Crowd­fund­ing: A les­son from World War II

The Spit­fire was a sin­gle-seat, short-range, high-per­for­mance inter­cep­tor. But Britain faced an ear­ly and major prob­lem with this impres­sive fight­er plane – where to get the mon­ey to pay for the thou­sands that were required. The solu­tion, was fundrais­ing. Well, crowd­fund­ing to be exact.

Written by
Roger Craver
May 21, 2020

As a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania I got my news via the BBC on a short wave radio tucked under my bed. Gettysburg’s local radio station, WGET, was heavy on corn and hog prices, light on national and world news.

To this day I listen to the BBC with their news and features delivered – minus the squeals, squawks, and static of short wave – on my iPhone or desktop via their 24/7 World Service.

Over the weekend they ran an episode from a series titled Spitfire: The People’s Plane  that chronicles what has to be the most powerful crowdfunding campaign in the history of fundraising. ‘Most powerful’ because it illustrates the massive value of crowdfunding to mobilise global public sentiment and involvement in a time of dire threat. Think today’s pandemic in terms of threat, disruption and the need to mobilise public support. But turn back the clock to 80 years ago.

In June of 1940, following the fall of France, Britain found itself alone and ill-prepared to stand against the certain advance of Nazi Germany’s military might. An essential element for the preparation of the existential Battle of Britain was the need to build massive numbers of fighter aircraft capable of intercepting the growing fleet of Luftwaffe bombers.

Enter the single-seat, short-range, high-performance interceptor called the Spitfire. But, Britain faced an early and major problem with the Spitfire.

Problem #1: Where to get the money to pay for the thousands of Spitfires that would be required.

Solution #1: Crowdfunding.

Yes, crowdfunding. And this BBC episode tells the story brilliantly. I’ve summarised it in a nutshell below the graphic, but if you can spare 18 minutes treat yourself to a great history and fundraising lesson.

Crowdfunding: click on the image to listen to the BBC episode

In a nutshell, the idea to crowdfund construction came from a Max Aiken, a Canadian press baron transplanted  to Britain and given the title Lord Beaverbrook. Described by one pilot as an ‘unpleasant bastard’ Lord Beaverbrook was named head of the Air Ministry by Winston Churchill and set about to disrupt conventional thinking and the bureaucracy in his single-minded drive to build and deliver enough Spitfires to defend Britain.

But first he had to figure out a way to pay for the fighter planes. The idea came when a fellow Canadian millionaire asked Beaverbrook what a Spitfire cost. When told the cost was £8,000 (that’s about £450,000 or about US$545,000 today) the Canadian friend wrote out a cheque. Beaverbrook immediately saw the opportunity: why not ask the British public – and the rest of the world for that matter – to contribute?

And so The Spitfire Fund was born and every member of the public was encouraged to do their part for the war effort. The ‘giving opportunity’ wasn’t limited to paying £8,000 for an entire Spitfire. Beaverbrook got right down to fundraising basics. Donors could give a Merlin engine for £2,000, a fuel tank for £40, and so on down the gift table including a set of screws for five shillings.

The public rallied – throughout the UK and throughout the Empire – in a massive way. School children collected for the Spitfire Fund, villages ran bake sales, bars, hotels and restaurants collected and a hit song was created to spur contributions and competition among cities and regions.

At a time when so many felt so helpless here was an action they could take to advance the war effort. Even more motivating was the fact that donors in Britain could see the object of their giving defending their island home right up there in the sky guns blazing as they attacked the Luftwaffe.

Overall, The Spitfire Fund collected £13 million (£650 million or about US$780 million today).

While The Spitfire Fund didn’t come close to meeting the cost of producing the planes needed it accomplished something far more valuable. It helped win the battle for the hearts and minds of the folks on the home front by providing a symbol that united the British people, boosted their resolve to resist the Nazis, and provided a way to do their part in helping bring the war to an end.

After listening to this BBC episode I thought to myself, ‘The world today sure could use the power of a Spitfire Fund.’

This article first appeared on The Agitator here on May 18th 2020.

About the author: Roger Craver

Roger Craver, founder of Craver Matthews Smith in the USA, is a lifelong pioneer in applying mass communications and technologies to activism and fundraising. His groundbreaking work in fundraising has helped launch and sustain dozens of national and international organisations.

Today, Roger is the founder of DonorTrends, a company providing fundraising intelligence, predictive models and market research to the nonprofit and political communities. diMobile is his latest company, building mobile engagement applications for the next generation of activists and hell-raisers.

He is also the publisher of the Agitator.

Related case studies or articles

Announcing the SOFII history project

An illustrated journey through time, with commentary by Mark Phillips, especially for SOFII users.

Read more

The SOFII history project part one: treasures from fundraising’s history

Welcome to part one of SOFII’s history project. Dive in to explore the best campaigns from antiquity to the 20th century.

Read more

The SOFII history project part two: the all-time fundraising greats

Do you want to learn from the very best in the fundraising business? This is the section for you as we explore the greatest ever campaigns, events and pioneering thinkers.

Read more

The SOFII history project part three: the legends of fundraising

Meet the women and men who transformed, improved and revolutionised fundraising.

Read more