Small Gifts and Big Change in Our Back Yards

Small Gifts and Big Change in Our Back Yards

       If philanthropy is the love of humankind, micro-philanthropy can arguably be described as the love of humankind−in detail. A growing number of nonprofit organizations are using technology and social media to fulfill their missions. ioby (, a new online micro-philanthropy platform that connects donors and volunteers to environmental projects in New York City neighborhoods, is inspiring a new wave of urban environmental knowledge and action. In this interview, ioby Co-Founder Erin Barnes and Lukas Haynes, Heyman Center professor and Vice President of the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, talk with Akira Barclay about the micro-giving trend that is so prevalent in philanthropy and fundraising.


Barclay: What is ioby in brief, and why did you and your co-founders think it was necessary?

Barnes: ioby stands for “in our backyards” and the belief that environmental knowledge, innovation, action, and service begin and thrive in our backyards. An informed step out environmentalism’s NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) history that pushed environmental hazards down the path of least resistance into low-income areas and communities of color, ioby supports communities with a larger share of environmental problems and fewer resources to confront them.

       The “environment” is not just the Amazon rainforest or the Arctic glaciers, environmental work is urgently needed right here on the streets and sidewalks of New York City. My Co-founders and I knew new environmental solutions were necessary. We built ioby to foster those new solutions.


Barclay: How exactly does ioby work?

Barnes: In five basic steps:

1. Organizations post projects. After meeting our application criteria, a project listed on our site will create a unique user generated profile describing why the project is needed, the potential outcomes of the project, how results will be achieved, who will do the work, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and other important information.

2. Visitors explore projects. The site will provide project profiles which potential donors can easily search or browse by location, total budget, unfulfilled need, or theme (e.g. transportation, parks, water, health). Visitors can also create a profile on the site to express themselves, network with each other and with project groups, and promote the projects they fund.

3. Donors fund projects. After finding a project that excites them, donors choose to completely or partially fund the project and will receive personalized correspondence from the project team, such as a thank-you note or an invitation to visit.

4. Projects create change. Once a project begins its work, the project staff posts news, progress reports, photos and videos to a blog through their profile on our site. The profiles of donors who have made a project possible are listed on the project’s page. Dynamic project profiles and blogs capture the tangible difference donors and projects are making in their communities by using our site, and allow donors to follow the impact of their gift.

5. Networking promotes success. Both project groups and donors can use their profiles on our site to promote projects through popular social media.

       Since launching the site in May 2009, ioby supporters have given nearly $45,000 to local environmental efforts in New York City. Nearly 35 projects in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx have been fully funded and are underway or completed. The average donation made on is $34 and the average project budget is $580.


Barclay: What’s you ideal scenario for growth and functionality in 5-7 years?

Barnes: We are only in our pilot year and the site is Beta, but we envision in the long term featuring more projects that are different from each other, new and innovative in different ways, projects that are environmental in nature but also continue to teach the lesson through the project itself. For example, a project in a highly visible area that teaches the passerby. Ideally, we will see projects coming from wealthy neighborhoods, immigrant neighborhoods and low-income areas, executed not only by people who speak English. As far as functionality, we see the site to evolving into a place where donors are engaged, have fun and learn something every time they visit. We want donors to be able to come to the site, check out a map and zoom in to see what projects are going on in their neighborhood. Eventually we want to expand and replicate in other urban areas and leverage our resources to reach groups that are not online.


Barclay: What are you most excited about in terms of the platforms innovative possibilities?

Barnes: Online video is a very powerful tool that is changing the way we communicate with each other globally. Our donors use flipcams to videotape their work and can upload it to the site. People get a chance to see through video the impact of their project. Currently, we produce a video a month. As we grow we hope to post more videos with greater frequency. Video is an easy way to engage donors in a way that is not hard for them. ioby has the potential to be more than a place for donors to engage in specific projects but a forum where they can innovate off of each other. As more videos are produced at a faster rate, we hope they will inspire others riff off of each others’ innovation.

       Erin is not the only one excited about ioby and its innovative possibilities. The organization captured the attention of mainstream media when Time Magazine, listed ioby as a great way to get involved in your NYC neighborhood. Uniquely, they have also garnered support from foundation funders. Intrigued, I inquired about how ioby accomplished what is often an impossible feat for startup organizations.


Barclay: You’ve managed to attract an interesting mix of early funding for a concept that is new and unproven. What do you need in terms of the mix of revenue sources for ioby to become a sustainable online platform for social change?

Barnes: With foundation fundraising, it has been interesting to see where we fit. Are we community revitalization? Climate change or environment? Oddly enough, we only have one funder for creative use of media. We seem to exist in a place between a few program areas. ioby is based on a model that has proven successful for other organizations like Kiva and Donors Choose where a very small amount of earned income is generated with every donation. The 75 cents we ask donors to add in their transaction to support operating expenses will enable ioby to become increasingly self-sustaining over the years. Donors Choose brought in $17 million in revenue last year. We are nowhere near that mark now, so we need capital investments from the philanthropic community to scale up and replicate in other urban areas.

       The concept of risk in grant-making is widely known as one of the greatest pressures confronting professional grant-makers. The responsible stewardship of institutional funds requires the careful assessment of risk. However being too risk averse could mean missing out on the opportunity to fund the most innovative and high impact work. Erin says of ioby’s current foundation funders, “We’ve been lucky that they are all amazing to us. They get what we do and really understand what we’re trying to achieve.”

       Joining the Ittleson Foundation and Fledgling Fund, the Mertz Gilmore Foundation supports ioby. Lukas Haynes, Vice President of the foundation shares insight about funding an online platform for social change.


Barclay: What about ioby's approach to environmentalism that makes them a good grantee for Mertz Gilmore Foundation?

Haynes: I would flag a number of attributes that we look for in a proposal: creative leadership responding to a clear need or opportunity; the potential for reducing climate-disrupting energy use throughout New York City; a scalable, pilot model for other large cities; and an innovative, potentially self-sustaining revenue model for environmental activism.


Barclay: How did their use of micro-philanthropy, technology and media factor into being selected for a grant?

Haynes: Mertz Gilmore grants do not require technology or media-related activities, nor do we avoid them; it was the micro-philanthropy potential of concerned citizens and green activists that was our main interest in supporting this early stage in ioby's growth. We recognize that micro-giving might not scale up for green causes as much as education or poverty alleviation, but we were eager to see what might be possible.


Barclay: Do you foresee Mertz Gilmore funding more initiatives where nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups integrate innovative use of technology and social media to drive change?

Haynes: It is hard to foresee genuine innovation but we certainly look for it. For example, we will support another group this year, CoalSwarm that uses Wiki software and a global network of citizen journalists to track coal industry activity. Another (ClimateSignals) is "crowdsourcing" frontline climate impacts reports, in multiple media, and linking them to the best science on climate. Both are innovative ways to gather critical information and support changes in the way society burns energy with little regard for the consequences.

       The growing crop of nonprofit organizations making innovative use of technology and social media the chief driving force in fulfilling their missions is sure to keep the micro-giving trend in philanthropy and fundraising alive. ioby is inspiring a new wave of urban environmental knowledge and action and may be the blueprint for future grassroots social change movements motivated by technology and social media.

Erin Barnes
       Erin Barnes and her fellow ioby Co-founders Cassie Flynn and Brandon Whitney are graduates of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies master’s programs. They have complementary backgrounds in environmental science, community development, advocacy, media, consulting, and research. Their careers span nationwide, and include non-profit, government, academic, and industry sectors.

Lukas Haynes
       Lukas Haynes is Vice President of the Mertz Gilmore Foundation in New York, where he manages grant-making programs that promote solutions to climate change, defend human rights, and invest in under-served New York City communities. From 2002-06, Haynes was Program Officer for International Peace and Security at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Here he made grants to support U.S. foreign policy institutes and a major initiative to strengthen university research at the intersection of science, technology, and security studies. From 2000-01, Haynes served on the U.S. Department of State's Policy Planning Staff and as a speechwriter for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. After leaving government, Haynes was a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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