One New York non-profit is making great strides in addressing the adage — a real connection to others starts ‘in our back yards.’ The organization, ioby (in our back yards), began with the need to answer the question, ‘What is the fastest & easiest way for someone to get involved with something meaningful?’
Erin Barnes and Brandon Whitney, as well as Cassie Flynn, were all Yale graduates (2007) who had individually completed field work in Africa and South America. Back in the states they each came to New York for different career and personal paths. While pursuing their young careers and keeping in touch, they saw people who really wanted to do something good for the environment but whose options seemed limited. The three began to discuss the possibility of launching their own grassroots organization to help neighbors reach out to neighbors. For the triumvirate, career changes were in the works, as Erin and Brandon worked on ioby with Cassie, who remained on the , where she has provided strategic advisory services to UN bodies, governments, and civil society groups on climate policy issues.
As for their evolving project, “We wanted it make it easy for people to do something meaningful at different levels of interaction,” says Erin. “Giving money is one good way to have ‘skin in the game’ and it doesn’t have to be much money to show you care. The idea of giving ‘microdonations’ is powerful because it’s pretty easy to do, it’s fun, and you get to prove what you really care about something. On the other side, for the project leader or the group needing those funds, that microdonation can be really meaningful. On our site now the average project is about $600, so small donations are easy to give and can add up pretty quickly. It’s about being a part of a group of people who give and who care about projects in your neighborhood.”
Initially, ioby was launched as a website without funding or staff, with a goal of providing resources without spending a lot of money. Just at the time they launched, the economy tanked. Nevertheless, Erin believes that turned into a real opportunity because many recently unemployed people were trying to remember what it was they found meaningful in their communities. Because ioby.org did volunteer matching, they found “a line out the door of people willing to help.”
“There was a real desire for people to get connected to their communities again,” says Erin, “and ioby provided a way for people to do that, and giving, say, a $5 donation, was still possible for most people. It was a scary challenge but also a nice time – an exciting time.”
The threesome certainly faced some initial challenges, since none had ever started an organization before. They quickly discovered there is a learning curve and they needed step back and make the organization a reflection of things they truly cared about. “We looked at organizations we admired and that were working really well and used them as models.”
Brandon chimed in, “We took the chance to try to do it right. And I was amazed how helpful everyone was along the way, from the ideas-stage to today. Our ‘formal’ advisors gave us a lot of their time and ideas. Long before there was any real payoff or organizational affiliation for them they wanted to be involved. This was true in all sectors: environmental, philanthropy, development, non-profit management, web development…”
Although people may think of New York as an intense, competitive place, Erin and Brandon found the atmosphere to be collaborative, friendly, and a community experience. They discovered along the way ‘what you don’t get is because you don’t ask.’
“Originally,” Erin relates, “ioby was going to be a place were people where going to share ideas, then maybe raise funds. But when we asked people if such a tool would be helpful, and they said, ‘Yes, definitely!… Could we find volunteers on ioby?’, we thought, “Oh, great idea!” So we changed our model to make sure we could fit what they needed and we hadn’t thought of.’
‘We rely on others for ideas and advice, and have a new part of our organization called “The Committee For Awesome Ideas.” We try to harness that creative energy to keep new ideas coming all the time.’
Today their website has about 45 projects posted. Moreover, it moves from beta to a fully-launched site early next week! According to Erin, ioby defines success as making neighborhoods stronger, more sustainable places to live, where neighbors are collaboratively working for environmental change that builds the social networks of people on a block or around a school or in your area.
When a project is posted on their site, they try first to see if it’s one whose needs they can meet. Initially they might begin by offering small amounts of funding, connections to donors in their neighborhood, and volunteer support. In addition, they try to provide technical support for project leaders as well as sharing ideas about grass-roots fundraising techniques and connections to people in other areas doing similar kinds of work. They might also help in areas such as finding resource for free seeds or finding pro-bono attorneys, whatever might be needed for the group.
“Our orientation is toward this work,” Brandon says, “but these aren’t projects we have come up with based on some agenda about what should be happening across the city. These are projects run, by-and-large, by volunteers. A successful project is one that gets what it needs, and that’s often more than funding. For me, a project that is successful gets what it needs, but also gives the people involved a good experience and a useful resource in ioby. It’s all about the experience the projects have. That’s how we grow our organization.”
One thing that makes ioby unique in the world of the crowdfunding/crowdsourcing/online marketplace is their attempt to build an organization that’s an integral part of the community, not set apart from it. In many ways, this is what makes ioby unique and differentiates them from crowdfunding services.
Brandon and Erin feel that outreach is as much an offline activity as it is an online one. “Finding the best combinations of strategies is important to making this possible. It’s important for people to know what we do and how to work with ioby without ever having to go to the website, which is why we pride ourselves on being a “crowd-resource.” They have even recently hired a new staff person, Helen Ho (Neighborhood Outreach and Project Report Manager), whose main focus is to drive outreach efforts around projects that can come to the organization. “Ioby connects ideas, volunteers, and money to accelerate innovative solutions to environmental problems,” says Erin, “that’s what sets us apart.”
Volunteers lead more than 50% of the projects, and about a third of those have little-to-no access to the Internet. The staff at ioby receives many paper applications with photos in envelopes all the time, which they put on the site to provide to give them a chance to reach online donors or volunteers.
They also try to present a fun, playful, mood on their site and at functions. “Ioby is like that little adorable robot that sweeps up trash from the sidewalk, and plants flowers, and knows all the hot double-dutch moves, and walks your dog when you’re out of town,” says Erin. “Ioby the robot eats compost and poops street trees. It’s part of who we want to be: to be goofy, and silly, and part of the community, and doing stuff that’s fun. We play in the dirt a lot!”
There’s still a lot they want ioby to accomplish, however. They’re rolling out a new website on the 18th of April, and developing a number of new tools to help them be more responsive to what people want and what things the community finds helpful. They’re also launching a number of interactive opportunities, such as video games and videos of projects.
In terms of projects, Erin feels rainwater collection is becoming more the norm and composting has completely taken off in New York City. Other parts of urban culture, like bee-keeping and backyard chickens have been around for a while, but food composting and composting toilets have really become the norm.
“Another thing we’re really excited about” notes Brandon, “is figuring out to work better in the mobile space. We’re still pretty young in trying to find productive ways to adopt that, but I don’t know that the philanthropic/donation-seeking community has really figured out the answer to that either. Since such a high percentage of New Yorkers have cell phones, we have a chance to make that hyper-local microdonation/space related connection. We don’t know exactly what that will be, but we’re really excited about how we can expand into that area. Mobile can also help us do a better job of explaining what’s going on around the city. It’s like everyone having a computer in their pockets, and they can use it to share what they are doing.”
“I think it’s funny that what we are doing is really a little bit old-fashioned” Erin adds. “We’re using this fancy technology to get neighbors to help each other clean up their block, help each other with projects, and teach kids where vegetables come from. These things have important environmental benefits, but at a really basic level, they are about old-fashioned community values. I think about how weird it is that such a thing gets done online, but it does work. Sometimes, you just need to plant some flowers or clean up a street corner, and it does a lot of good for the community.”
Written by Cate Richard. Interview and additional research by Christopher Gardner.