ZCom Fund Raising Policy
By Michael Albert at Jun 15, 2008
About a week ago we announced an unusual fund raising procedure, repeating an effort we made two years ago. It goes like this.
We use a little programming script to raise the pledged donation rate of each sustainer one level in each person's database entry. We then make it especially easy for Sustainers to revert their donor pledges to their prior levels, if they so choose. If a Sustainer doesn't revert, during a period of a few weeks set aside for this purpose, the new level becomes operative. If the new level becomes operative and despite all the reminders and notices a Sustainer is taken by surprise and isn't happy about the new level, we refund whatever amounts he or she requests.
Last time we did this, to revert from the raised level to their prior level, Sustainers had to send us an email. This time Sustainers only have to click a link (which will be available online in the next couple of days).
Last time, we undertook this policy in order to survive, literally. If we had not done it, something entirely new and untried, at the time, Z would have disappeared about two years ago - the magazine, the school, the videos, the site. all of it, gone.
This time, we are not in danger of disappearing. Instead we are using the procedure for positive reasons. On the one hand, we want to keep growing - ZSchool, ZBooks, etc. etc. But on the other hand, we also want to make our features available to more of our users, particularly to those who don't have much money, by reducing the donation level necessary for each feature and by providing steadily more features free, as well.
So, first., starting in a few days, all Sustainers accounts will include a proposed new pledge one level higher than before. If the Sustainer doesn't revert it back tot he old pledge, the increased new pledge will become live in July. If the Sustainer does revert it back, merely by clicking a link, nothing about his or her donation will alter.
But, second, in expectation that most people will go along with this change, we are also changing the donor level that is necessary to gain various permissions by one step, and we are changing it downward. Thus, those who donate in accord with our request will get two levels more access. And even those who click a link to revert will get, even so, one level more access. Free users too, will get more features, newly made free. Blog, forum, and other participatory aspects will jump upwards in use. Ditto for the use of new features like our new chat, calendar, wikis, group networking, etc. Everyone will benefit immediately, from the new material and increased access, and later even more as we apply increased resources to continued improvements and as Sustainers participate more.
One little point that helps explain context. About a half a million people use ZCom. About 7,000 donate. My guess is a good part, maybe as much as 80% of the half a million would be happy to give a little, if they thought everyone else was going to, and if they understood the gains that would accrue, and if it was easy to do. Getting more free users to give just a little bit, say $1 a month, is really quite like getting Sustainers to give just a little more. People are abstractly willing, but the entreaties run up against people's harried lives, lack of time, habits of not paying anything online, disinterest in filling out forms, disinclination to even read email entreaties, and so on. The simple truth is, if we could come with a policy that would make it very very very easy for current free users to give a little, or to opt out of doing so, like we have come up with a procedure making it very very very easy for Sustainers to donate a little more than in the past, or to opt out of doing so, ZCom would have finances sufficient for incredible growth and diversification not only of our operations, but of the whole world of left media and organizing. But, regrettably, we haven't solved that problem, yet.
Back to the policy that we are undertaking, with our Sustainers, to get more revenues to reach out more widely, grow facilities, make them more accessible, etc. I have received about four letters so far, concerned that this policy is horribly corporate, coercive, indeed, one writer said stealth and another said disgusting. I thought I would put here a little of that, without the people's names, and my replies....as others may have similar concerns and be interested. Remember, however, 6,000 people heard about the policy and four wrote in with concerns - which is one fifteenth of one percent - and I don't want to give the wrong impression, even while I do focus on the concerns of the few.
One Sustainer wrote in reply to the annoucement message:
I do not like this at all. I don't use my Z link login frequently and currently I don't remember my login or password. I have supported you at $15 a month for quite a while and want to keep it at that, and I do not like the hassle of having to log in and tell you I don't want to pay more.
Giving stealth fee increases is how the corporate entities do business and when they do, I generally go and do business elsewhere.
Please do NOT increase my payment level without my explicit consent.
Can I perhaps have a minute of your time before you decide permanently your view about this?
First - what is stealth about announcing something in advance, providing a trivially simple means for people to do as they like if they don't want to donate, and even insuring against someone ignoring four messages about the policy, by guaranteeing that if that happens to you, or anyone, there will be a refund and reversion?
That doesn't seem stealth to me.
More, we explain the reasons for seeking more revenue fully... though we didn't note an additional one, which is that the IRS is hounding us, because we don't yet know the scale of that - in other words we are also being transparent, not corporate. Perhaps this part wasn't obvious in my earlier explanation?
I agree, and noted as much, that for some folks there will be a little inconvenience. So - let's take you.
You know about the policy now. You don't want to donate more, which is fine, of course. So - sometime in the next three weeks you would need to click a link to log in. Not having your password you would have it sent to your email address automatically. Another delay, but modest. Then you would log in by typing your email as your id, and the pw. Then you would click one link - no forms, no hassle, and your donation would revert.
That is less trouble, in fact, than pretty much any online transaction. It might even have a benefit - if not for you for others, in that when you did log in you might discover interesting features. You for example, could be using the forums, have your own blog system, and many other benefits too. Not mandatory, obviously, but it is there if you want it, and you may be unaware of that.
What is the alternative?
Well, we could ask people to raise their donations. And do that over and over - which would also be annoying, we know. But the main problem is, out of roughly 6,000 sustainers a few hundred would raise their donations. The incoming funds wouldn't change things much... and so there would be few or no benefits for anyone. We suspect thousands of Sustainers would therefore not benefit in ways they would love to benefit.... not counting all the free users, etc.
Now suppose we do it the way you are criticizing. Thousands give higher donations. The impact on operations is large and benefits go to all who use the site, including those who can't afford to donate, etc. The losses, to people like yourself, are momentary, and measured in minutes expended, maybe ten, but actually, more likely just a couple. Then there are folks who ignore the messages and we later have to refund to. That's more inconvenience, and for us too, please note - but we think manageable.
That's the reasoning.
Again, had we not done this two years ago - you would not be enjoying Z now. It would all be gone. Two years ago the final tally on aggravation to users who didn't want to donate more and so had to write us to literally tell us their names, etc., for us to revert their accounts (much harder than just doing the link, in the more up to date current scenario) was very modest, with no lasting residue.
So - that's the calculation - loss of the site and all the ripple effects of that - versus a rather modest inconvenience for a very modest number of individuals who, after the fact, also wind up benefiting, and admit as much quite freely.
And nothing stealth about it.
So, what do you think....
Can you see clear to click the link - or do you still want us to write down your name and email, and remember, admidst everything else we do, to go in and manually change your donation level back for you.
A second user wrote in this way:
I have already made it clear - last time you did this - that I find this in-your-face opt-out-or-else method of fundraising disgusting. Yes, it may be effective, but so is advertising. I am glad that -for the moment, at least - you draw the line at that. Please don't increase my level of donation
Sorry, that you don't like the approach - or even find it disgusting - a bit harsh, don't you think?
Have you enjoyed the site, the magazine, etc. etc., for the last two years? And do you think it is has been valuable for others, not just you, all over the world, that it continues to function and grow? Well - if we didn't enact this policy two years ago - it would all have disappeared. I think, honestly, that would have been far worse. And if we chose not to enact it now, growth would have pretty much ceased, and our ability to reduce the donor levels necessary for access to all kinds of facilities would have been prevented.
It won't due to ignore those facts - that is the context we operate in. People were happy to sustain us but would not have done so, we know, without the unusual policy choice. In other words, we do the best we can given everyone's habits, time constraints, etc..
More, it is precisely because we don't advertise, by the way, and we do give as much as we can away at as low costs as possible - and we are dropping costs again - that we have to try to reach everyone who wants to donate... or is willing to. We must attract what people who can afford to are willing to give, so we can in turn provide as much as possible, including to those who can't afford to pay anything.
What we agree with you about is that we should not make fund raising choices that will in one fashion or another subvert our purposes and abilities. Taking ads for example, means selling users to advertisers. That would be a deadly compromise. As would overcharging for things, for that matter. But relying on the support of users/sustainers, that is actually a positive thing.
So I am not sure why our choice is disgusting. As a bit of evidence suggesting our view is closer to the reality of people's reactions, less than one percent, if last time is any evidence, chose not to donate at the higher level. It seems like if it was disgusting to have asked - and last time it was much harder to opt out as it required an email - many more would have refused. More, only a handful wrote critical letters like yours last time (and there are only four so far this time), if not quite so graphic, and in all but a really small number of those cases, on thinking it through further, almost all decided that when navigating a plethora of sub optimal possibilities, our choice was probably the best.
The bottom line is this - no one will donate anything they don't want to - and there will be far less inconvenience in sum total, with this approach - as only a small number will have to so much as click a link to revert their donation level - and, on the upside, no one will lose the whole site and instead everyone will get more site access to more features, especially those least able, or eager, to donate, ironically.
What about your situation?
It is of course absolutely fine that you don't wish to donate more. Though if the reason is only your feeling about the policy, you might reconsider. Again, you will benefit either way, however. BUT - whatever you want to do, unless you cancel your sustainership, your account pledge will be upped one level as part of the automatic process. You will get reminders, then, however, and any time before your next donation you can click a link to revert back to your current donor level.
Honestly, unless you have an insight into this that I am missing - one that takes into account everyone's time, everyone's benefits, and the whole context, I don't think it is too much to ask that you click a link - maybe taking ten seconds of your time - for you to get one whole level MORE permissions without laying out so much as an extra penny.
If you think it is disgusting to provide you that benefit, even after the above, I guess we have to agree to disagree.
I offer the above in hopes it helps clarify the policy, the logic, and the intended and likely results for those who may have questions, but not enoguh time to send a query.