Crowdfunding Psychedelic Science

MAPS Bulletin Spring 2016 Vol. 26, No. 1

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Bryce Montgomery

I didn’t understand how much work science took until I began working for a non-profit research organization. I’ve been hearing news about major scientific breakthroughs my entire life, so I assumed science just happened. I felt entitled to a continuously improving world, since I didn’t know how the world worked. Now I know that it takes an incredible amount of money and effort to conduct scientific research and develop new medical treatments, so I’m proud to contribute to a better world through crowdfunding. Since 2012, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has inspired people from around the world to donate over $400,000 in support of psychedelic research, education, and harm reduction through internet-based fundraising initiatives.

Crowdfunding is the process of raising money from many individual people who are interested in supporting something they care about. According to the 2014 Crowdfunding Industry Report, billions of dollars have been raised through crowdfunding since 2011, and the number is rising rapidly each year. This method of fundraising is becoming an increasingly valuable tool for non-profit organizations to make their ideas become reality, build communities, strengthen people’s voices, and establish public support for projects.

Through my work as Web and Multimedia Manager at MAPS, it has often been my duty to film crowdfunding campaign videos and help create campaign pages that capture the stories we want to tell about our psychedelic research and harm reduction programs. To produce these videos, I’ve traveled around the country to interview researchers and study participants involved in this new wave of psychedelic science. This has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my work with MAPS: meeting the people on the frontlines of establishing legitimacy for the healing potential of psychedelics.

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study participant Rachel Hope with MAPS Web and Multimedia Manager Bryce Montgomery after filming an interview in Los Angeles, Calif. (2013)

In order for MAPS to conduct research into the risks and benefits of psychedelics and marijuana, each study must receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Institutional Review Boards, and other agencies, though none of them are financially sponsoring our work. All the research we’ve conducted so far has been entirely funded by generous individual donors and family foundations who feel called to support MAPS’ mission.

Although MAPS has been receiving donations from the public since our founding in 1986, our first online crowdfunding campaign for psychedelic research was launched in June 2012 on the Causes platform. In an effort to support our research into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we created a campaign page celebrating the 100th anniversary of MDMA’s creation, featuring history and facts about MDMA. MAPS staff members rallied together to spread awareness about the crowdfunding campaign by reaching out to friends, family, and people connected to MAPS via email or social media. A total of 54 people made donations to the Causes campaign, raising $2,508 to support psychedelic research. This was a small but important start for us, helping us learn more about asking for support through the World Wide Web and social media.

As crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo began to increase in popularity, their viability as legitimate fundraising platforms became undeniable. By 2013, there were constantly new crowdfunding campaigns going viral, and raising thousands and even millions of dollars. The donors who contributed to our first crowdfunding campaign were mostly already MAPS supporters, so launching a campaign on Indiegogo was our first intentional effort to use online fundraising to find new donors who had never before financially supported our work.

This time, we decided that this crowdfunding campaign would support the Zendo Project, the MAPS-sponsored psychedelic harm reduction program. To make the campaign a reality, I filmed a relatively simple video of MAPS Director of Harm Reduction Linnae Ponté speaking directly to the camera about how the Zendo Project provides compassionate care for people undergoing difficult psychedelic experiences at festivals and events around the world. The final video also featured images of Zendo Project volunteers and spaces set up for guests. Through this video, we told a complete story and illustrated the impact that individuals could have by donating to and sharing the campaign.

Our first campaign page on Indiegogo was much more robust in comparison to our Causes campaign page. We told a clear story about the Zendo Project’s mission, described exactly how the money would be spent, and featured a collection of “perks” for people who made donations. Coming up with perks is a fun process, though we had to be mindful about how much it cost to produce each perk in relation to the donation amount. The perks for this campaign included branded stickers, water bottles, and bandanas, plus picnics, donated art, our psychedelic harm reduction training manual, and more items related to psychedelic harm reduction.

With a completed campaign page and video, we were ready to launch our 30-day campaign in June 2013 in order to receive the funds before the Zendo Project traveled to Black Rock City, Nevada, to provide psychedelic harm reduction at Burning Man 2013. We set an initial fundraising goal of $10,000 to help pay for transportation costs for the structure, equipment, and volunteers, as well as water, snacks, pillows, and other materials to make the space even more comfortable and welcoming.

An outpouring of community support helped us surpass our original goal of $10,000 in just 11 days, which encouraged us to create additional "stretch goals" that explained how funds beyond our initial goal would improve the project. By the end of our 30-day campaign, 245 funders from nine countries had donated a total of $17,786 to support our psychedelic harm reduction services.

Our success using Indiegogo for the Zendo Project crowdfunding campaign in 2013 inspired us to create another Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that year, this time for MAPS’ study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for veterans, firefighters, and police officers with PTSD.

I wanted to increase the production quality for this campaign video, so this time I used two cameras and conducted proper interviews. My first interview was in Los Angeles with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study participant Rachel Hope, who was the first person I had ever met who had been a part of MAPS’ research. I’ll never forget the moment when she told me that she had been “cured” of PTSD. Rachel is living proof that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can provide significant healing, and she was willing to share her story with the public so that MAPS can help more people overcome PTSD.

After filming the interview with Rachel, I traveled to South Carolina to
interview MAPS-sponsored researchers Michael and Annie Mithoefer, the lead therapists involved in our MDMA-assisted psychotherapy studies in Charleston. I remember feeling a major shift in energy when I walked into their treatment room, knowing that Rachel and many others had experienced such healing within those walls. This was the room where study participants revealed their trauma, received MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, and began the process of overcoming PTSD. After documenting the site location and filming interviews, I traveled back to California to edit the video, process other interviews that I captured, and help complete the rest of the campaign.

On Veterans Day, November 11, 2013, we launched Healing Trauma in Veterans with MDMA-Assisted Therapy, our second crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. By December 31, 2013, more than 420 contributors from 19 countries raised over $44,000 out of our ambitious $50,000 goal to help complete our ongoing study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for veterans, firefighters, and police officers with PTSD. While we didn’t quite reach our goal, we were able to show a significant amount of public support for psychedelic research, and more than doubled our previous crowdfunding record.

While brainstorming our next major online fundraising initiative, we realized that having a broader message could help our campaign reach more people. Our last campaign had a long and specific name, so we wanted to create something short and memorable. We decided on the name Legalizing Psychedelic Therapy since it was bold and communicated MAPS’ mission well. We improved our campaign creation skills by implementing a consistent branding for the campaign, including a logo with multiple orientations and color options. From images, to videos, to email signature—this beautiful logo was everywhere by the time we launched the campaign.

As part of our intention to increase production quality, we asked Emmy Award-winning journalist Amber Lyon to be the host of the video, a task that required providing general information about research into the healing potential of psychedelics. We were honored that she agreed. This video also included more interviews with study participants, which for me made this project even more inspiring than the last one. After my interview with study participant and veteran Nicholas Blackston in Kentucky, I flew to Boulder, Colorado, for additional interviews. In one day, I met three women who had all overcome PTSD after receiving MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in MAPS’ Colorado study. This was the single most inspiring day of my career at MAPS so far; thereafter I made it my mission to convey their healing through the use of video.

We launched Legalizing Psychedelic Therapy on August 11, 2014, with $50,000 goal, which would complete the funding for our largest study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD in U.S. veterans, firefighters, and police officers. By October 9, after a steady flow of online marketing, over 1,400 funders from more than 40 countries had donated $141,888—over 2½ times our initial goal! We reached out to the general public, the drug policy community, and established MAPS supporters so that our campaign would have the widest reach possible. Over 75% of those who gave were first-time MAPS donors, which was a major confirmation that crowdfunding could be a viable way for us to raise funds from and connect with new supporters. We reached our $50,000 goal in just 16 days, completing funding for our largest clinical trial to date, and ending our five-year, $1.38 million fundraising effort for the study.

On February 26, 2015, the community news website reddit awarded $82,765.95 to MAPS and nine other non-profits chosen by the reddit community. During a one-week period from February 18 to February 25, over 80,000 reddit users casting more than 250,000 votes for their favorite charities to each receive 1% of reddit’s advertising revenue receipts from 2014. I worked on a one-week promotional blitz by reaching out to any one I could find who had a reddit account. We received significant support from our social media presence and drug-related communities on reddit, which helped us be nominated as the #6 top-rated non-profit on reddit, and securing a substantial—and unexpected—donation from reddit. While this wasn’t a crowdfunding campaign, it did show how community activism on the internet can generate significant support for psychedelic and medical marijuana research.

The Zendo Project had expanded a great deal in the roughly two years since our first Indiegogo campaign, so in 2015 we decided to launch another campaign to raise funds to expand the program. We continued our successful formula, and produced a high-quality video, campaign page, and new perks for donors. From June 23 through July 24, 2015, 437 individual donors in 32 countries gave $69,406, exceeding our initial $50,000 goal to expand the Zendo Project’s psychedelic harm reduction services at festivals and events worldwide. This successful campaign allowed us to establish a second harm reduction structure at Burning Man 2015, so that both sides of Black Rock City had psychedelic harm reduction available 24 hours a day. This was our second campaign where over half of the donors—70% this time—had never before given to MAPS.

We’ve also discovered that our capacity to raise money through crowdfunding is not reliant on established crowdfunding platforms. In December 2015, we used our website and crowdfunding experience to raise over $73,000 to complete funding for our Phase 2 study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD in Boulder, Colorado. This campaign succeeded without perks, so it is refreshing to know that people will support our work without receiving an incentive, other than knowing that they are contributing to MAPS.

In February 2016, MAPS announced the Global Psychedelic Dinners, a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign centered around gathering communities, hosting open conversations about psychedelic science and medicine, and raising funds for MAPS’ $400,000 purchase of one kilogram of pharmaceutical-grade MDMA for our Phase 3 trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD and other MDMA research worldwide. Our hopes for this initiative are to reduce stigma and enhance public understanding of the risks and beneficial uses of psychedelics for science, healing, spirituality, creativity, and personal growth. By asking our supporters to create their own crowdfunding pages on Razoo, host a dinner, and raise funds for MAPS, we are giving people a much more active and engaging role in legalizing psychedelic therapy.

MAPS is not the only organization that is using crowdfunding to support psychedelic science. Researchers from Imperial College London raised £53,390 ($74,597 USD) for an LSD brain-imaging study on Walacea, a crowdfunding platform with a focus on science. Scientists in Brazil also raised over $14,000 for an MDMA study in Brazil using the same platform.

After pledging to donate at least $100,000 to psychedelic research in 2016, author Tim Ferriss helped the Heffter Research Institute raise $87,000 through a crowdfunding campaign in support of a study at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine into the use of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression.

Documentary filmmakers seeking to spread awareness about psychedelics have also been able to raise money using crowdfunding, such as for MDMA: The Movie and From Shock to Awe. The film Neurons to Nirvana went from being a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, to a popular documentary on Netflix, which has helped psychedelic medicine gain lots of public exposure.

Allies of MAPS have also launched crowdfunding campaigns centered around psychedelic education and advocacy, including projects by Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP); DanceSafe; Entheogenic Research, Integration, & Education (ERIE); the Women’s Visiona
ry Congress (WVC); and Sublime Visions.

Our continued success with crowdfunding is strongly enhanced by our growing presence on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In the past four years since our first campaign, our total number of Facebook followers has multiplied five times, helping tens of thousands of new people become aware of our work. Since our campaigns attract so many first-time donors, it is hard to ignore the correlation between the growth we’ve seen in social media and new donors.

If we want psychedelic medicine to become widely available, we have to work hard for it. MAPS is expecting MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to become an FDA-approved prescription medicine by 2021, though that projection will not become a reality without the addition of many new supporters and funding sources, which is why crowdfunding is so important for MAPS at this time. An Internet connection and the desire to accelerate change may be two of the most important tools available for the future of science, medicine, and psychedelics.

Bryce Montgomery studied film production at West Valley College, where he also developed an interest in marketing. Bryce joined MAPS as a Social Media Intern in the summer of 2011, bringing his background in film production and social media to public education about psychedelics. Bryce now serves as Web and Multimedia Manager, a position that combines all of his passions; ranging from using the internet to reach people worldwide to creating visually stimulating media projects.