You could call the Statue of Liberty the first successfully crowdfunded municipal project.
Not the construction of the actual copper icon by Paris-based Gaget, Gauthier and Cie Workshop in 1881, but the funding of a platform on it to stand. The Statue of Liberty waited for its pedestal in a shipping crate on Bedloe’s Island until publisher Joseph Pulitzer hatched a plan. He provided people with an incentive – donate any amount and he’d print your name on the front page of his newspaper, The World. The campaign raised more than $100,000 in 1885 (about $2.5 million in 2013) and Lady Liberty’s platform built out of 56 million pounds of concrete and granite.
By comparison, Mayor Brenda Halloran’s request to plant some trees in a City of Waterloo dog park seems pretty doable.
So far the first municipal project posted to the iFundWaterloo.com crowdfunding site has only collected $10 of its $2,500 goal. But the concept of a city asking citizens to donate money for a civic project on a Web platform designed for that purpose goes beyond planting some trees. The City of Waterloo has partnered with iCrowdfund Social Media Inc. to launch a site specifically for the purpose of organizing mass funding pledges towards projects organized by citizens, local organizations, or City Hall. After the rise in popularity of consumer-targeted crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, the mayor says its time for municipalities to be equally as bold in marketing crowdfunding solutions.
“Government funding is tightening up, so we have to look at other opportunities for our agencies to find their funding and run their programs,” Halloran says in a phone interview. “I really believe in crowdfunding. It’s something that should be considered, should be tried.”
Launched July 1, iFundWaterloo.com is the first government-backed crowdfunding site in Canada. But others will be soon to jump on the bandwagon with iCrowdfund’s platform. The self-described citizen municipal engagement platform for crowdfunding will soon be launching with the City of Ottawa (iFundOttawa) and in the Atlantic region (iFundAtlantic). Cities south of the border are also using crowdfunding to raise money for projects that fall outside of the budget. Some observers are raising the question of whether tax collectors are being let off the hook by asking citizens to chip in extra cash for civic projects.
The point of iCrowdfund’s platform is to motivate local neighbourhoods to work together to make a difference, says Cindy Gordon, one of the co-founders of the firm. The platform provides a secure Web site that comes with all the tools a fundraiser would need to collect money and market a campaign, including spreading the message across social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.
“Cities have always modernized infrastructure with roads, utilities, etc. now the time has come for cities to modernize with digital social media approaches that help charities, community stakeholders, entrepreneurs and all citizens transact effectively,” she writes in an e-mail.
Waterloo’s campaign to plant 10 trees in the fenced-in, off-leash area of Bechtel Park is the first to use a crowdfunding platform. It does so in the familiar rewards and incentives model, offering up discounts and freebies from a local pet store partner for $20, $25, and $50 donation amounts. But other examples of Canadian cities asking citizens to chip in cash for municipal projects can be cited.
City of Kanata Councillor Marianne Wilkinson is leading an effort to raise $2 million to ramp up a renovation project at Richcraft Recreation Complex. To get a couple more swimming lanes, an artificial turf field with lighting, and improvements to a skateboard park, the city used the complex’s own Web site to solicit donations. It also rewards donations with incentives – $20 will get you a bamboo case to place in a time capsule that will be sealed away for 50 years, and $500 gets you an engraved square on a walkway. Plus there’s tax receipts.
In an interview on CBC Radio One’s The Current on April 5, Wilkinson said she wasn’t calling the effort “crowdfunding” because not enough people were familiar with the concept. But she acknowledged that’s what it was.
“Crowdfunding does two things… it can raise funding, but it can also raise awareness,” she said. “Social media is an interesting way of going about doing things because it’s a way of making people aware and without awareness you don’t get the support you need for doing projects.”
In the same radio show, Etan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Citizen Media Lab expresses concern civic crowdfunding is “letting governments off the hook a little bit” and that a crowdfunding approach to citizen engagement won’t be equitable, because “connected, wealthy, well-wired people” will be the ones conducting successful campaigns.
In the U.S., where more cities have experimented with crowdfunding, Tampa Bay-based Citizinvestor is providing a platform similar to iCrowdfund’s. It has posted projects from 10 different cities so far and has registered another 78 cities that may soon post projects. About $30,000 to $40,000 of funds have been transacted on the site so far, says co-founder Jordan Raynor, and he anticipates seeing active projects from between 10 to 25 cities at a time by year’s end. He says the projects are in addition to what a city has budgeted, designed to address the needs of councillors who routinely get calls from constituents asking for local improvements.
“It’s not letting the city off the hook, it’s giving citizens what they want when government has no other way to pay for them,” he says. “Citizens don’t believe they pay too much for government services, they just want more control over where their money is spent.”
Mayor Halloran sees the iFund site as a way for non-profits, individuals, and community groups to do fundraising. Other projects posted to the site so far include a campaign to pair guide dogs with autistic children, and to open a storefront location for an online bake shop that raises money for charities. The city will use it for projects deemed equitable, she says. But what if it doesn’t raise the $2,500 needed for this first effort?
“It’s not going to be something like ‘well it didn’t work, we’re going to stop.’ We’re going to look at what to do better,” she says. “It’s a new idea and people are going to be at first not sure about it.”
Or it may just be that citizens will need the right project to capture their imagination. Pulitzer found it by offering a chance to get Lady Liberty on her feet. On Oct. 18, Waterloo’s Bechtel Park campaign will end and we’ll see if getting shade over your dog is equally as motivating.