Civic Crowdfunding: Funding The World We Live In

The statue of liberty is considered to be the first historical civic crowdfunding campaign
The statue of liberty is considered to be the first historical civic crowdfunding campaign

In 1885, one of  the most famous New York iconic symbols, the Statue of Liberty was inaugurated. What not a lot of people might known, is that the statue resulted from what can be considered to be the first civic crowdfunding campaigns in America. Joseph Pulitzer’publisher of the New York World started a fundraising campaign that attracted 120, 000 people, most of them giving the campaign less than a dollar. It resulted in $100,000 ($2.3M in today’s dollars) that were used to make the pedestal that would later on receive Lady Liberty in 1885.

Crowdfunding has allowed many amazing projects to take place that may otherwise not have been feasible. It has allowed regular people to post their project online and really drive change. New products and services have been developed through crowdfunding that change the way people do things. And crowdfunding has also been used to raise money for civic projects. This however, is not all good news. Civic crowdfunding is all well and good, but Rodrigo Davies (2014) writing for the Stanford Social Innovation Review asks an important question of it, which is:

“When the excitement of the crowdfunding campaign is over, who keeps the project going?”

Indeed, Davies argues that this is perhaps one of the biggest concerns of those groups that want to use crowdfunding to fund projects that will serve communities. As Davies puts it, if crowdfunding is used to develop wasteland into a public park that is beneficial for all, who will actually pay the gardeners on an ongoing basis to keep that park running effectively. The problem is that the crowd does not pay for that, and crowds do not have to stay together as a group once the initial funding is over with. In addition, as Davies explains, the government is very unlikely to step in to help out in these cases, as the government maybe did not have the money to do the project in the first place, so support is not gained from that source for future maintenance. Crowds do not offer maintenance, and as Davies sees it, this presents challenges.

Davies argues that the solution to this is to start looking at crowdfunding as a means of achieving the maximum impact, both civic and social right now, using resources “at hand” and taking what Davies refers to as a “spend down philanthropy”. With this approach, organisations can use a campaign organiser or group of people that direct the spending of the money. This approach needs to seek to steer away from bureaucracies that can become unsustainable. A spend-down project is not a one-off approach in the way that crowdfunding can sometimes become. Crowdfunding can be used to demonstrate to communities what can be achieved. This can set off other activities that also bring about improvement.

In the following video, Davies gives an interview where he explains the results of his research about civic crowdfunding:

Examples of civic crowdfunding campaigns

Davies provides an interesting example of how this was achieved by civic crowdfunders in Brazil. In Sao Paulo, civic crowdfunders raised money and spent it and then went on to do the same again for the same project or for similar projects in different areas. The artist collective Parede Vida for example, has  funded a public art project using crowdfunding. The project was called Pimp My Carroca, and it was initially funded in 2012. The project “decorated the city’s waste picker carts and gave workers access to basic healthcare services.” The campaign raised more than its target via the crowdfunding platform used, which was a Brazilian one named Catarse. Given that the organisation achieved so much media coverage and great successes, the group was led to carry out a new project elsewhere in Brazil (in Curitiba). The second campaign is explained by Davies to also have exceeded its targets.

Another interesting example is a project that was carried out in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York. In 2011 the residents of this part of the city came to the decision to transform a vacant lot into a community garden which would also serve as an agricultural laboratory. They set about raising a relatively small sum and they achieved their target. Then, a year later they lobbied for more money to maintain the project. This year Davies purports that the group aims to fund much more considerable improvements, such as including solar powered lighting and rain water harvesting as well as equipment storage. That is to say that the Java Street Community Garden is using crowdfunding to help maintain its project and keep it ticking over.

Crowdfunding for civic purposes definitely raises questions about sustainability as Davies points out, but as has been shown, when planned and executed in the right way, there is no reason why civic improvements cannot be brought about by this means of funding. As Davies puts it, crowdfunding could actually be a big “game changer” in this area.

Some websites dedicated to civic crowdfunding mentioned by Davies are the US based site neighbor.ly and the UK one is Spacehive.