Local Life Support

Nonprofit Ioby Improves Communities One Crowdfunded Project at a Time
Erin Barnes, executive director of Ioby, the nonprofit fundraising platform for the environment, says of the initiative: “You can take a tax deduction and know you have made a truly valuable investment in your own community.” Crowdfunding, or raising money through online donations, includes social entrepreneurs as well as business startups. The premise: Large groups of people giving small amounts will provide a powerful source of startup money.

On a Mission

Ioby—which stands for “in our backyard”—takes its mission from its three founders: Barnes, Brandon Whitney and Cassie Flynn. The three met at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and share an urgency for creating positive change in communities. “Ioby is about residents saying, ‘This is what I want to see in our backyard, this is what I want to change in my community, and I am going to make it happen,’” says Barnes.

Many Ioby contributors are first-time donors who, according to Barnes “demand transparency and want to know results right away.”

To this end, donors to Ioby receive a report and, Barnes notes, “most contributors live within two miles of their projects and they can see them when they go to work or to school.” Fifty-eight percent of donors volunteer to work on their projects.

Brooklyn resident Paula Z. Segal launched one local project that received funding through Ioby. Her cause was turning empty lots owned by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development into community gardens.

Edwin Torres, associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation which supports Ioby says: “Ioby has used the Internet to create a virtual community that supports actual neighborhoods. Bringing people together into networks of mutual support create greater community resilience…”

Raising Money the Ioby Way

To set up a project with Ioby, you must run a 501(c)(3) or have a fiscal sponsor. The Ioby team will find one for you if needed. If your project budget is less than $1,000, there is a 3% fee for third-party credit card processing. If your project is $1,000 or more, your fees are: a 3% fee for credit card processing and a $35 Ioby platform use fee. Ioby requests that project creators also give a 20% donation, which the website says still funds the project, but keeps Ioby’s lights on. Setting up projects in New York City requires a separate fee scale.

The average donation is $35. Ioby has distributed $382,803 to projects and launched 162 projects since 2008—a success rate of 85% compared with Kickstarter’s 43.83% according to the group. However, Ioby has a “flexible finish” policy that kicks in if a project leader cannot raise the requested funds. A revised budget is presented and if the project is accepted with the lesser funding, the project continues. Barnes says the Ioby team speaks to every prospective project leader on the phone before acceptance and only a “very small amount” are turned down.

The Crowdsourcing Crowd

Of course, Ioby is not alone in crowdscourcing. Kickstarter, founded in 2009, is a major player, hosting projects in categories such as movies, design and food. Other crowdsourcing sites include Rock the Post and indiegogo. Rock the Post says that 12% of its postings are environmental projects.

These platforms are sometimes termed “reward crowdfunding” because the entrepreneurs who are fundraising offer goods and services as payment. If you are raising funds for a new bakery, you may reward donors with muffins; a T-shirt startup might offer shirts. These rewards contrast with Ioby where donors might gain entrance to a vegetable garden they help fund or simply gain the enjoyment of a new bike path.

Donation Dilemmas

Bob Schildgen, or “Mr. Green,” Sierra Magazine’s environmental advice columnist, says “Before you send any money to anybody, you need to do some serious homework and be knowledgeable about the field they propose to work in.” Schildgen says he noticed a crowdfunding appeal for a project on honeybees “whose author clearly knew very little about them.” Schildgen also says he worried about funds being diverted from organizations such as the Sierra Club or Audubon Society and going to less reputable environmental projects.

Barnes and her team started Ioby as a pilot program in New York City in 2008, launching the website in 2009. In April 2012, Ioby went national, entering into a partnership with the Miami-Dade County Office of Sustainability.

Since going national, the team is running projects in 30 cities. Budgets for projects have grown larger. In New York City, projects were approximately $1,000; now, says Barnes, the average budget is about $6,200. Since Ioby is now a national organization, it is “on the radar of larger organizations that do fundraising for larger projects,” she adds.

HARRIET WEINSTEIN is an independent journalist living in Connecticut.