Is crowdfunding the religion of choice for millennials?

The website is Kickstarter, the campaign is SilverTech, a line of odorless men’s underwear spun from pure silver (we’re not making this up). SilverTech’s origin story revolves around a stalwart group of supporters that, beyond all odds, decide to “believe in [SilverTech’s] dream to change the underwear industry,” and one plucky manufacturer who eventually “believed in their vision.”

SilverTech is just one in a line of many, many crowdfunding projects that are peppered with references to belief. SilverTech wants you to believe in their vision, DOERS Coffee founder is grateful that someone believed in him, and celebrity crowdfunding darling Charity: Water “believes in a world where every single person has clean and safe water.”

The number of crowdfunding campaigns and platforms that invoke belief as muse or raison d’etre is staggering, though not surprising. In fact, quietly but consistently, crowdfunding in the US is taking over some of the major functions that established religions used to have a monopoly on.

“Religion is a really important exemplar when you think about charity or philanthropic activities,”says Dr. Dan Cox, director of research at non-profit, non-partisan organization Public Religion Research Institute. “Houses of worship did it first and really did it best for a long time.”

Cox, who previously served as a research associate at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, knows the ins and mostly outs of millennial religious patterns. “Millennials are a lot more distrustful of religious institutions [than previous generations],” he explains.

There are a number of reasons for millennial’s waning trust in organized religion: the Catholic Church’s sex scandals, conservative Christian churches wading into political quagmires like LGBT issues – for many young people, this idea that being moral or religious means opposing same-sex marriage rings really wrong. Strangely, through crowdfunding, fintech is stepping up to fill in the holes that religious institutions left behind.

Doing Good

Whether they’re backing silver underwear or contributing money towards a clean water solution in Uganda, crowdfunding enables millennials to personalize their giving experience and figure out which causes matter to them, what type of products reflect their values. That crowdfunding is replacing religious organizations as the platform that facilitates cause-based giving is apparent in the number of millennials participating in crowdfunding campaigns:
47% of Millennial respondents have backed or are likely to back a crowdfunding campaign, compared to 30% of Gen-Xers, 13% of Boomers, and 4% of Matures.

“Traditionally, the way that people would engage in philanthropic activities was through the church,” says Cox. Now, through online crowdfunding platforms, millennials are swiping right to instantly finance causes they support.

Establishing communities

Without religious structure, religious institutions argued, young people risked losing the benefits of community. “One of the things that religious institutions decried about millennials moving away from religious organizations is that religion creates community,” says Cox.

So far, organized religion’s fears for the future of community haven’t materialized – quite the opposite. “What we’ve seen so far [is that] communities are still being developed, but they’re being developed in different spaces,” Cox explains.

One of these spaces is crowdfunding. Witness the widely successful Pebble E-paper Watch, which raised $10,266,845 in just 37 days. Though perhaps not as charismatic as some of your typical biblical figures, the Pebble project has a huge following: 68,929 supporters on Kickstarter (registered under the watch’s “community” tab) and its very own subreddit group.

Cultivating a new (quantifiable) spirituality

If in the past congregants were willing to donate to a church or a cause without question, millennials’ prime concern with charitable giving is that it be transparent and accountable. Cox points to charity navigators as an example of how crowdfunding can enable users to track where their dollars are going.

In a sense, crowdfunding is doing for millennials what theologians throughout the ages have tried and miserably failed to do: back up faith with fact. By taking pains to stay transparent and accountable, crowdfunding platforms can gain millennial trust and empower users to generate spiritual experiences by donating or pledging their money.

Crowdfunding platforms and projects looking to draw on a religious lexicon to market their cause should do so sparingly, Cox cautions. “Just grabbing religious language and saying ‘here support this cause/product’, and using the right terminology or the right religious language is not something that’s going to be very effective.” In fact, due to millennials’ deep distrust of religious institutions, Cox is convinced that this type of language would be more likely to push millennials away than to attract them.

Terminology aside, crowdfunding is turning out to be a viable alternative to organized religion in terms of offering opportunities to make a difference, form communities, and engender meaning in the lives of millennials. Frankly, there are worse things to believe in than odorless men’s underwear.

Photo credit: x1klima via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND