There's been a little consternation online that someone has set up a GoFundMe campaign to solicit donations towards building his new O gauge layout. From what I've seen, people are not in favour, and at the time of writing, a couple of days after it went live, no money has been raised. Having said that, just because a few people online are grumpy, doesn't mean there is anything wrong with a plan.
The first big Internet pan-handling website was savekaryn.com - set up by TV producer Karyn Bosnak in 2002. After a move to New York, she racked up $20,000 on her credit cards which wasn't a problem until redundancy came knocking.
Setting the site up, she was completely honest that the debt was her own fault, but argued that if enough kind people gave her a little hand, she could be debt free with lessons learned. The site documented her selling possessions and also receiving donations until the cards were paid off.
Along the way, she took a lot of flack from those who disapproved of her actions, as well as spawning many imitators also looking for a handout. In the end, she had the last laugh, turning the story onto an entertaining book, which was then optioned for a film, although this hasn't appeared yet.
The key to her success, was she entertained people with regular posts on the site explaining how to avoid falling in to the same debt hole, and chronicling her efforts to get out of it. That, and being one of the first to do it, and certainly the first to garner media attention. I remember reading the website and being fascinated by the journey, even though I didn't pay a cent towards the trip.
Some have looked at the model railway pan-handling (to use an American term) and suggested it's no different from applying to a model railway club committee for funds. I disagree. In this case, you are applying as part of a team. The committee will weigh up the space required and number of members in the group as well as the money. I've seen an application for what was basically one-man project rejected within minutes, not helped by the applicant having gone trough every model catalogue hoping to build in every operating gizmo possible on a layout with no basis in reality (it wasn't me).
Also, a club layout is just that. It's a layout owned by a club, and generally intended to be taken to shows, partly to promote the club. It's not something owned by one bloke in his back garden shed.
The bigger problem I see for anyone looking for donations towards their project is that just like Bosnak, you are going to have to entertain the crowd. She imagined her role as a street performer rather than a beggar - payment was in the same manner as a busker passing around the hat at the end of a performance, and that's how many of those who sent money saw it too.
Now, what happens if you have raise a hundred quid for your layout from five people? They expect results, but that cash won't buy you a single loco. No matter, they will expect to see progress and don't care if you are short of funds, they have paid, now dance for the money! I'm sure I wouldn't like to be on the end of the abuse that this might generate.
Raising funds for model railways via the crowd doesn't have a good track record. There are a couple of very well-known modellers with Patreon accounts that bring in nothing more than a tiny trickle of income, despite all the effort that goes into producing video content. Even YouTube isn't the goldmine that the media would have you believe and the pressure is always going to be on to produce more content, and for each new piece to be more outrageous that the last. Yes, you can get a lot of views by slagging off RTR models, but each time, the stakes need to be raised a bit or the audience gets bored and wanders off.
Basically, people want to be entertained. They don't want to pay for that entertainment either.
Could this work?
In theory yes it could. Keep entertaining the punters, make them feel they are part of the project and the money might keep rolling in. It would be terrifically hard work, far harder then simply building the model, or just getting a job to bring in the money conventionally. Standards will need to be high, or the armchair modellers will throw a strop. It's probably best to explain the standards you'll build to up front.A proper project plan with a timeline would be a good idea, although being realistic about this might put people off.
A bigger problem will be that if it works, there will be copycats and many of these will definitely fail, leaving those who have given money out-of-pocket with nothing to see. You can be sure those people will be on forums venting their spleen.
Looking for donations towards your layout isn't illegal. As long as you
make it clear what people are getting, or not, then no-one can complain.
That won't stop them, welcome to the Internet.
(Incidentally, if you want to contribute to this free-to read blog, just click on the advert on the side every so often. It won't cost you anything, and I get a tiny amount of cash. You might even discover some interesting new products!)