Is Crowdfunding Participatory Citizenship or a Sign of Institutions in Decline? | MIT Center for Civic Media

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.

So which one of them most accurately describes what's actually going on among the people funding civic projects? Earlier this week I presented a paper at the academic conference Place, (Dis)place and Citizenship at Wayne State University, Detroit, unpacking the framings that we might use to interpret civic crowdfunding and looking closely at recent projects to find out which most closely resembles the dominant discourse around civic crowdfunding.

Here's how I described the three possible framings of civic crowdfunding:

  1. Community Agency: that civic crowdfunding is based around collectives, brought together by geographic or interest-based ties, that pool economic and social capital to effect change.
  2. Individual Agency: that civic crowdfunding is driven by individuals seeking ownership of their environment for the purposes of entrepreneurial advancement, and reflects the increasing tendency of individuals to want to bear the responsibility and risk previously held by institutions.
  3. Institutional Decline: that civic crowdfunding is an outgrowth of financial strain among municipalities, and serves a libertarian agenda seeking the reduction of the role of government.

To develop those framings, I analyzed the project pages of 274 campaigns collected from Citizinvestor, IOBY, Neighborly and Spacehive, finding common themes in the language project owners were using. You can hear the full discussion and presentation below, but here's an overview of what I found in the data:

  1. Place-based community is a very common theme in projects, and is much more frequently invoked than interest-based community
  2. One in ten projects mentions building a partnership with government to deliver a project
  3. Just over one in ten projects cites government financial stress as a motivation or cause
  4. Entrepreneurial / individual ownership rhetoric seems to be used more often by platform owners than the projects they host

I didn't reach a firm conclusion on which of the three framings is most dominant, but the theme of community agency is common enough to be taken seriously, and there is an undercurrent of institutional decline in a significant minority of projects. But it's clear that crowdfunding is far from unidirectional. What that means is that a lot more qualitative inquiry into how people are using civic crowdfunding and why is necessary to understand its potential and implications for the future.

This is an early discussion, and is based on a small subset of the projects I've been looking at for my thesis, which will be completed in May. I'm looking forward to sharing a lot more from that resarch here soon.

(Cross-posted at