Friday, February 13, 2015

Crowdfunding for public projects

If you are on social media you are no doubt familiar with crowdfunding, whereby individuals use websites to champion causes that are then funded through donations from the community at large. You might see such crusades on a weekly -- even daily -- basis on your Facebook and Twitter feeds. Whether it’s for a sick family member or the start-up of a new business, crowdfunding efforts are plentiful.

They are extremely effective, too.

In 2013, the still-young crowdfunding industry (it unofficially began in 2006) collected over $5 billion worldwide and industry experts figure that annual collections will surpass $90 billion by 2025.

Once thought to be only the domain of charitable causes and entrepreneurial dreams, crowdfunding has in the past couple of years caught the attention of the public sector. Governing bodies that were strained by the Great Recession and an increasing disdain for tax growth from their residents have taken to the net to collect money for niceties they might not otherwise have.

A crowdfunding effort in Memphis, Tennessee easily collected $75,000 to fill a public funding gap in the development of a bike lane in a growing commercial district. Philadelphia donors helped secure $10,000 to keep a skate park alive. New Haven, Connecticut’s Ignite! New Haven plan has funded a public kitchen, a youth lacrosse league and bike racks throughout the city. The online craze also brought in $100,000 for an underground park in Manhattan.

A 2014 study by MIT looked at four years of civic crowdfunding around the world and found some 1,200 such projects. Most were modest in size, with goals of $8,000 (far below those listed above). It’s those types of smaller campaigns that merit serious consideration. Local governments and schools could put crowdfunding websites to use (there are now numerous sites specific to civic projects) to bring to life any number of one-shot or long-term projects.

A perfect example of where it could be used locally is the City of Lockport. A lot of local residents were frustrated that there wasn’t a New Year’s Eve ball drop and by the lack of family-friendly things to do in the Lock City that night. You really can’t blame City officials for not hosting such an event. A ball drop is a nice thing to have, but it’s not something you need. For a City on the brink of bankruptcy (let alone one that’s financially healthy) you have to make such decisions.

Needs always trump wants. But, if someone wants something badly enough (like a New Year’s Eve festivity), they can get it with crowdfunding.

There are so many more potential local projects facing similar obstacles that could go this route. Booster clubs could use crowdfunding websites to prevent school sports from going on the chopping block. Local towns could add new equipment or skate pads to their playgrounds. County officials could improve the trails and outbuildings at any one of our parks. Splash pads could be built in any one of the County’s three cities.  

Civic crowdfunding works because charity is different than taxes. If you are being forced to give up more of your money (which is what taxes do), you’re not interested in doing so, especially when you know waste abounds in any given bureaucracy. But, if people are given the chance of to give away their money under their own free will for an appropriately earmarked event or item, especially one that is attractive to them, they will give; the Manhattan and Memphis projects show that.

In its first nine years of existence crowdfunding has shown its value and effectiveness to private endeavors. Heading to its second decade it has shown its potential for public endeavors. It’s time for local governments to capitalize on that and invest in new projects not by force, but instead by goodwill. The list of possibilities is endless and limited only by creativity and the interest of donors.

From the 16 February 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

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