NYC | ioby’s Erin Barnes On Their New Platform For Neighborhood Development

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 9.28.14 AMThe three founders of the crowd-resourcing platform ioby are the type of people who like to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty on a project. It’s not hard to understand why. When we put in sweat equity, we feel ownership and pride at the results. We give more of our resources to secure a successful outcome. And we want to tell people about our accomplishments (Pinterest, anyone?). On this edition of the Green Line Series, ioby Co-Founder & Executive Director, Erin Barnes shares why the burgeoning crowd-resourcing platform is an important tool for neighborhoods to take control of projects to uplift and revitalize their communities!

GoGreen Conference: Give us a basic run down of the ioby platform and what your particular brand of change making is. 

Erin Barnes: ioby comes from the opposite of the NIMBY concept (Not In My Back Yard). It’s a digital platform for people who say “yes” —  this is a positive change that I want to see in my backyard. We work at the neighborhood scale on neighbor-funded projects that make communities stronger and more sustainable, and with the kind of people who take the initiative to start projects that bring positive change.

We do that through a crowd-resourcing platform. “Crowd-resourcing” is a word we made up that blends two concepts: Crowd funding and resource organizing. Crowd funding is a term that most people have heard of — it’s the idea of pooling lots of small donations online to a single cause or organization. Resource organizing is a way of organizing all sorts of social capital — in-kind donations, volunteer time, and venture capital from the community whom the project is benefiting. So with ioby, when we talk about crowd resourcing, we’re talking about using an online platform to organize all the different types of capital that people need to make neighborhood change and raising all those types of capital from people in the communities.

GG: Why is the community organizing aspect of what you do so important to the success of a project? 

EB: By having people who live in the communities invest in the actual projects, either by making a $35 donation (which is the average donation amount) or volunteering for four hours on the weekends, there are a few things  you know are happening in the project.

First of all, it improves community buy-in. When you have 85 people who live within a few blocks of the project site contributing financially, they are saying, “yes, the community is backing this project and this is something that is good for the community.” The second part, when you have people putting in either financial contributions or sweat equity, is that they are investing in the change and investing in that project. And we know that we can ensure some long term community stewardship of that project.

You see a lot of community gardens in urban environmental work and one of the biggest challenges that they see is long term stewardship. They  have a lot of people really excited about the project in the beginning and then the membership  dwindles over time and the garden may fall into disrepair. So anything you can to do to improve assurance of long term community stewardship is really important. For us, for ioby, we are really interested in providing opportunities for service participation to people who live in service centers and providing opportunity for people to steward in their community — at the local level.

GG: How does ioby fit into the broader landscape of what’s going on in the sustainability movement? Why did you opt to work at the grassroots, neighborhood scale instead of supporting mass scale projects? 

EB: ioby supports a lot of different types of projects. Basically anything that is good for the community and good for the environment. We invite people to submit any type of civic, public space betterment projects on ioby. But a lot of our projects have a sustainability or environmental component.

The reason that we chose to work at the grassroots level is mostly because there is already a lot of support for big scale projects. There are capital investments being made in policy change and there are already systems in place to make national and international policies around sustainability. But we didn’t feel as if there was a lot of support for small scale change. In the environmental movement, I think that, people talk a lot about how important grassroots change is, but grassroots projects and organizations are severely underfunded. The U.S. Forest Service has an urban and community forestry program in New York City with about 5,000 people taking care of the green infrastructure in NYC’s five boroughs. The majority of these projects are run by completely volunteer staff with an annual budgets of less than $1,000 a year.

These are the people who are literally taking care of the green infrastructure of the City (along with the Parks Department and a few other organizations). What we’re trying to do is make sure there is still financial support for these activities. And in our case, we’re tapping an untapped source of philanthropic support.

I think there is also something really important to be said for the strategy of investing in small scale, on-the-ground projects as experiments for scaleable initiatives. We’re in the middle of a real environmental crisis and we need to find ways to address climate change and its effects immediately. Small projects allow you to be nimble. You can implement them right away without huge ramifications if they don’t work out. If it works, you can re-iterate and spread the best practice. There are different terms for this — some people call it “lighter, quicker, cheaper”. Some people call it tactical urbanism. But in any case, these are small scale, short term, experimental projects that temporarily change the way public space is used so people can re-imagine how civic life looks like to see if it works.

GG: So the session you’re speaking in is about funding mechanisms for sustainability projects and innovative ways to sponsor initiatives. Why is it important for our communities to have a box full of tools like ioby? 

EB: There are many studies that show where philanthropic dollars are spent and across the board they report that grassroots movements and community organizing are underfunded. It’s really important to make sure there is a political will for change and opportunities for participation in neighborhood projects. In the sustainability movement, it is also really important that we see more financial investment — philanthropic or not — going towards communities of color that are working for change in our urban centers. One of the studies I mentioned, from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, shows that only 15% of environmental philanthropic dollars go to communities of color and only 11% go to social justice work.

The environmental movement has long been focused on preserving different habitats in its work, but as demographics change in this country we are seeing more and more people move into cities and into communities of color. There is an existing and growing need for investment in these communities and urban geographies. ioby aims to help address those needs and fill a gap in funding. But crowd funding, although it’s rapidly growing field and the expected amount of funding for 2013 is over $5 billion, still wont compare to larger scale funding mechanisms that exist. What we are doing is bringing attention to the fact that there is a different type of civic sustainability at work  in our urban centers that is effective and should be supported.

GG: Can you talk a little bit more about the social justice aspect and helping drive solutions for communities that might otherwise fall through the cracks?

EB: One of the reasons we started ioby is because we wanted to make sure that the neighborhood scale and localized improvements — that often times fly under the radar — have an opportunity both to receive the support they need to see their work come to life, but also have a platform for others to see it happen. There is incredibility important work that ioby supports. Even though many of the projects have the look and feel of greening projects, at any given time, between 70-80% of ioby projects actually have a primary and secondary objective of social justice. And the majority of the projects are led by people of color. 71% of projects are led by women and girls.

These are the types of leaders that ioby set out to support from the get go. We felt there was a real value in bringing attention to their work and also supporting them. A lot of ioby projects address a bundle of local needs. To somebody who lives in the community a particular solution may be an incredibly obvious way to address not only an education issue, but a food access issue, and a community beautification issue that all stem from transforming a vacant lot into a community garden which provides free produce and eggs for the neighborhood.

The way that a neighborhood and its citizens frame that solution might be very different than the way a sustainability director of a city or an organizational manager might look at the problem. And the effects of that framing might be very different too. In addition to providing free food and transforming a vacant lot, a community garden might also build up the green infrastructure of a city, reduce pressure on combined sewer overflows, support stronger civic infrastructure and create trust among neighbors. These relationships could then possibly reduce the number of 911 calls in the neighborhood. There are many different reasons why strengthening our neighborhoods makes things better for its inhabitant and the city as a whole.

GG: When a community does a project is there a ripple effect? Do you see demand for more projects in the area? Does it inspire a wave of engagement? 

EB: There are a couple things we have known for a while. If a project is fully funded and completed, then something similar — like an annual event — will be repeated in the neighborhood or we’ll see an offshoot of it in the area. And many each the projects build on each other’s successes. We think that’s great. It builds momentum and capacity in a community for more successful projects. For repeat project leaders on ioby, on average they are able to raise 400% more in their second campaign than in their first. So at the same time organizers are raising funds or social capital for their work, they are becoming better fund and friend-raisers for what’s next.

We also recently did a controlled sample of donors and volunteers that have supported at least three of our projects in order to do a report on neighborhood resilience that I presented on Pop Tech 2013.  We found out of a couple of interesting things. The first is that for about 50% of people, making a donation on ioby was their first action in participating with a project. And then, about 40% of those people became either “significantly more involved” or “somewhat more involved” after that first act of donation. Making a donation online was like a gateway drug for future participation in projects. Of those people, we know that 95% of people felt more connected to their community, that they had a more important to role to play and that they felt like they cared more about the future of their community afterwards. 100% of people felt like they were more connected to their neighbors, recognized more of them on the street and said hello to them more. They felt like they knew their names and had greater trust in their neighbors, all of which are very positive trends.

GG: Since you expanded beyond the confines of NYC what does the national model look like? How can my community get involved in ioby?

EB: Anybody can use ioby at any point. If you have an idea for a project to improve your community and you want to raise funds, recruit new volunteers or share your ideas with others, you can go to ioby.org/ideas and start your project. It’s free and within a day or two someone on our staff will get back to you and let you know whether your project been approved and how to get started. So anybody across the United States can use the platform to raise money for just about any type of project that is happening in their communities.

Erin Barnes is a co-founder and the Executive Director of ioby, an online crowd-resourcing platform helping neighborhoods around the country uplift and revitalize their communities. See Erin speak on GoGreen NYC’s Show Me The Money | Funding Strategies to Finance Your Sustainability Initiatives panel, Thursday, September 26 at CUNY Graduate Center. See the entire program and learn more at: newyork.gogreenconference.net.

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One response to “NYC | ioby’s Erin Barnes On Their New Platform For Neighborhood Development

  1. Great way to get green projects started in local communities.

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