lot of money themselves. There are even other colleagues and friends, who are around my age and are also trying to start their careers as well, that are using crowdfunding to supplement a low-income or replace no-income for their work. Those that are earning money and do empathize with my situation are giving, but that is a small number compared to the total network.

But I don’t only just know young people; I know a fair number of older people too. However, this is mostly family and family-friends in the Filipino-Canadian community. Filipino-Canadians account for the majority of older people that I know because of my family background and upbringing and they are not the wealthiest people. The stats are a bit dated, but the average annual income of Canadians of Filipino origin aged 15 and over in 2000 was $24,600 CAD, compared with an average of almost $30,000 CAD for all Canadian adults ($33,255 vs. $40,554 in 2016).

With the labour market experiences that have only accelerated for Filipino-Canadians since 2000, Filipino-Canadians are still largely low-income in 2016. While I’ve found a lot of support for what I’m doing through my Filipino-Canadian family and from members of the community, there’s still no way I can ask people there for money. It doesn’t mean that members of that community haven’t been contributing, as there are some well-off people that have been giving, but it’s not exactly a network swimming in cash either.

Because of my background, my network is strong in its relationships. I can depend on others to help out in countless other ways. But because of the low-income and precarious status of many parts of this network, crowdfunding has been a struggle. But there are other factors that may be hampering my progress.

Purpose

Putting money towards a cool cause like saving the whales or someone making some come wacky thing that gets featured on AJ+ is typically what crowdfunding is for. Paying for someone’s income replacement is not exactly what crowdfunding was made for. The whole idea of soliciting funds to work for free really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to people who won’t see any real, tangible returns. Questioning the purpose of the whole crowdfunding effort ought to be a huge hindrance to actually reaching these fundraising goals, particularly for soliciting funds from individuals outside my social network (aka strangers).

Size of Donations

I’ve received donations so far from 37 separate contributors, with 10 contributing $100 or more. While crowdfunding can take off with many “micro” donations, it’s really the more heavy hitting contributions that I’ve found in similar crowdfunding campaigns to mine that help them reach their goals. Having one donor, for example, contribute $500 or $1000 can do wonders for my campaign goals. But right now, I don’t think I know a single person who can donate that amount of money for a cause that is, to be honest, less-worthy. A $20 or $50 donation isn’t any less important to me. Actually, seeing the list of donors who are going out of their way to pitch in whatever they can is so humbling and I cannot thank those people enough for helping. But, I don’t think I can easily reach my goals without those larger donations.

Social Media Fatigue

These crowdfunding campaigns can get super annoying when you constantly see them on your social media feeds. This can get particularly frustrating when Generosity keeps on trying to nudge you to post on social media as a way to raise more money. I’ve been posting about the campaign for less than suggested, but I always try to slip a mention of it where possible like during the podcast, every now and again on Facebook and on Twitter, and whenever I blog. Even though there are probably hundreds of more annoying things out there on newsfeeds, crowdfunding being one those annoying things doesn’t exactly lend to its success. After the initial wave of shares and contributions, I think social media fatigue has meant that I can’t ride that same kind of wave again.

Crowding Out Crowdfunding

Other people are doing it. I’ve mentioned this before that others are crowdfunding their unpaid internships as a way to replace labour income, but with everyone doing it and more and more unpaid internships replacing entry-level paid work, it’s getting harder for unpaid interns to get attention for their own campaigns. If you check out GoFundMe and search “unpaid internship,” you get 688 currently active campaigns. Many of them are also United Nations internships. The crowdfunding market has literally crowded itself out when it comes to people asking for money to replace labour income for their unpaid internships.

These are just some factors that I think are hampering my crowdfunding efforts. There ought to be ways to overcome them, like finding a way to publicize my campaign outside of my immediate network and finding a way to solicit donations from strangers. Still, I have my doubts that getting around the above challenges will resolve my problem of not having enough money to live basically while working unpaid.

In the meantime, I’ve had to fall back on parents supplementing what I did receive from my donors. They were at least happy to take care of my rent situation because the money was going to someone they knew; a “distant relative” by other standards but a “close relative” to my dad. The money spent on rent was helping family so it was a lot easier to “justify.” This lucky familial arrangement helped me out a lot, making the donations that I did still receive work for food and transit expenses. But still, there’s no way my crowdfunding effort could fully replace labour income for an unpaid internship.