Rodrigo Davies


Thoughts on Neighborly, civic crowdfunding and the future of community development

Fund Camp, a Crowdfunding Workshop for Non-Profits

21 Jan 2014

Logo by Rodrigo Davies

Today in Kansas City I hosted Fund Camp, a workshop for non-profits on what civic crowdfunding is, how to decide whether it's the right path for a project and how to do it effectively. It's a format I've been working on for the past year, informed by my research and the issues and challenges I've seen arise across many civic projects.

A small group of us gathered at Bauer Studios in the Crossroads neighborhood to talk about four exciting projects: a playground slide for an underserved neighborhood, an internet cafe and drop-in social services center, a training program for community leaders in a historically troubled part of the city and a documentary film about mental health. Three of the four are grantees of Kansas City's Community Capital Fund, which last year piloted a 'grant plus crowdfunding' model with its Tier 2 awards. Grantees were asked to crowdfund 10% ($2,000) of their $20,000 project budget, and all five did so successfully. CCF is a great example of how civic and community organizations can play a critical intermediary role in the crowdfunding process: they are perfectly positioned to help to select and vet projects, while giving them the dedicated support and tools they need to get started with crowdfunding.

After some personal introductions and background on the non-profit sector work everyone around the table had been involved with, I began by explaining why I think civic crowdfunding is very different from crowdfunding a consumer product.

These differences bring with them both challenges and opportunities.

The needs are different because civic projects are trying to provide services to communities. We're asking people to back an issue that serves a community as well as the individuals in it. That means a compelling campaign needs to articulate not just the benefits individuals can gain from the success of the project but also how the broader community will benefit – now and in the future.

The expectations are different because in a civic project people demand and expect meaningful impact. They also expect that their opinions and needs will be taken into consideration, and that the project will not simply be a great product, but will meet the real needs that exist. They'll also expect a high level of transparency and integrity throughout. If government time or money is involved, those expectations will be raised even further.

The players can be different because non-profits and public agencies can contribute to campaigns alongside individuals, and they are also much more likely to be impacted by any civic project. It's perfectly possible to crowdfund a new watch without ever coming into contact with a public official; it's impossible to do that when you're trying to build a public park.

And partly because of these differences, there's a reality non-profits need to face: The for-profit sector is way ahead on crowdfunding. The good news is that non-profits are the experts in their community, and among the best-placed people to use crowdfunding to support impactful civic projects.

We then moved onto a three-part framework for thinking about what makes a great civic crowdfunding project, based on the ideas of capacity, engagement and accountability.

I introduced three key questions I think every potential civic crowdfunder should ask:

These questions have a lot of layers.

What are we trying to do? is really asking three things: What’s the problem we're trying to solve? What’s different about this idea? Has it been tried before? In other words, why this, why now and why you.

Who are we doing it with? means: Who else is working in this space? Who will be excited about the project? Whose permission do we need? That means we need to think big, by participating in the larger conversations going on around us and above us, think widely, by asking who will be affected or moved by the project, and think often, by listening to feedback and being ready to tweak our plans.

How are we going to do it? raises three questions about how we'll carry out the project if the fundraising is succesful: How will we keep backers informed about what’s happening with the project as it progresses? What are the challenges we're going to face? What’s next for this project, once it's built or installed – who will use the resource and how? Thinking through these questions before we start a crowdfunding campaign will help to ensure that we're contributing to the future capacity of the community we're serving.

Next I asked the group to take a few minutes to answer four questions, based on that framework, in one sentence each.

Each person shared their answers and the rest of the group asked questions and made suggestions. We found that the act of having to synthesize these ideas into a sentence was useful – because it was hard to do.

A couple of times we found that the answer to question one needed the most discussion – to refocus the answer on the problem being solved instead of the solution that seemed to be at hand. It's a common issue in design processes, for sure, but one that's especially important in civic projects. If we want to have social impact, we have to be sure of exactly what the need or problem is that we're addressing, and let that lead the idea generation, not our interest in a preconceived outcome that's exciting to us – such as an impressive building or a beautiful park.

The final question – what next? – helped us to have a discussion about the longer-term goals each person had. That didn't mean that they were going to become career crowdfunders, although developing a literacy around fundraising is valuable, but rather thinking about how this particular crowdfunded campaign would boost their community's self-belief and make its members feel positive about pursuing other goals such as starting new activity groups, building relationships between neighborhoods or advocating for better support from the city.

What I was most excited about was that all of the projects were tackling difficult, important social issues. They were also seeking to do so in ways that put the community first and sought to provide for needs that weren't being met by existing services or institutions. For civic crowdfunding to be truly valuable, we need more of the people who tackle tough social issues to be able to access its potential and to benefit from the engagement it can provide with a new audience. I'm inspired by what I've seen in Kansas City and look forward to following the progress of these campaigns.

The slides from my presentation are here, and like all the content on the site you're welcome to share them, in keeping with CC BY-NC-SA. If you work with non-profits who are interested in crowdfunding, I'm always happy to talk.

(Cross-posted at civic.mit.edu.)