Legal crowdfunder and university teacher Sam Gaunt: “Crowdfunding helps keep the case and its mission in the hands of the communities it is trying to help”
How do you start and manage a legal crowdfunding campaign? Legal crowdfunding is quite a new concept, but not for everyone. University teacher Sam Gaunt is sharing with us his knowledge about crowdfunding for legal action. Because he is an expert by experience, we spoke to him for our blog-series Individuals Making a Difference in Law. He led the “Palestine Justice Campaign” which has currently crowdfunded over €58,000 for the “Ziada Case“, a groundbreaking universal civil jurisdiction litigation. Sam further led crowdfunding efforts for the European Legal Support Centre to support the defence of human rights advocates across Europe.
Could you tell us a bit about the case for which you used crowdfunding?
„I first used crowdfunding to raise funds for the Ziada Case, which is a case that seeks to gain accountability for war crimes committed during a 2014 attack on a family home in Gaza. The attack killed 6 members of the Ziada family. Ismail Ziada, who is Palestinian/Dutch, brought this case against Israeli military officials for the killings of his family members under a principle called universal civil jurisdiction which seeks to use domestic civil courts to gain accountability for international crimes. However, the issue with universal civil jurisdiction is that is a relatively new idea and leaves the victim responsible for legal costs – this is what led us to crowdfunding. I joined the case when the Ziada and the Nuhanovic Foundation (a dedicated war crimes reparations centre in Amsterdam which supports the case) needed to raise funds for legal fees. Ultimately, we realized that crowdfunding was the best option for this case.”
“Crowdfunding helps keep the case and its mission in the hands of the communities it is trying to help.”
Why did you choose to fund the ‘Palestine Justice Campaign’ through crowdfunding?
„When looking for ways to fund the Ziada case, it was clear that we wanted to keep this case grassroots and open to all – it was not just about one person but about the systematic denial of justice for Palestinians’. Crowdfunding meant the case could be supported by people all over the world who shared this common call for justice. Also, traditional sources of litigation funding often come from philanthropic foundations, wealthy individuals or larger human rights organizations which in turn, has its own baggage. These traditional sources of funding often have their own agendas or reporting systems which can sometimes distract from a cases’ core mission. Crowdfunding helps keep the case and its mission in the hands of the communities it is trying to help.”
What was your strategy in running the campaign?
„For the Ziada case, we started with the needs of the campaign and built our strategy around that. We knew that we needed to spread the campaign worldwide to raise the funds required and for this we knew a strong presence on social media was key. We set up a campaign webpage, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts and made sure messages were centralized across all platforms. Because of the nature of the case, we reached out to key figures in the fight for Palestinian rights, and they helped us to share the campaign with their followers to increase donations. We also made sure that friends, supporters and donors to the case were kept up to date with the developments across all the campaigns online channels. From this, traditional media picked up the case, and although this certainly helped to spread the word, effective social media messaging was the basis of our strategy.”
What explains the success of your campaign?
„I don’t think the campaign’s success can be attributed to any one reason. Strategy, messaging, exposure and passion for the cause/case are all important. Of course, it is important to make sure that a case has a strong narrative which is shared broadly among supporters, but this has to be coupled with a passion for the cause. My advice to anyone looking to start a legal crowdfunding campaign is to first understand what the case needs – money is a key factor but crowdfunding can also help with awareness raising and shift public understanding of a social/political issue. The focus of your campaign and it goals will be key ensuring its success.”
Did you encounter any legislative obstacles when you started your campaign for legal crowdfunding?
„Crowdfunding as an idea is considered novel, legal crowdfunding is in comparative infancy. This means that targeted and specialized legislation is basically non-existent. Although there was a recent Crowdfunding regulation adopted by the EU, this does not apply to donation-based platforms. When it comes to donation-based legal crowdfunding in particular, a greater understanding of domestic regulation on litigation financing is needed. For the most part, any good lawyer will know when they can or cannot take third-party donations for a case, but this ranges from country to country. My advice to those looking start a campaign would be to always discuss your funding sources with prospective lawyers as they will be able to help navigate your options.”
Do you think the Netherlands (and the rest of Europe) could benefit from a specialised platform like LegalCrowd?
„Crowdfunding platforms are growing more and more. When the Palestine Justice Campaign was set up, we turned to Gofundme as, at the time, this was the default platform for anyone new to the field, but Gofundme has limitations. Like many Crowdfunding platforms, Gofundme is focused on the US. Their support systems, procedures and networks are all based in the US, complicating technical matters as well as making it more difficult to get support due to the time-difference. What makes things even more complicated with legal cases is the different nature of European and US legal systems alongside the special needs of a legal actions themselves. What LegalCrowd offers is the opportunity to run a national case on a specialized national platform. I think this is extremely important and valuable as legal actions need dedicated support.”
“Legal actions are becoming more and more commonplace for social, environmental and political change”
What is your vision for the future: do you expect to see a rise in crowdfunded legal action in the Netherlands or in the rest of Europe?
„Crowdfunding opens up a wave of opportunity for social change. With the internet, an individual or communities cause can be shared with the entire world. This means that individuals can support causes they care about, even when they might not know the campaigners personally. On top of this, legal actions are becoming more and more commonplace for social, environmental and political change – two cases in the Netherlands that come to mind are Urgenda and the recent case against Shell by Milieudefensie. As a result, I see would not be surprised by a rise in crowdfunded legal action, especially when platforms like Legal Crowd offer a simple, accessible and trusted service for campaigners and donors.”
Do you have any tips for future campaign starters?
„For any new campaigner, I think my main tip would be to make sure they know their story. That is the story of the campaign but also their own personal story of why their case needs support. I think this is even more important when it comes to legal cases as these can often be complicated and take away from the core message of change the campaigners want to convey. The story is at the heart of why their campaign is important for social change and when their story is understood, it will help ensure the success of the campaign by sending a clear message to donors that their case is worth supporting.”