What a statue can tell us about crowdsourcing

The Statue of Liberty, a gift of friendship from the French people to America in 1886, stands just over 300 feet above the waters of the Upper New York Bay. When the statue reopens for Independence Day this year, you’ll be able to climb inside the crown on Liberty’s head, and share with her one of the most majestic city views on the planet. Over the bay to Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park, Ground Zero and across the East River to Queens. You’ll be able to see the top of the Empire State Building, the sweep of Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, gaze across to the mighty Hudson and Red Hook’s industrial container ports to the south.

Liberty is a monument to generosity and materials engineering, a symbol of modern democracy, and an icon of America. But if it weren’t for the ingenuity and considerable foresight of Hungarian-American newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, Miss L probably wouldn’t have made it to her copper-clad feet in the first place.

In 1884, with the financing of Liberty’s gargantuan pedestal about to become the latest casualty of a national economic depression, Pulitzer had a bit of a thought. Using the pages of his own paper, The World, he would appeal to his readership to help raise the necessary funds (equivalent to $2.3million in today’s money) to build the pedestal. He would incentivise personal donations, however small, with the promise of a printed mention in his newspaper. And wouldn’t you just know it, a couple of years later there was a 150 foot lump of solid granite on Liberty Island, upon which stood another 150 feet of torch-bearing goddess. 120,000 ordinary Americans had donated money, in most cases less than a dollar, together accomplishing what Congress, the New York Committee, and the Governor of New York had collectively failed to. And Pulitzer’s paper thanked every one of them, just as he’d promised.

The fact that Pulitzer’s crowdfunding idea worked, and so quickly, is impressive in itself. That it took place against a backdrop of nationwide economic turmoil, generations before the advent of the internet or digital communications, makes Pulitzer’s achievement really quite remarkable.

You read a lot today about crowdsourcing, and crowdfunding, and how they’re reframing the way businesses operate – particularly in the start-up arena. You hear about community intelligence helping to solve complex business problems, raise funds, fix software bugs and generate new ideas. About how savvy businesses are building their own on-demand virtual global workforces, whilst keeping the wage bills low, and how digital media lit the fuse on a phenomenon waiting to happen.

But what’s really interesting is the motivation of the crowds themselves; what are the factors that drive individuals to want to give and contribute to the cause that’s presented to them? There are the obvious incentives, such as money, fame, charity and ego. If your business can offer Bob in the Outer Hebrides £250 to build a small piece of open-source programming, from the comfort of his log cabin, Bob will probably bite your hand off.

But what if there’s no financial reward at the end of the road? What if your contributors’ names won’t be plastered across Time magazine’s front cover for their poverty-busting contribution in Angola? And what if no one actually gets to know whose programming brains were behind 2015’s game-changing social music platform?

Well, that’s OK. Because there’s something stronger, more visceral, that’s stoking the fire in crowdsourcing circles. Something that we’re born with as people, hard-wired into our psyche over centuries, that’s only becoming fully apparent in these digital times. Not wealth or fame, but the desire to contribute communally. To live and work as part of a team. To sense the warmth and comfort of a shared purpose.

Deep down, we all need it. Joseph Pulitzer knew that. He knew what the Liberty statue represented and what it would come to stand for, and he appealed to his readership’s heightened sense of national pride and belonging in order to make it happen. That’s why he succeeded. And why he never spent a penny doing it.

So there are a couple of valuable lessons here for businesses thinking of throwing their hats into the crowdsourcing ring. The first is to make sure you understand the context and the crowd. What’s going on in the world? How are people feeling, and why? What would motivate them at this particular point in time? And if you can place that motivation at the heart of your crowdsourcing strategy, then you’re probably on the right track.

And the second lesson? Well, as history goes to prove, material reward isn’t always the strongest incentive.