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Let's Talk About Civic Crowdfunding and Government Responsibility

A reply to skeptics about the democratic power and potential of civic crowdfunding platforms.
April 4, 2016, 2pm PDT | Katie Lorah
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At ioby, we focus on serving communities that have been starved of resources for decades, and we see firsthand the value of neighbors deciding what's best for their own neighborhoods and taking action. By pooling their own resources, no matter how modest, to make a visible, positive change, residents can create a shared sense of ownership that can fundamentally alter how they see the place they live, and their own power to improve it.

A question that we sometimes hear about civic crowdfunding, by ioby and other platforms, is whether it lets government off the hook for investing in things like basic infrastructure and services. Does a group of neighbors coming together to pay for a public good send a message to decision makers that they can allocate funds elsewhere? Doesn't this model just encourage shrinking public budgets and government negligence? Is civic crowdfunding evil?

Here are five replies to some of the common concerns about civic crowdfunding and government responsibility:

1. People who think crowdfunding is a threat to government investment in infrastructure and basic services haven't looked closely at what's actually being funded, and by whom.

Generally speaking, these are not bridge and highway projects. (The average ioby project budget is just over $4,000, and the average monetary donation is less than $75, with donations of $5 and $10 very common.) They are community gardens on vacant land, murals painted by schoolchildren on formerly dreary corners, and temporary transformations of busy intersections into walkable, bikeable places to show the great possibility of friendlier streets.

These projects are scrappy. In addition to funding, many rely on donated materials and volunteer labor, also from within the neighborhood. Daniel Peterson of Project Backboard in Memphis can re-stripe a public basketball court in one afternoon using $200 in paint and supplies, transforming a neighborhood hub that has languished on the parks departments to-do list for years and involving neighborhood kids to help him paint.

Money raised this way is money raised at the right time, by residents who can put it to good use to create improvements that they know their neighborhood needs because they live there. (In funder terms, this is called timely, right-sized funding, and it's what many foundations will admit they are struggling to get right.) Even better, the money—and in-kind donations, and volunteers—come from within the neighborhood, creating a sense of investment and agency over visible, positive change where such symbols of hope are rare. One of our favorite ioby campaigns raised just over $500 to buy a local, self-appointed volunteer gardener a new lawnmower so he could continue to maintain a beloved community garden on a former vacant lot in North Memphis, TN. Although local government and large funders have struggled to address the problems of this neighborhood for many years, no decisionmaker would have known to put a $500 lawnmower in the hands of a volunteer. Only neighbors could have done that.

2. Being a citizen isn't just about voting—or protesting.

One of the common criticisms of civic crowdfunding rests on the assumption that people can better spend their "civic energy" advocating for government funding instead of leading or funding local improvements themselves. There are two false assumptions here: one, that civic energy is a limited resource. Are people less likely to vote, or protest, if they are busy funding something? On the contrary, we're willing to bet that participating in a local, neighbor-led project can increase a person's civic awareness, and boost connectedness and agency throughout a community (and we're working with Google's Interested Bystander project to measure this link). It's a connection that's particularly dramatic in communities that have long been disenfranchised from traditional civic acts such as voting. For those left out of civic decisionmaking, a block-level project can be a powerful entry point.

The second false assumption is that "neighborhood improvement" and basic services are the same thing. Services such as police and fire departments, clean water and traffic lights do not, by themselves, make a great neighborhood. Truly great neighborhoods have social resilience, that elusive quality that builds over time when people know and can depend on their neighbors—and nothing connects neighbors faster than working together to build something positive. Many of the neighborhoods where ioby works, in Memphis, Cleveland, Detroit, and other cities, have lacked basic services for decades. Protests have fallen on deaf ears or have made incremental gains, and even sympathetic elected leaders lack the power to reallocate paltry budgets where they are most needed. Residents have a choice: They can wait around for protests to be heard or for city budgets to grow back to manufacturing-era levels. Or in the meantime, they can improve their neighborhoods with the resources they have—brightening their blocks with greenery, art, and activity while growing closer with their neighbors.

3. Yes, government might be listening—and that's a good thing.

But won't governments see the success of civic crowdfunding and slash budgets in response because "it's being handled?" Actually, the dynamic may be just the opposite. City agencies and decision makers who pay attention to citizen-led projects have an important new way to identify grassroots leaders and networks, areas of need, and local priorities as well as a new way to direct resources in a more informed way. (And contrary to what is sometimes implied, most civic crowdfunding projects arenotin affluent areas—more than 60 percent of ioby Memphis projects, for example, are in lower-than-average income neighborhoods). For agencies that value authentic community engagement—which, granted, is not all of them—a smattering of small-scale, citizen-led projects is a valuable dataset. In fact, it's arguably more valuable than the typical trove of negative public comments at a community meeting, because it illustrates what communities are for, rather than what they're against.

And many agencies have caught on. We work with a number of mayor's offices, city parks and transportation departments, and sustainability agencies nationwide. These agencies turn to ioby to help catalyze citizen projects that align with citywide goals around sustainability, safe streets, and the like. For these agencies, seeding and supporting these projects is one the most valuable and authentic ways to gain community buy-in. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti's Great Streets Initiative enlisted ioby to help recruit neighborhood groups along thoroughfares that the mayor had identified for long-term traffic calming and streetscape improvements. Nine local teams planned, funded, and implemented temporary improvements from pop-up bike lanes to cultural festivals. The Mayor's Office awarded an initial $10,000 grant to each group, then matched their crowdfunded dollars for a potential total of $30,000 for each. Great Streets went beyond simply listening to citizen ideas, strategically using a crowdfunding program to help make a small amount of funding do more. (A small amount of funding, that is, for the city. For the participants, $10,000 plus a crowdfunding match was an incredible opportunity.)

4. Small, local projects can help us be smarter about big improvements.

"Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" is a familiar mantra amongst progressive urban policy leaders like former NYC DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan—the idea being that temporary pilot projects can create community buy-in while informing longer-term planning and helping prevent expensive mistakes. Many ioby projects are small-scale and temporary, but have an outsized impact on planning. Ultimately, the value of the Great Streets crowdfunding campaign was not just the temporary improvements to the nine streetscapes, but what the city learned about each community by letting it carry out its own project. When neighbors are given agency to try something out, they're less likely to make major oversights and more likely to build something that's truly needed—culturally relevant, appropriately located and designed, and informed by local knowledge. Smart planners and policymakers should take notice, and use these lessons from the grassroots to help inform costlier decisions.

TransitCenter, a nationwide funder for better transit, even argues that government needscitizens who self-select to lead change in the public realm. This "civic vanguard" includes people who are "outside of government, non-elite, and are best able to make demands on government, demonstrate the benefits of change, and usher in public support to backstop any negatives for the politicians that pursue risky change." Many leaders of small-scale civic projects are clearly members of the civic vanguard, whether or not they know it. A joint ioby and Transit Center initiative called "Trick out My Trip" sought to connect neighborhood leaders with transit decisionmakers through crowdfunded, small-budget, often temporary projects. As part of the initiative, Binh Dam of Atlanta raised just over $500 to print and install bus schedules at neglected Atlanta bus stops, attracting the attention of the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority, or MARTA. Binh's project helped convince the agency to form an official citizen group called MARTA Army, in which transit riders use their "insider knowledge" to identify and address needs within the transit system.

5. You can advocate for government responsibility and encourage citizen-led projects.

Shrinking public budgets are an unfortunate reality that we need to grapple with regardless of ideology. We can, and must, advocate for more robust and more equitable public funding for infrastructure and services while we encourage small-scale, citizen-led projects at the same time. Recent revelations about the criminal mishandling of the Flint water supply show that we have a long way to go in holding government leaders accountable for acting in the public interest, even at the most basic levels. It's fundamentally misguided to blame citizens who organize their neighbors and pool limited resources to make quick, small, visible positive change where they live. It's unrealistic and unfair to ask residents, particularly in poor neighborhoods, to wait for systemic change to materialize from the outside when they have the means to take incremental steps to make a better neighborhood.

Most Americans give to charity, yet this is generally not seen as a threat to our ability to push government into doing its job. We long ago accepted that the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors fill the gap between government funding and community need. Are these institutions equally deserving of suspicion for "letting government off the hook?" We'd argue that civic crowdfunding fills a gap that even these institutions can't. Many large organizations and funders struggle to identify how to best employ resources to address a community's needs. They strive to be "closer to the ground," and worry about misreading the civic landscape and directing funds inefficiently. But civic crowdfunding allows those closest to the ground, residents themselves, to quickly identify, plan, gather resources for, and implement a project that addresses an immediate need. Plus, with funding coming in the form of small donations from within the community, there is built-in accountability that larger institutions and governments simply don't have.

Conclusion

The types of small, local, place-based campaigns that ioby and other crowdfunding platforms support through civic crowdfunding occupy a necessary niche along a spectrum that runs from large, government-led infrastructure projects and sprawling social programs, to charitably-supported public-good initiatives led by the traditional civic sector, to small, citizen-led and emergent grassroots movements and projects. Rather than threatening the heavy end of that spectrum, civic crowdfunding has a great power to draw from the light end, mobilizing the resources of citizen ideas, energy, and small donations to deploy quick, visible, meaningful change to communities that need it most.

This has two powerful side effects: First, the "quick wins" achieved on the small scale can help government do its job better by identifying areas of need, momentum, and leadership, and by sending the message that "these are not people we can ignore." Second, civic crowdfunding raises more than just money—it builds local leadership, strengthens place-based social networks, and gives a real sense of hope that positive change is possible. In a neighborhood that has seen decades of neglect and systemic disinvestment, that hope can be transformative.

Katie Lorah is Communications and Creative Strategy Director at ioby, a civic crowdfunding platform in Brooklyn, NY. An urban planner by training, her work centers on mobilizing community participation in placemaking and public space projects.

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