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Lessons learned from the FANtastic Detroit Fund

Photo courtesy of Tammy Coxen

The FANtastic Detroit Fund was Detcon1’s crowd-funded program to provide free memberships to needy fans who would not otherwise be able to attend. Every $55 donation added one membership to the pool, with Detcon1 matching the first 10 memberships received. We also accepted donations of existing attending and supporting memberships. Supporting memberships were upgraded to attending with money from the fund and then added to the pool. The price of an FDF membership always remained at $55 (our opening membership rate) and did not increase as membership rates rose over time. Child and youth memberships were charged to the Fund at their appropriate rates ($25 and $50). Over the life of the program we received $1555 in cash and 28 donated memberships, allowing us to provide memberships to 66 people.

We originally conceived of the fund as a way to improve racial diversity at Detcon1. Since we were located in the city of Detroit, which has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country, and where over 80% of the population is black, this was important to us. We defined the program as being open to all, but with priority given to residents of Detroit and Wayne County, and hoped that these parameters would mean we’d improve our racial diversity in addition to income diversity.

My sons and I have been through a lot of challenges with my health deteriorating due to a neuro-degenerative disorder. It has been heartbreaking seeing how this has impacted my children. Sci-fi and gaming have been one of the things my three sons and I have been passionate about. Going to this convention would be a huge joy to us and would give us the opportunity to strengthen our relationship with each other AND do something we otherwise would not be able to afford to do.
(Woman, age 35, sons ages 10-15)

Our application form was purposefully very simple. We asked only for name, age, contact info, city of residence, and a paragraph about why they wished to attend Detcon1. We made a conscious decision to not ask for any proof of need, preferring to let people self-select, and trust that attempts to abuse the system would be limited.

In the beginning we primarily pushed the crowdfunding aspect of the Fund and were actively soliciting donations. We were not very active in seeking applications, because our intention was to work with local community-based and non-profit organizations in the human service and arts fields. We’d hoped to be able to give out memberships to these groups, who would then identify people they serve who could be the recipients. By doing this we’d be sure that the memberships would go to “worthy” candidates without having to get into the business of doing means testing ourselves, and we’d also be extending our reach into non-traditional communities.

Unfortunately, our efforts to reach out these organizations was not successful. We thought we had stronger inroads and connections than we ultimately did. It became clear that this strategy was not going to allow us to hand out the large number of memberships that had been donated. At that time we switched to broadly advertising the memberships to our regular audiences via social media, progress reports, and improved visibility on our website.

Applications for memberships picked up considerably after that. As compared to our original hopes for the fund, fewer of our applicants were of color or from Detroit and Wayne County. But we drew a lot of applications from the broader Metro Detroit region. Many of the applicants were people who had previously been involved in fandom in the area, but because of financial circumstances would not be able to attend Detcon1, and in some cases had not been able to attend conventions in the area for several years. Others were new to science fiction conventions.

I have been a lifelong science-fiction and fantasy fan, but I have never attended a science fiction convention. Many of my friends will be attending, but since I am currently unemployed I will not be able to join them without help from your fund. Being able to attend this event would be the highlight of what has not been a very good year for me.
(Male, age 50)

The rate of applications to the fund increased significantly as the convention approached, from both members of the fannish community and newly interested people who had just heard about the con. We ran out of funds in the Fund about a week before the con, but through a last minute push were able to receive enough cash and donated memberships to fund everyone who requested a membership.

In reviewing the funded members after the con, the no-show rate was quite high (29%). A few people gave us advance notice that they wouldn’t be attending, but since this came only a day or two before the con and we had closed the form to new applicants we were not able to re-donate these memberships. In the majority of cases, however, people just didn’t show up. We have several theories about why this is so:

  • People whose financial constraints are such that they cannot afford a convention membership are prone to other sorts of life disruption because of finances. For instance, several people canceled at the last minute because of car trouble or lack of transportation to the con.
  • To the extent that the Fund attracted new-to-the-community members (and there were a number of those), they may have been unfamiliar with how things worked, and the level of communication we provided about where to go and what to do when you got there may have been insufficient to make them confident about attending.
  • Economic studies show that people undervalue things that are free, so they were perhaps less inclined to make sure they used the free membership than they would be if they’d paid even a nominal fee for it.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve been to a Detroit-area convention. A medical problem limits my ability to find work, and I am dependent on friends for assistance. It would be nice to re-connect with Detroit-Ann Arbor area fandom, even if just for a few days.
(Male, age 52)

An overview of the numbers follows, and after that, our recommendations for other conventions who want to launch a similar program. However, we can say without reservations that we would strongly encourage other conventions to adopt a similar program. It was easy to implement and had big impact. We will be offering seed funding to the next WSFS-sanctioned convention to offer such a program (exact amount to be determined based on our final bookkeeping), and are happy to serve as consultants to those desiring to set up a similar program.


Fund Impact: By the Numbers

Cash received: $1555 from 25 donors

Donated memberships:

  • 19 attending
  • 9 supporting

Memberships given out:

  • 53 adult
  • 10 child
  • 3 youth

Individual vs family memberships:

  • 34 people received individual memberships
  • 32 people received members as part of 12 couple/family applications

No shows/Last minute cancelations:

  • 19 out of 66 (29%)

Geographic distribution of memberships

  • 11 Detroit & Wayne County (8 did not attend)
  • 21 Metro Detroit (Oakland & Macomb counties) (3 did not attend)
  • 17 elsewhere in Michigan (5 did not attend)
  • 17 out-of-state (5 did not attend)

Race of recipients (note that we did not collect this information directly, so these are estimates based on information about the recipients)

  • 16 PoC (9 did not attend)
  • 37 white (3 did not attend)
  • 13 unknown (5 did not attend))


Do it!

  • Our first recommendation is that other conventions SHOULD do this. It was very easy to implement and administer and had big impact.

Include an option to donate to the Fund as part of the registration process.

  • We wanted to do this but couldn’t because of technical limitations of our registration system.
  • Most of our cash donations (17 out of 25) were for $55 or more, which was great. But if it had been easy for people to add $5 onto their existing registration, we probably could have brought in many more donations.

Have a dedicated Fund administrator(s) who doubles as an outreach person to fund recipients.

  • We administered the fund in an ad-hoc way between the Chair, registration and our diversity outreach staff. A focused Fund administrator would have been more strategic and perhaps built stronger relationships with community based organizations.
  • The Fund administrator should adopt a more “high touch” role in the weeks before the convention. This would include reaching out to membership recipients to ensure they have all the information they need to successfully attend the con, and to know what to expect. This builds a social commitment that could make up for the fact that the membership was free, and helps prepare them for the unique community aspect of a convention vs a gate show.


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