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The Temptation of Crowdsourcing

The Temptation of Crowdsourcing

November 18, 2013 by

One of the great temptations for church communicators these days is crowdsourcing. It’s an old debate that flares up every now and then under different guises—spec work, contests, crowdsourcing—and it has the potential to snare unwary communicators. It sounds like a great deal, but you might be missing the ethical implications.

So what is crowdsourcing? 99Designs is one of the most prominent (and controversial) examples. Basically you hold a contest for designers, asking them to create something for you—a logo, T-shirt, book cover, etc.—for a set price. Lots of designers create stuff for you, you pick your favorite one and only pay that designer. It’s fast, easy and cheap.

That’s a win, win, win—right? You’ve got little or no budget, it’s for a good cause—why not?

Michael Hyatt, über blogger and former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, says go for it.

We’re not so sure.

In 2009 we wrestled with Rick Warren about his contest to design the cover of his new book. The post generated so many comments and such a heated debate that we shut it down.

We don’t want to rehash the issue. The juggernaut post with Rick Warren in 2009 was ugly and we’re not looking to duke it out with Michael Hyatt. But we don’t agree with him either. We’re also not the lone voice: Steve Fogg offers four reasons he won’t crowdsource design.

Here are two of the main ways we see this debate:

Yay Crowdsourcing:
It’s time to get with the digital age. The democratization of the Internet has devalued all sorts of professions and they’ve had to find ways to survive. It’s no different for designers. No one is forcing designers to participate. If designers didn’t find it worthwhile, they’d go somewhere else. It’s a great way for new designers to learn the ropes. 99Designs is making millions for designers and it’s just a new way of doing business. Get used to it.

Nay Crowdsourcing:
The church isn’t simply about doing business. It might make financial sense to get the best work for the cheapest price, but that would also justify sweatshop labor. Crowdsourcing sounds a lot like exploitation. Hungry designers compete to get paid and you profit from their eagerness. One lucky designer goes home with a paycheck, everyone else just worked for free. Designers aren’t forced to participate, but that doesn’t justify exploitation. Victims of exploitation are often willing because they see no other option or they’ve been manipulated. All of this serves to devalue the artist, devalue the work and ultimately devalue you and your communication. The church should do better.

It’s Your Call
Bottomline, you’ll have to make your own decision. But beware of the potential temptation. Not everything cheap and easy is good. As you struggle with this ethical dilemma, I think we can agree it’s important for the church of all places to value people and their work. That includes freelancers and volunteers, as well as staff.

If you can find a way to crowdsource your design and everybody can leave with their integrity, great. But if not, maybe you should find a different way to go.

Editor’s Note: Ed Lauber raises a fair point in the comments that my argument is with crowdsourcing design specifically and not just crowdsourcing. It’s worth considering that there are ways to crowdsource things that aren’t exploiting people. Kickstarter is a great way to crowdsource funding. I’d also guess there are ways to crowdsource even design that don’t take advantage of people. Getting feedback in the Church Marketing Lab is probably a good example. As you can tell, we need to think deeply about these issues and focus on integrity in our communication work.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks


When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998 and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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9 Responses to “The Temptation of Crowdsourcing”

  • Ed Lauber
    November 18, 2013

    I do not want to contest your point of view on crowdsourcing design, just point out that you use “crowdsourcing” with no qualifier as equalling “crowdsourcing design” as though the two are equal. But other things can be crowdsourced. One of my ideas would be to use crowdsourcing to collect the questions, observations and interpretations people have about specific Bible passages so that pastors and those writing commentaries and theology can address the real questions of their hearers. I can think of dozens of other uses of crowdsourcing that are not exploitive. It would be helpful if you would target your criticism of the technique. Painting with too broad a brush is … well you know.


  • Jeff
    November 18, 2013

    Most churches wouldn’t condone gambling or playing the lottery, but this is essentially what you described; asking designers to put in their time in hopes that they would win the payout.

    On the other hand, if you ask only for volunteers with no promise of paying (i.e. ask for donations) then it’s not much different than asking straight up for money.


  • Jordan Gillman
    November 18, 2013

    Thanks for the article guys – as a designer who works with churches a lot I appreciate you standing up for us on the ethical front.

    I’m light of the online discussion regarding crowd sourcing design I shared a few practical thoughts from a designers perspective.

    http://www.jordesign.com/designers-perspective-on-crowdsourcing/


  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    November 18, 2013

    I think it’s also worth noting that it appears Hyatt is an affiliate of 99Designs and gets referral income from them. I asked about this in a comment on his post, but my comment never went up and now the comments are closed.

    Hyatt discloses that he has affiliate links in generic disclaimer text on every post, but he doesn’t spell out that 99Designs is one of those affiliates.

    I have no problem with Hyatt doing that, but with a contentious issue like this it seems appropriate to more plainly disclose your biases.


  • Josiah
    November 18, 2013

    Aside from the message you send when participating in spec work, it’s also inherently dangerous. A lot of the work garnered through these sites is stolen work (or incorporates stolen work). Although there are often safeguards in place, you run the risk of someone stealing artwork (or reusing work that has already been sold), pocketing the payment, and disappearing.


  • Steven Fogg
    November 18, 2013

    Thanks for the shout out Kevin.

    I think if its just all about money then we’ve all got it the wrong way around. Yes designers should be paid fairly, even if market forces are changing how they are paid.

    When we expect people to work for nothing on the chance that their talent and creativity will match the visual whim of the dollar driven buyer I think it is an ethical issue. Certainly not something churches should be considering.

    If Michael Hyatt is getting some dough out of endorsing a specific company it should be declared, but if its just the way he likes to do business and share what he thinks then I don’t have a problem with it.


    • Raj
      November 19, 2013

      I believe we’re seeing 2 key economic drivers at play here which has little to do with being ‘paid fairly’. Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. eg. a painting can be worth $5 to one person, $500 to another – same product/service. Unfortunately churches normally don’t see the value unless you educate and motivate them.

      The other driver is how the developing world with the greater accessibility to internet is becoming a viable resource when the equivalent of a monthly wage can be made with one job sourced from the developed world. Whether that’s fair or ethical is a different issue, but it’s the reality.


  • Chris
    November 19, 2013

    Great article. I think it severely hurts the industry and designl. I’ve been in the business for 18 years and nothing good comes out of this type of service. For the clients who try it they always come back. My view is what if we crowdsourced for everything in life for all jobs and all services. It would go away very very fast.



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