Too few environmental organizations have effectively bridged the worlds of zeitgeist-y, new media-fueled activism and old school, in-the-trenches community betterment. Some have, to be sure—350.org's social media prowess helps them organize some truly impressive protests and events worldwide. But mostly, groups are clustered at either end of the spectrum: endless online petition circulators and snazzy app-makers vis-a-vis tried and true cell-based organizing.
Don't get me wrong; both are great, and clearly have important roles to play in modern environmental campaigning. But there's definitely still room to draw from both toolkits to stake out brand new territory. And that's why ioby is so intriguing—founded in 2008, it's short for In Our Backyard (a clever wink at NIMBYism). The newish crowd-funding/crowd-volunteering site uses its online platform to connect donors and volunteers to local environmental projects, from urban chicken farms to high tech neighborhood sewage monitoring systems. Most of the donors live within two miles of the projects they back, ioby co-founder Erin Barnes says, and half end up volunteering, too.
Anyone who's heard of Kickstarter or IndieGogo knows the basics: Those hoping to launch a project fill out an application and post it to the website, where users can learn more, and potentially donate or volunteer. ioby has helped seed money to over 125 projects in New York City, where the org is based, in this fashion. And what do they look like? What's the ioby equivalent of weird iPhone docks and independent documentary film projects? ioby invited me, along with a handful of other green writers and editors, to see four of their favorites in Brooklyn.
First stop was Leif Percifield's 'Don't Flush Me' project, which has installed electronic sensors throughout the city's sewer system, in order to create a network that will alert citizens when that sewage is overflowing—since some 27 billion gallons of raw sewage flow into the New York Harbor every year. The sensors send out email and text blasts that notify citizens, who can proceed to take conservation measures to reduce the runoff.
Next, we dropped by the historic Old Stone House in Park Slope, where $1,080 of ioby-raised cash had helped build some mighty compost bins. That compost is used in the gardens around the park, where youth from nearby schools are brought to learn the ins and outs of permaculture.
Perhaps the most inspiring project was Pollos del Pueblo ("The People's Chickens"), an urban chicken coop and community garden under construction in Cypress Hills. Our bus pulled up while a group of volunteers was hard at work prepping the site, which was formerly a fenced-off, blighted vacant lot. The garden will help provide fresh produce to a neighborhood where it's scarce, and the volunteers were visibly enthused by the project—they glowed as they discussed setting up a distribution system to get fresh eggs and produce into the community. (Side note: this one's not fully funded yet, so help them out)
Finally, we trucked off to the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights. There, thanks to a partnership with Green Guerillas and BK Farmyards, the school had transformed its 1+ acre lawn into a thriving urban farm. High school students can work off some of their community service with farm-related activities—manning the farmer's market, engaging in food justice activism, and so on. And of course, the students get, quite literally, an in-depth taste of the world of agriculture.
These were clearly some wonderful projects, and I'd love to see this crowd-funding, volunteer-encouraging model be effectively taken to scale. But there's a catch-22 lurking here: for ioby to work well, more people have to know about ioby. And that seems to be the biggest stumbling block in the system right now—go to the homepage, and you'll see that the projects featured there have barely received any funding. Kickstarter only works because people are hooked on perusing the site, scanning its newsletters, and finding cool new projects to become a part of—you can't crowd-fund without the crowd, obviously. In other words—forward this story!
ioby does solicit matching donations from corporate backers, and is still working to spread the good word—hence the bus-full of journalists on a Tuesday morning—so hopefully the project will soon hit critical mass. Which is not to say it hasn't done a lot of good so far: there are over a hundred green neighborhood projects that cost over $170,000 that may never have gotten off the ground without ioby's help.
But if ioby's model can be tapped to the fullest of its potential—and I think it can—it could evolve into the premier platform for funding important neighborhood projects directly from the grassroots. After all, many feel that the current paradigm of top-down environmental philanthropy is outmoded and ineffective. ioby could be the antidote, bringing citizens together around the community's environmental issues they've democratically deemed worth tackling, encouraging direct participation and engagement over merely cutting checks. Here's to hoping.
PS: Erin Barnes emailed me to let me know that ioby is running an Earth Day special; they'll be matching funds on any donation up to $22 on Sunday, 4/22. Could be a chance to find a project in your backyard you'd like to support—and then get your hands dirty making a reality.