Is Crowdfunding Participatory Citizenship or a Sign of Institutions in Decline?

Civic crowdfunding is the beginning of a new type of participatory democracy for communities."
"Civic crowdfunding is a triumph of individualism over the collective good."
"Civic crowdfunding is the result of a crisis in government."

These three divergent intepretations are among the most common responses to civic crowdfunding. I hear them in one form or another almost every time I give a talk on the topic. Despite their differences, these interpretations are also, for the moment, coexisting quite happily. Platforms and the people who use them don't show much need to agree on what civic crowdfunding is for, or what kind of future its rise might foreshadow.

Crowdfunding as a Community Development Tool

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.

Kansas City Hosts The Biggest Civic Crowdfunding Campaign Ever

Today the Kansas City-based non-profit BikeWalkKC launched the biggest civic crowdfunding campaign ever, to extend the bikeshare scheme the group partially crowdfunded in 2012.

They're running ten $100,000 campaigns for the next 46 days on on (also based in KC), one for each of the ten zones of the city in which they're planning to build new stations. The total ask of $1M is, as far as I'm aware, the largest civic project on an online crowdfunding platform to date.

It's a huge task, but the campaign has already raised $300,000 in matching funds: $200,000 from the Federal Highway Administration and $50,000 each from two Kansas City-based organizations, the Kaufman Foundation and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. BikeWalkKC will continue to try and raise more big-dollar donations as the campaign progresses. If BikeWalkKC are successful they'll be able to install an additional 15 bike stations, taking the total in the city to 27.

The Ethics and Values of Crowdfunding

In a recent piece for the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy, I discussed the ethical limits of crowdfunding: should platforms host campaigns that promote hatred? How should they handle campaigns that are legally dubious? Should they be worried about their success crowding out the activities of other worthy organizations?

I made the argument that platforms can play a positive role in shaping the kinds of crowdfunding campaigns that succeed on their watch.

What does the wealth distribution of crowdfunding look like?

To get noticed as a crowdfunding campaign in 2013, you need to aim high. Three years ago, topping $345,000 would have made you the biggest Kickstarter of all time. In the past year and a half, the platform has gone from zero to fifty-one successful $1M+ campaigns. Long gone (and thankfully so) are the days when simply running a campaign was enough to generate media interest.

A Timeline of Crowdfunding Since 2000

On Monday I gave a talk to MIT's New Economy Group titled "Crowdfunding, Community Assets and the New Economy". One of the first things I presented, by way of context, was this timeline.

It's not meant to be an exhaustive collection of events, but here are a few things I found most interesting and worthwhile to include.

Donors Choose was arguably the first civic crowdfunding platform, although it has never referred to itself in those terms. It took DC ten years to become entirely self-financing.

Four models for civic organizations to crowdfund

A few months ago I gave a talk at the Library of Congress's "Digital Preservation" conference in Washington, DC, in which I suggested four models that civic organizations could use to crowdfund projects: promoter, curator, facilitator and platform.

Thanks to the ending of the government shutdown, I now have the video of my presentation, which is below. You can read also a short writeup of the talk I posted earlier. My slides are here.

The case for using qualitative methods (and history) to study crowdfunding

Earlier this month Berkeley's Fung Institute hosted an academic symposium on crowdfunding - the first large gathering to include both industry and researchers working in the field.

Industry representatives provided some interesting perspectives on the process of regulating from countries including the UK, Korea and the US. The research framing was, for the most part, investment economics and entrepreneurship, reflecting the growing excitement around the emergence of equity crowdfunding in the US and the Institute's disciplinary focus.

Some of the most interesting findings from the academic research were:

Crowdfunding as a salary, or crowdfunding from your salary

Sustainability is one of the biggest questions marks around crowdfunding and its long-term viability. Campaigns are framed intentionally as time-limited, one time opportunities - a form of gamification that creates urgency and momentum. But once the fanfare of the campaign is over, who will pay for the ongoing running costs of the project? It's a major, as yet unanswered question for civic crowdfunding.

It's also a major question for people who are hoping to make a living out of the types of creative projects the commercial market isn't funding, and for which crowdfunding is one of the least worst options - like open-source software. We know that running a conventional crowdfunding campaign is usually a sub-minimum wage job.

Do we own part of this? What Obama’s vision of OFA means for crowdfunding

As the field of civic crowdfunding emerges and grows, it is spawning many competing visions of what the field is and where its appeal comes from. Lately I’ve been thinking about questions such as: how much is crowdfunding about community and shared values? How much is it about physical places? How much is it about a desire to participate and feel agency, and how much is it about ownership?

It’s unlikely to be just one of the above, and surely differs across contexts. But there are instances that present one vision over the others. Last week President Obama made a clear appeal to the last category, ownership, by tweeting this image about Organizing for Action.

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