The dilemmas of crowd-sourced funding decisions

A case study from Chester Zoo

I visited Chester Zoo recently. It's a great zoo with loads of really well designed enclosures and lots of lovely animals. At the exit of the relatively-new Realm of the Red Ape enclosure (which houses the orang-utans), was this interesting badge vending-machine exhibit, titled 'Home or Away?'

A green vending machine with a coin slot and buttons and digital counters next to 5 descriptions of projects

The exhibit starts with this introduction:

As a conservation charity with limited funds, Chester Zoo has to support projects that will give the greatest impact. This often means making difficult decisions between spending our money in the UK or abroad.

Following that are descriptions of the following five projects:

Visitors are then asked 'which would you support?' and are given the opportunity to vote. Crucially, though, you only get the right to vote by purchasing a £1 badge from the machine. This is quite a cunning way of preventing random repeat voting by impatient kids. I did wonder though whether you even needed to give people a badge for their £1. Even though the badges clearly cost far less than a quid to produce, giving people a badge turns the 'donation' experience into a purchasing experience, which perhaps sidelines the 'decision' element of the exhibit.

Interestingly, it's never suggested at all that the votes will have any actual influence on where Chester Zoo will spend their money. You are only told that your donation will go towards general orang-utan conservation (which all the projects mentioned fall into). Given the results of the vote, this is perhaps a sensible decision. It'd be interesting to look at ways of giving visitors a real influence in these difficult funding decisions though.

My vote, by the way, went towards the 'eco-tourism project'. I was clearly in a minority though, as these were the running totals when I visited:

What can we conclude from this? Sadly, it seems that zoo visitors overwhelming voted with their self-interests of promoting the up-keep of the zoo exhibit (which they've just exited from). So if the exhibit poses the question of 'Home or Away?', then the visitors have clearly answered with 'Home'. And, perhaps even more depressingly, barely-anyone seems interested in the education programmes. Good job these people don't get to vote for a Government, eh? Oh, wait...

Before we get too depressed though, there's clearly some influencing factors on the vote that we can consider. Firstly the placement of the exhibit within a zoo clearly gives some bias towards the 'zoo upkeep' answer - perhaps that one shouldn't have been included. Secondly, people could see the existing tally before adding their vote, which might make an early lead self-reinforcing. This could have been prevented by only showing people the tally after they'd inserted their pound and had placed their vote - this might have the additional benefit of encouraging more donations by making people curious about the current vote results.

Even without my design changes, I think overall the exhibit provides an interesting model which could be copied by other attractions. I'd love to see a museum, for example, use this kind of exhibit to ask visitors which new objects (or art works) they should acquire. Or a theme park could use the exhibit to ask what type of new ride they should install.