Crowdfunding For Environmental Change
Crowdfunding is a tool for sustainable innovation and community building that could end up making our neighborhoods safer, our country cleaner, and our democracy more vibrant.
Maybe there’s an unsightly vacant lot in your neighborhood that needs cleaning up. Or maybe Hurricane Sandy or an ExxonMobil oil spill devastated your community. Whereas residents previously had to rely on the government to lend a hand or pick up their own rusty shovel, they are now granted another promising option: crowdfunding it back to health. Crowdsourcing capital doesn’t just bring to market an innovative tech product or bring to theaters that movie you always wanted to be made; it also can catalyze environmental change on both hyper-local and global scales.
Last year an estimated 536 platforms collectively crowdfunded more than $2.7 billion. Stats like these spurred Congress to get into the act and put some regulation on the growing sector, helping to define and legitimize a model that has been at the cutting edge.
But how do you get others to donate to a cause you believe in? You need a story, argues media technologist and author Deanna Zandt. “Technology is a tool and only a tool,” Zandt said. “Technology in the end brings people together. Technology is actually not isolating because what brings people together is the story—how people share stories, create emotional resonance, and create empathy.”
Back when Zandt crowdfunded the 2010 release of her book Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, Kickstarter was still in private beta. People were not talking about crowdfunding then and although Zandt was successful in her campaign, she got a lot of flak for it.
Looking around now, it seems like just about everyone we know is doing some form of crowdfunding.
Two of my afrofuturist friends recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund a collection of social change-inspired science fiction. An old buddy of mine, Mike Norman, recently launched on Wefunder, which supports startups, and his Zenefits project just might shake up the entire health insurance sales industry. Then we have Billy Parish, the founder of Mosaic, and Erin Barnes, co-founder of ioby.org, whose platforms both allow people to directly influence environmental change on global and local scales, respectively.
Mosaic provides an effective platform for investors to put their money to work supporting high quality solar projects around the world and collect repayments with interest as projects earn revenue. Fully funded projects include a charter school in Colorado, an affordable housing complex in California, and a beta project that installed 1.5kW of solar power in the Navajo Nation. “It’s just a better way to invest,” says Parish. “Annual returns between 4.4 percent and 6.38 percent, no defaults and 100 percent on-time payments.”
Similarly, ioby (which stands for “in our back yard,” derived from the opposite of NIMBY) aims to connect small-scale, homegrown change with resources and deliver a return on investment that locals can see and live with. It is a different model and one that encourages more than just transactions. It blends community organizing with digital tools to yield asset-based community development and civic engagement.
For one ioby project, InsideClimate News and the Arkansas Times have formed a national/local partnership to investigate the March 29 ExxonMobil oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas. Never heard of this oil spill? It flooded residential neighborhoods with 400,000 gallons of oil but has garnered very little national media coverage. Funding from the ioby project will provide the resources to help get to the bottom of why there was a spill in the first place.
“It’s super unique,” said Barnes. “ioby donors support projects in their own neighborhoods.” Typically, she says, people don’t think of fundraising as civic engagement, but it is.
And it all goes back to the story. In Deanna Zandt’s initial crowdfunding attempt, she never once received a donation from a stranger. Her exploit was fulfilled by her network of strong relationships with real people who in turn evangelized for her. That’s exactly why Mosaic and ioby succeed—they connect people to a story that is bigger than they are.