Tom Dawkins On The Fundamentals of Crowdfunding & Social Media For Social Enterprise


Tom Dawkins is Co-Founder and CEO of, a crowdfunding platform which has raised more than $8 million for social benefit projects globally.

He previously founded Australian youth media nonprofit Vibewire, leading the organisation from 2000-2008 before moving to Washington DC to become the first Social Media Director at Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, a global non-profit supporting social entrepreneurs.

He was the Director of the Australian Changemakers Festival in 2013 and 2014.

Tom has supported numerous nonprofits, governments and arts organisations to better engage communities using technology and culture. He has organised music and film festivals, youth journalism projects, new media conferences and Burning Man theme camps. Tom and StartSomeGood have been recognised with awards and fellowships from the World Summit Youth Awards, The International Youth Foundation, Nexus Australia, the Social Enterprise Awards and the Australia & New Zealand Internet Awards.


Tom discusses how to get the most from a crowdfunding campaign, using social media effectively, the shift in social enterprise & impact investing.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to work in the social enterprise sector? [2:08]

[Tom Dawkins] - When I was in high school, I really didn't have any sense of direction or aspiration about the future like a lot of us. I was really struggling, I was getting bullied and didn't know what to do with myself. I discovered student exchanges and spent a year in Spokeham, Washington. That was an incredibly formative experience for me. [Tom explains more about this this experience.] 

A particular experience while I was on the exchange really set me on this path and that was getting invited to attend an event called the 'State of the World Forum'. [Tom talks about this great event which took place in San Francisco and how it provided a strong opportunity for him. It made him feel inspired and empowered, but on the other hand it made him realise that he had been a lucky recipient of how youth empowerment traditionally happens...] It's (youth empowerment) tokenistic, haphazard and biassed towards wealth. So what I've been trying to do ever since then is figure out better ways to give everyone the experience that I had at that time; the experience of knowing that your voice matters, of knowing that you can be a contributor and stakeholder and that you have the tools at your disposal to make a difference and create the future we all need. [Tom talks about how he founded three non-profits by the time he finished university, including Vibewire. He talks about his time at Ashoka and what he learnt. Increasingly he became interested in the things we can do outside of the system without requiring permission.] 

I saw crowdfunding as an amazing tool that was enabling people, initially in the creative industries, to go around the gatekeepers in their sector and instead build community with the people who most cared about and most wanted to see more of the work they were doing. That set off a lightbulb that this is exactly the kind of tool social entrepreneurs need as well to help overcome what is essentially essentially an endemic innovation gap in the sector right when we innovation the most. So we founded StartSomeGood in 2012 and that's what we've been doing since.

Could you please explain the back story behind which you founded with Alex Budak? [08:00]

I met Alex in DC (we had worked together in Ashoka).

We've been virtual from day one. I moved to Sydney and he moved to Stockholm. [Tom talks about making this virtual work relationship work from opposite sides of the globe.]

Tom speaking at Sprout Summit.

Tom speaking at Sprout Summit.

What advice would you give to those listeners who are thinking about launching a crowdfunding campaign? [09:24]

The really key thing to start with is to understand what the job of crowdfunding is.

Your job as a crowdfunder is not just creating an attractive listing that shares your brilliant idea. Crowdfunding is an outreach project.

20% of your effort should be the actual page (the idea, rewards, video). 80% of your effort should be how you're actually sharing that story and attracting attention back to that page. People routinely do it the other way around. [Tom explains this in further detail.]

Identifying what is your story, who needs to hear that story and what are the channels that you can reach those people with your story is what will lead to crowdfunding success.

That's just a big picture misunderstanding around the dynamic of crowdfunding. 

[Tom talks about two sided marketplaces such as Airbnb and how this type of marketplace is different to crowdfunding (but that people treat crowdfunding like this). He explains how people think that posting up a good 'listing' on crowdfunding and then sitting back and waiting for people to invest is all too common, but that this is not how successful crowdfunding works.]

People take that same approach with crowdfunding.

Nobody is going to support your campaign if you're not actually out there, hustling, sharing your story and inspiring people to come back and provide support.

The world is busy, everyone's distracted and almost noone is hanging out on the internet looking for things to fund. Your job as a fundraiser is to find them.

The key understanding is that crowdfunding is fundraising. It accords to the same core rules that always predict fundraising success; clarity on your story, clarity on who needs to hear that story and clarity on the channels to reach them. The forth thing is having a really great return loop so that they can both give you money and share that they've given you money to everyone else. Crowdfunding is that forth stage, but the first three stages are the same. Successful fundraising is never kicking back and seeing what happens.

Could you please talk us through a couple of the successfully funded projects from StartSomeGood and why you believe they did so well? [12:53]

Successful entrepreneurs often have very strong intuition around their story and they have a desire to tell their story.

The people who fail a lot at crowdfunding are those who don't actually want to fundraise and they think that crowdfunding is a way to raise money without doing the real work of fundraising.

[Tom talks about the difficulties in doing this and why people don't feel comfortable raising money, as well as why they're attracted to crowdfunding.]

[Tom talks about Ability Mate, a social enterprise which is changing the way children/families access orthotics. Tom talks about why Ability Mate's crowdfunding campaign was so successful and how they had built up a community around them before launching their campaign, as well as having a genuine story to tell.]

Between 2008-2010 you were based in Washington DC as the first Social Media Director at Ashoka. What 3 social media tips would you give to a social enterprise? [17:25]

Tip one, start right now. The right time to start was yesterday, the second best time to start is now.

The principal with social media is always give before you get.

[Tom talks about the keys to building community and about shared interest. He talks about breaking things down into their constituent parts as a great way to find connection points to people.]

The way to build a community is not to convince them to care about something they don't, but to identify the things that you have in common.

[Tom gives a good example.]

The third point is don't get too spread out.

Only do what you can do well. Rather than spreading out across seven platforms and being mediocre, pick two and really focus on them.

[Tom shares his personal experience with social media, choosing the right platforms and gives an example from the yoga industry.]

If you're brand new to social media, I would just pick one [platform] and do it well. [Tom talks about how people use social media ineffectively and how this can be detrimental to their cause.]

Tom speaking at Transitions Film Festival.

Tom speaking at Transitions Film Festival.

How have you seen the the social enterprise sector transform over the last 5 years and where do you see it heading? [24:06]

I feel like it's really emerged over the last five years. It's still early days but I think five years ago most people hadn't really heard the expression. [Tom talks about before the the 'social enterprise' definition came about he thought of himself as a community organiser or activist.]

I think social enterprise has emerged as something that people are attracted to.

Particularly younger people who I think have a strong intrinsic desire to combine both purpose and lifestyle. That's a real shift from our parents generation who have this idea of giving back at a certain stage. [He talks about how he met someone who made the shift.]

The idea that there's 'a time' to give back has gone. For the younger generations they just think, 'let's do it right now.' [Tom breaks this down further.]

I do think that it [social enterprise] has maybe become a little over-hyped.

[Tom compares this to a part of the yoga industry and how in some ways how this is similar to a potential bubble in social enterprise training and the social enterprise ecosystem.]

We've built out the training and intermediary layer [of the social enterprise ecosystem] but there are other bits missing.

One of the missing pieces is impact investment and particularly of the risk tolerant variety.

There's a lot of hype around impact investing but there's almost no impact angel investing. [Tom talks about a lack of capacity to access resources and capital to scale.] Most of what gets called impact investing at the moment goes into very low risk asset categories; either building highly sustainable LEED certified, 6 star type of buildings or refurbishing old ones and renewables with long term supplier agreements in place. It's great that it's happening, there should be more of that, but there's still a big gap in this early stage stuff [in social enterprise]. This is the gap that everyone is falling into as soon as they graduate from these social enterprise courses. [Tom talks about how they are working in this space.]

I think social enterprise is going to take over business as usual.

I don't think social enterprise is a fad or a flash in the pan. I think it responds to this fundamental shift around how people are perceiving the role of business and how they want to approach their careers and lives and how they make a living. We're seeing that in so many places across the board.

I think it's only going to continue to the point where essentially social enterprise takes over 'business as usual' and becomes the new norm. At which point the whole idea of a social enterprise will in fact disappear. Because it will just be an enterprise and our new expectations of how business should be run. Of course a business should take into consideration wider stakeholders. Of course a business needs to be thinking about a broad definition of sustainability and not just profit. [Tom talks about how economic sustainability models are going to look really naive in isolation.]

What will pop out won't be social enterprises as this kind of admirable outlier, it will be the anti-social businesses that will pop out from the norm; those who are not getting on board and not thinking in these new ways and I think these businesses will increasingly lose support.

What do you believe government can be doing to create a more democratic and participatory society? [30:26]

[Tom talks about his own shift away from government.]

I do think that there is an important role for government, particularly around the education system.

I think we're really going to have to rethink how we teach kids and the kind of core skills that we want them to exit the education system with. In particular I think entrepreneurial or changemaking skills are really core to any sort of successful career in the future.

[Tom talks about automation and how this will change employment and necessary skills.]

I think the one area where humans can maintain an advantage and I really think will be crucial to both individual and organisational success is having an entrepreneurial culture.

Our educational systems are not well set up to produce this yet. [Tom talks about how current focusses in education on standardised testing is not right and how this is a role for government to tackle. He also talks about providing heating and gives an example in NZ. He talks about how open-source data has really created opportunities. In Australia he gives an example in the energy sector and talks about the value of this open data.]

You have to accept that when you increase levels of innovation, you increase levels of failure because you're trying more stuff out.

That's great, that's how science works. [He talks about the value of accepting failure and a shift we need in thinking. He compares the American entrepreneurial culture versus the Australian one.]

Where I think the government could help is by enforcing certain standards of transparency so we can begin to accept that there is a lot of failure out there. So long as we can access the information and learn from it then we will build on that and we'll do better and figure stuff out quicker.

What are some great books you’d recommend to our listeners? [36:31]

[Tom talks in detail about the list of books below and how they have inspired him.]


You can contact Tom on LinkedIn or Twitter. Feel free to leave comments below.

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