(IAP ’14) Rodrigo Davies, G

Rodrigo Davies,  (G, Comparative Media Studies) Rodrigo spent IAP in Kansas City, MO, working with non-profits on fundraising strategies for civic projects that benefit the local community. He worked on a crowdfunding campaign with BikeWalk KC to expand the provision of a bikeshare scheme in the city. He also hosted a ‘FundCamp’ interactive open workshop for organizations to learn more about innovative new fundraising and community building tools. As a result of his work Rodrigo was invited to give a keynote speech at Kansas City Community Capital Fund’s annual conference. The goal of the project was to support the growth of community-led civic initiatives in the city and to produce learning materials based on the workshops that future projects can use. Since returning, Rodrigo has begun developing an open toolkit and guidebook for non-profits on how to use crowdfunding in their work, in partnership with BikeWalkKC and KC-CCF.


Jan 7: Where are We Headed?


I finally arrived in Kansas City this afternoon, a day and a half later than planned, thanks to flight cancellations caused by the cold weather. Within minutes of dropping my bags and going for a walk around the downtown area, I ran into the Municipal Auditorium, an imposing 1930s building bearing the inscription: “a monument to the public spirit and civic ideals of the people.”

Starting tomorrow I’ll be meeting some of the people who are bringing public spirit and civic ideals to Kansas City today. I’ll be working with non-profits considering running civic crowdfunding campaigns to improve aspects of the city and how it works. We know that crowdfunding is more than just a fundraising mechanism: it’s also an engagement mechanism, and how that engagement happens matters. For the past year at MIT I’ve been studying crowdfunding and its use for so-called ‘civic projects’. It’s a new field that raises as many questions as it offers answers, but I’m excited to be applying, testing and challenging some of the knowledge I’ve gained here in Kansas City.

We’ll be thinking about issues such as capacity, engagement and accountability, as local groups analyze their funding options and think about ways they could use crowdfunding as part of their work serving local communities.

As more community groups across the world embrace crowdfunding, it’s time to think concretely about what the best version of civic crowdfunding looks like, to ensure we’re heading in the right direction. I’m starting to think about a framework for good practice in civic crowdfunding based on three core ideas.

  • Capacity: Does the campaign seek to serve needs that are otherwise not being met? Does it promote greater social equality? Will it build capacity in a community for future projects?
  • Engagement: Has the campaign sought the backing of the groups and communities likely to be most affected by it? Does it cooperate with and build on the work of existing groups working on similar issues? Has the campaign engaged in a discussion about its proposal prior to fundraising?
  • Accountability: After successful funding, do campaign organizers report regularly to their supporters and the wider community on the progress of the project, explain any challenges that arise, and, barring major unforeseen problems, execute the project on time and within the agreed budget?

They’re big questions, but I look forward to tackling them and sharing what we learn.


Jan 16: A Big Bikeshare Dream and Fund Camp KC

This week BikeWalkKC kicked off ten simultaneous crowdfunding campaigns for $100,000 each, using the Neighbor.ly platform, which is also based here. It’s a huge ask – by my estimation, the biggest civic crowdfunding campaign ever conducted online. So far BikeWalkKC has $300,000 in committed matching funds, but there’s a long way to go. That starts with the people on the streets of Kansas City.

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I joined BikeWalkKC team out on the street talking to local businesses and residents about the scheme and the crowdfunding campaign. One of our first stops was the Plaza, the city’s most popular shopping district and the potential site of 5 new bike stations. It was interesting to see the range of reactions, from excitement and enthusiasm to confusion about the very idea of biking in Kansas City. To be sure, the steep hills in the downtown areas of the city and the cold winters make biking a challenge here, but a change in habits is unlikely to happen without infrastructure and programs to support it.

And Kansas City is starting from a low base – in 2008 the Census Bureau ranked it as the worst of 50 cities in the United States for cyclists. I’ve been putting the city’s streets to the test myself by bike commuting an average of 3-4 miles per day between meetings, events and home, and it’s far tougher than biking in Cambridge in terms of weather and topography. But probably the most disorienting and sometimes intimidating thing about biking here is that you’re usually alone. In my rides around downtown I’ve only seen another cyclist a handful of times. I’ve also had more than a few looks or comments from pedestrians who think it’s at best amusing, and at worst, an irritation, that I’m on the roads at all.

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Part of my role here is to help understand how the bikeshare scheme came to Kansas City against these odds, and to help the organization and others like it across the country to think about what makes these types of civic fundraising campaigns succeed, and fail. So I’m putting together a toolkit for civic crowdfunders synthesizing some of the key learnings from my research and folks working in the field. I’m to work with my community partners at BikeWalkKC and the Community Capital Fund, which recently piloted crowdfunding with its grantees, in putting that resource together. In the first instance we’ll publish it on the web, free for organizations to use and distribute as they need, while we think about other options for publishing it. Our primary goal is to make this knowledge free and accessible to the organizations who have the most potential to use it for social good and public service.

On Tuesday I’ll be holding a crowdfunding workshop for non-profits, Fund Camp KC, in which I’m going to walk through the crowdfunding process with a group of folks who are considering starting campaigns of their own. Then we’re going to break out into small groups and talk about the key challenges each campaign is facing. It’s exciting to be at the coalface of social impact work with the folks best placed to put crowdfunding to use in this space – the community organizations who know the issues and know the needs. In their hands, crowdfunding can be a powerful tool.

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Jan 21: Learning from Fund Camp

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.


Feb 3: Talking community and building a toolkit

It’s been a pleasure to spend the past few weeks in Kansas City learning more about how non-profit organizations are using crowdfunding in their work, and are shaping how communities understand what crowdfunding represents and what goals it can help them achieve.

On January 30th I was delighted to be asked to give the keynote at Kansas City Community Capital Fund’s Annual Community Development Workshop, at the Kaufman Center.

CCF has been pioneering the use of crowdfunding as part of the mix of funding it offers to community organizations. Grantees are asked to crowdfund 10 percent of their total budget of $20,000, as an exercise in both fundraising and community engagement. Last year all six grantees met their targets, and are in the process of building a community gardentraining young leadersrehabilitating a blockcreating a new group to revitalize an historic neighborhoodstarting reconciliation workshops and building a community center.

Several of this year’s grantees – many of whom were at Fund Camp – presented their projects at the event and will soon open their crowdfunding campaigns. This year CCF grantees will host their campaigns on Neighbor.ly, which is also based in Kansas City and recently was admitted to the Tumml Civic Accelerator program.

At the workshop I shared a stage with Denise St Omer of the Kansas City Community Foundation, who asked me to explain civic crowdfunding and how it fits alongside the work and fundraising community organizations are already doing.

It’s a very important question. Organizations who are already doing great work are concerned that crowdfunding might cannibalize their existing revenue, or confuse supporters who are used to a different mode and style of communication. My perspective is that community organizations should, as CCF KC does, see crowdfunding as another tool in the toolkit – not a replacement for their existing activities. It’s likely that crowdfunding will not appeal to everyone, and it may not even make sense to some existing supporters, at first. But it creates an opportunity for a dialog with lots of other community members or interested parties who don’t respond to traditional fundraising practices.

Crowdfunding is useful for community development in as much as it creates an opportunity for that dialog to happen: a chance to have a conversation about the issues that matter to the community in a new way, by saying ‘here’s a chance to contribute in a way that be more meaningful to you‘. Making the outreach and the opportunity meaningful is, of course, the hard work. But through crowdfunding, community development groups now have the option of enabling people to contribute money or time in a way that is transparent and acknowledged. With that in mind, I’d love to see more crowdfunding platforms offering the ability to volunteer time as well as funds, as IOBY and Spacehive do.

The next step for my work in Kansas City is the development of an open-source toolkit for civic crowdfunding, which I’m working on with BikeWalkKC and CCF. More on that in a few weeks.

Finally, a huge thanks to BikeWalkKC and CCF for their support and help during this project – it’s been a wonderful experience to learn from such a range of impactful groups and to be able to contribute to their efforts.

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