Kickstarting GovTrack Insider

Joshua Tauberer
12 min readSep 24, 2015

Or, how I crowdfunded $32,580 for civic technology.

I raised $32,580 using Kickstarter to better inform Americans about the daily activities of the United States Congress.

Here’s how I did it. I hope this might be a helpful guide for others trying crowdfunding.

After 11 years running mostly on my own, I decided to expand the project by bringing in a full-time staff member to research and write about the bills that Congress is passing.

What’s shown on GovTrack today is based on the official record of Congress’s proceedings, and so it tells a limited story. For instance, a key vote over the summer about trade was officially called “cloture on Defending Public Safety Employees’ Retirement Act”! The official description had nothing to do with the substance of the vote. Wtf, right?

Data processing isn’t going to fix that. A human has to be paying attention to figure out what a vote like that is really about.

One of the trade votes over the summer was officially called “cloture on Defending Public Safety Employees’ Retirement Act”! Wtf, right?

So after a trial run with a summer intern posting daily reports to a Medium page called GovTrack Insider, on July 27 I launched a Kickstarter to raise $35,000 to continue the work for another six months. (GovTrack has been supported through advertising, which has been enough to cover my time but is not nearly enough to hire someone full time.)

A trial-run first

Before starting the Kickstarter, in fact before I had even decided to try crowdfunding at all, I hired Ben Hammer as a summer intern to see what GovTrack could do with a full time researcher.

Ben had emailed me earlier in the year looking for any way he could be a part of GovTrack. It was hard to say no to someone so enthusiastic! It also helped that Ben’s interest was in policy and outreach, and not coding, which meant there was an opportunity to try something new on GovTrack that I wasn’t going to do myself.

GovTrack users have long asked for readable explanations of bills, so Ben’s main task for the summer was to summarize as many bills as he could get through.

With my help, Ben posted reports on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA, related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership), education, the defense budget, and other topics, for a total of 20 daily reports posted to the new GovTrack Insider page and 54 bill summaries posted to GovTrack.

The trial run during the summer was intended to answer some important questions:

How much time does it take to write a summary of a bill? About three hours on average. Some bills are really hard to grok. Could we summarize every bill? No, at that rate it would take about 5 full time people to keep up with Congress. Could we report on the complete daily activities of Congress? We were able to cover much of the major legislative actions on bills, but there was a still a lot left each day that Ben couldn’t get to.

Most importantly, would anyone read this? We found that our Facebook page subscribers were surprisingly interested to read and comment on our daily reports and summaries, so yes.

The trial run cost about $5,000 between paying Ben, getting some office space for us, and employment overhead (see below).

Setting a goal, and writing a budget

The goal — $35,000 — was the lowest amount I was willing to raise.

Choosing the goal amount was not easy. On Kickstarter, if you don’t reach your goal then you don’t get the money. So you have to choose something reasonable.

GovTrack has a solid base of users. About 30,000 people visit the site each day. Over the last decade, more than 350,000 people created an account. But would they contribute money? How much could I reasonably expect to raise from the users?

The goal also had to fund enough work to actually accomplish something. This was easier to compute: I decided that at a minimum I would feel accomplished if we could do six months of legislative research. I started with the lowest salary that I would be comfortable offering a researcher for six months and then carefully computed from that the amount I would need in total to run the project (see more on the budget below).

Lastly, the goal should be enough to demonstrate, if successful, my ability to raise money so that I could use a successful Kickstarter campaign to justify expanding my work later on. Raising $10k or even $20k wasn’t going to impress peer institutions or foundations, who operate in the million-dollar world. $35,000 just barely gets into real money.

Don’t expect to spend it all

Only about 65% of what I raised will get spent on real work:

  • Kickstarter takes 5%.
  • Their payment processor takes another 3% plus 20¢ per backer (for U.S. projects, and it’s a little different for pledges less than $10).

On top of that, one has to consider:

  • The cost of fulfilling rewards.
  • The cost of preparing the Kickstarter! Tons of time goes into writing a good story, producing a video, and brainstorming enticing but cheap-to-fulfill rewards.
  • Promotional costs (e.g. reaching your base).
  • Personal income taxes. If the funding isn’t spent in the tax year it’s received, it’s taxable income! Pledges without rewards could be non-taxed gifts, though. (Many other Kickstarter guides and Kickstarter’s own advice taught me this.)
  • If staff are employees, then employment overhead: social security and medicare taxes (the employer pays these taxes too!), unemployment insurance tax, workers compensation insurance (there are massive fines if you skip this), and administrative costs because it takes a lot of time (and skill) to do payroll and taxes correctly. All of this overhead will be a minimum of 10–20% of what you pay the employee on top of their salary. This assumes you don’t offer benefits like health insurance, which would be even more. You should definitely hire a CPA to help with this.
  • Other work expenses, like office space.
  • Some backers’ credit cards will fail, and even though Kickstarter tries to get backers to update their billing information when charges fail once the project is funded, some pledges will be dropped. I didn’t think of this ahead of time and didn’t account for $466 in failed credit card charges — 1.3% of the total amount pledged.

In my case, just about 65% of the goal amount actually goes to paying the researcher! The rest is various sorts of overhead and fees.

To be sure I was doing the math right, I made a spreadsheet.

Here’s my spreadsheet corrected with everything I know now about Kickstarter funding (download):

The spreadsheet let me work forward from costs to goal.

The first five rows are for project expenses. And three of those are formulas because, for instance, employment overhead is always about 15% of what you pay employees. At the bottom of those five rows are what you can expect Kickstarter to transfer into your bank account.

The next three rows are the funds you never see: Kickstarter’s fee, the payment processing fee, and the pledges that Kickstarter can’t even collect. Since the payment processing fee depends on the number of backers, you can enter an estimate for the number of backers you’ll get in one of the green cells. I had 900 backers, but this varies widely.

All of this is automatically summed up in the goal row which shows what you need to set as your Kickstarter goal in order to raise the funds you actually need. I’ve set the numbers in the example to be approximately my own budget.

Selecting rewards

Ben and I spent a lot of time brainstorming rewards. We wanted to entice people to back the project, but we didn’t want to spend lots of time and money delivering rewards later.

We had two key insights for how to make rewards cheap to fulfill:

1. If the reward is simply doing the project, then it costs nothing to fulfill.

Our $226 reward level was the backer gets to choose an issue in Congress that we’ll summarize. That’s win-win. They get to direct the project a bit, and we get to do what we wanted to do in the first place.

Just make sure not to offer this to more backers than you can fulfill. We actually did the math to figure out the right limit on the number of backers who can get this reward. But nowhere near that number of people pledged as high as $226 anyway.

2. Backers can share “experience” rewards, distributing the cost.

Our most popular reward level, the lowest, at $35, was participating in a webinar with me and Ben to talk about Congress. That has a cost — our time — but the cost can be divided across a large number of backers. At a higher reward level, we have the same but with a capped number of participants to make the experience more intimate.

Neither of these ideas is new, of course. These sorts of rewards are common on Kickstarter. But it took us time to understand why those sorts of rewards are a great ideas.

Producing the video

Ben and I began the process of making the project video by writing a script. We spent a lot of time trying to succinctly explain why the project was important —important to American democracy no less.

Then we went down to the U.S. Capitol with my pro-am camera and shot some video of me speaking the script.

Our first attempt at making a project video.

I have some experience with video, so it didn’t seem crazy to just go and try.

This did not go well. The audio from my camera’s built-in mic was completely unusable because there was too much background noise (wind, tourists). The video was fair. But because there was just the two of us, we couldn’t get a reasonable shot of both of us together.

It was good practice, though.

By luck, Ben’s friend Aiden was learning how to produce videos. So we went back down to the Capitol, the three of us, and re-shot the video with a lav mic, which fixed the audio problem. (We actually recorded the audio separately on a different device, and then Aiden put the audio and video back together in editing.) Aiden also took b-roll video of us working in our rented office to splice in with the video of me talking. And he did some graphics to lay into the video too.

The total time spent on the video, including Aiden’s time editing, was about four or five full man-days. And it’s only 2 minutes long!

(Video tips: Always charge all of your video equipment batteries the night before. Take backup equipment if you have it. Always use a lavalier microphone. Have a script but don’t read from it. Move your arms. Shoot early in the day to avoid shadows under eyes. The camera should face away from the sun for best light… if you can stand to stare at the sun while you look at the camera.)

We’re funded!

43 days later we were funded — two days ahead of the deadline. In the final 48 hours, backers brought the total pledged to $36,063, which was just a little above the goal.

900 backers had helped make GovTrack Insider a reality. Here’s when they pledged during the 45-day period:

GovTrack users stepped up to the plate, pledging a total of about $15,000.

I had hoped that they would help make the project possible since the work is really for them. I got them over to Kickstarter in a few ways:

  1. I sent out blast emails to registered GovTrack users with a standard appeal for money, bringing in a few thousand dollars each time. (The first blast went out to 100,000 users and the second blast to 50,000 users.)
  2. I emailed users with an example of the sort of work the Kickstarter project was trying to fund. Rather than a straight appeal for money, this blast was actually a recap of Congress’s summer activity: real content, and an example of the work the backers would be funding. The email’s prominent but not distracting appeal to back the project brought in about $3,000 from about 100 backers. The email was sent to 250,000 email addresses (many of those addresses had gone bad over the last 11 years).
  3. There was prominent link at the top of itself. Our 45-day fundraising period included the height of summer vacation time and Congress’s summer recess, making it possibly the worst 45-day window we could have chosen. 750,000 individuals used the website in that time, resulting in only(!) about $3,500 pledged.
  4. Our Facebook posts brought in $590 from 10 backers. The page has 20,000 likes. (I spent about $100 promoting the posts.) Incessant tweeting accounted for about $2,000.

Kickstarter promoted the project in a Projects We Love email, which went out to tons of Kickstarter users, many of whom are looking around for interesting projects to back. This brought in $5,579 from 175 backers. The project was later featured on Kickstarter’s homepage, for a total amount of $12,444 pledged via Kickstarter’s own promotions. (Thanks Kickstarter!)

Kickstarter has pretty nice analytics dashboard showing where the backers are coming from, which is how I know some of these statistics.

Lastly, my friends and personal connections, and Ben’s as well, were very generous. No one wants to be the first backer, so I asked my friends as soon as the project launched to put in nominal amounts to get things going. But then they kept contributing. They were far more generous than they should have been (thank you!) and accounted for about $6,500 of the total funding.

How much did people pledge?

The average pledge was $40.

As would be expected, pledges below the average accounted for a disproportionately large number of pledges but few actual dollars. 60% of the backers accounted for only 17% of the funds raised. Here’s how the total funding breaks down by pledge amount:

The bulk of the funding came from the $35, $50, and $100 pledge levels, and a few high-rollers between $150 and $1,789 (the highest reward level). The highest-pledging backer was a personal friend.

(There was no $50 reward, but it was one of the most popular pledge levels.)

Receiving the funds

Although I “raised” $36,063, I won’t see all of that in my bank account.

For the two weeks following the end of funding deadline, Kickstarter tries to charge all of the backers’ credit cards. Some of the charges won’t go through, and while Kickstarter tries to get backers to update their billing information so they can collect all of the pledges, they won’t be able to collect it all. In my case, 1.3% ($466) of the funds raised couldn’t be collected.

Then there are the fees, which I explained above, which totaled $3,017.

So in the end, while my backers pledged $36,063, what actually landed in my bank account was $32,580.

Next steps & the future

I’ve just finished hiring GovTrack Insider’s staff.

Rather than hiring one full-time employee, I ended up hiring four people as contractors working part-time: Ben will stay on half-time (he’s in school!), Donny Shaw, who wrote OpenCongress’s blog back around 2012, and two other researchers with policy experience. Because they’ll be contractors, I won’t have to worry about employment overhead, which is a relief.

So please follow our work on GovTrack Insider’s Medium page or get our posts by email by subscribing on GovTrack.

This funding will last us until around February. I don’t know how the work will be funded after that, but I’ll be working on it!