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Crowdfunding? Better Calculate Your Emotional Burn Rate

It’s higher than you think

At 3 am EST on December 5, 2013, the crowdfunding project that sparks and haunts my dreams will formally end.

I started working on WaveCheck’s campaign to fund breast cancer research, which promises to change the way we tell whether a breast tumor is responding to chemotherapy, last August.

We launched on October 9. As I write this, we’ve been live for 56 days.

Most of what follows best applies to crowdfunding campaigns that don’t hit 100 percent of their target during the first day or week. It will probably resonate most with people crowdfunding a cause or social innovation as opposed to a product or artistic outcome.

If you want to know more about the medical and technical ‘whys’ behind our campaign, read this post: Crowdfunding For Every Amy & Angelina.

But I also suspect this post will really resonate with people who have drunk their project’s Kool-Aid so deeply that it is oozing out of their pores.

Crowdfunding engenders that all-or-nothing mindset, even when you’ve got the option to take the funds you raise no matter what your green bar indicates.

First Off: A lot of good things happened

WaveCheck co-inventor Dr. Gregory Czarnota (seated) being interviewed by CBC’s Aarti Poole during the WaveCheck campaign. I took the photo on my phone.
  • 500+ people decided we were credible and gave us their money. More importantly, they trusted our team to do what needs to be done and help WaveCheck reach women and men everywhere. That’s powerful.
  • We raised over $53,000, which is 55 per cent of our goal, to start proving WaveCheck’s research out through its next development stage. That involves testing and refining its technology at other locations; again, read this if you want to know more.
  • Some lovely people from the media covered WaveCheck. We also have a TV episode for a new crowdfunding show and a feature with CTV’s Avis Favaro that haven’t aired yet (update: you can watch the TV spot here).
  • The people I work for gave my co-director and me the freedom to run with the campaign. From our CEO and team at MaRS Innovation to the leadership at our relevant member institutions to the researchers who have given their professional lives to creating the technological achievement that is WaveCheck, we’re grateful for their trust and have done our very best to honor it.
  • We worked with an amazing team, both within MaRS Innovation and beyond its walls. Their wholehearted enthusiasm carried us through a lot of challenges.
  • Our personal and professional networks rallied each time they were asked, giving us their attention, feedback and money. It’s one thing to know people are your friends. It’s another to watch them show up for you time and again. We’re so grateful.
  • We learned a mountain about crowdfunding, philanthropy, the mechanics of online giving, and the vulnerability that comes from being public about your work in ways that you normally are not.
  • We found answering passion in others. From the patients who participated in both the original study and our pitch video to the artists who donated their original works as perks to the partners who came through for us, everyone has been unfailingly generous.

…But the emotional burn rate is immense

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I’ve delivered several major projects during my 18 months at MaRS Innovation and the 10 years of my career.

By far, crowdfunding is the most intense, demanding and scary thing I have ever done.

It’s easy to do some figures on a napkin at the outset and figure out what a project like this one will cost you in terms of cash flow (in start-up world, we call this the burn rate).

It’s a lot harder to figure out what it’s going to cost you personally. I call this the emotional burn rate.

And it’s even more difficult to replenish.

Here’s what I didn’t learn when we were doing our background research:

  • Your phone, if set to register donations and social interactions as mine was, will become the barometer that drives the tone of your day. If it’s buzzing, you’ve happy. If it’s silent, you’re perturbed. You can tell yourself that you know better than me: that you would have turned it off or stepped away for a while. You won’t.
  • Besides being physically tired, you will get tired of people telling you look tired, stressed, or both. This is particularly true each time you run an event related to your campaign.
  • You will become a mono-conversational buzzkill at parties, family dinners and other gatherings. Your friends will try and tell you that just because you are living the adventure, you don’t need to preach it. You will ignore them. (Sorry, Jen. You, too, Mom and Dad.)
  • Your family will become so accustomed to your intense hours that they will periodically wave you off with cries of, “Bye, Mommy, see you tomorrow!” You will feel guilty about this. You will keep doing it anyway.
You will never feel like there is enough time.
  • Besides fueling your dreams, your campaign will haunt your sleep. WaveCheck is designed to help people with breast cancer: most of the people who will benefit from it are women. I’ve had my share of nightmares involving disasters where I need to lead or care for groups of women: zombies, bombings, plane crashes, car accidents, you name it. After a few of these and the odd breast cancer diagnosis dream thrown in for kicks, I acknowledged what my subconscious was showing me: that I felt somewhat powerless about the pressure I was experiencing. When this happened, I talked to my very patient spouse and to Fazila, my campaign co-director. Being candid and open about it helped.
  • As the campaign rolls on, you will feel physical tension that never really goes away because you always feel like there’s something you should be doing. And, there are usually three things you should be doing and 10 you could be doing. You need to have an evolving plan for tackling both the tasks and the expectations.
You will indulge in more daydreams than usual
about winning the lottery.
  • The days where you bring in $0, and we had a couple, are terrible. Crowdfunding involves wild activity at the beginning and the end, and a lot of troughs in between. They come with the territory, but knowing that doesn’t make them much easier to endure or escape.
  • At times, you’ll feel like you can’t get it right. Sometimes, you aren’t. Reflection and action are needed. Test your messaging with live people. Figure out what skills or perspective you’re missing. Find them. Add it. Iterate.
  • Other times, you have to accept there are things you just can’t control or compete against. For us in Toronto, that was Rob Ford and his international media dominance. Globally, events like the hurricane in the Philippines, the U.S. government shutdown, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month commanded a lot of competing media and donor attention.
  • Donor fatigue is a pretty abstract concept until you’ve experienced the reality of fundraising. There are a lot of demands on people’s wallets. At the end of the day, no matter what your relationship, your ask of them is no different. You need to accept that.

Crowdfunding campaigns are short; their long-tails are infinite

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I don’t know how much money we’ll have raised when we close. As I write this, my phone continues to sporadically chime away.

I hope to see the spike we’re told comes in a campaign’s closing day or hours. At this point, it’s unclear what kind of difference it will make to our overall goal.

What I do know is that crowdfunding is a lot like standing on the edge of the lake.

You choose the best stones you can find, feel their weight in your hands, and then throw as many as you can as far and wide and fast as you can.

Some of the ripples, the nearest ones, are easy to see and measure.

The others aren’t.

But you have to trust that the lake has changed, and will make its changes known to you in time.

As I post this, we have less than 16 hours to reach our goal. If you can help, whether by donating, spreading the word or recommending this post, I thank you on behalf of the entire WaveCheck team.

Update: You can still support WaveCheck through the Sunnybrook Foundation website. Just make sure you put “WaveCheck” in the comment field.
Update 2: WaveCheck has received a $100,000 catalyst grant from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, which means the first partner site will open in May 2014 at MD Anderson Cancer Centre. We’re so pleased! Read the announcement here.
Update 3: WaveCheck’s crowdfunding data was part of a Canadian-led study on crowdfunding medical research. You can read about that here.
Update 4: Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and MaRS Innovation have announced a partnership with GE Healthcare to co-develop WaveCheck as a product for the clinic.