Pure Genius

Q&A: Erin Barnes, co-founder of environmental crowd-funder

Posting in Cities

From a Brooklyn food conference to adventures for city kids on the Los Angeles River, the crowd-funding platform ioby helps would-be environmental leaders fund neighborhood projects -- and connect with local volunteers.

From a Brooklyn food conference to adventures for city kids on the Los Angeles River, the crowd-funding platform ioby helps would-be environmental leaders fund neighborhood projects -- and connect with local volunteers. Founded by three friends in 2009, ioby launched with a New York City focus and recently expanded nationally.

I spoke last week with ioby co-founder and executive director Erin Barnes. Here are excerpts from our interview:

Let's start with your group's name. It's a take on the acronym NIMBY, which stands for "not in my backyard." Why ioby?

It comes as a step out of the NIMBY past. ioby stands for "in our backyards." It's all about people taking action to make positive change in their own neighborhoods, working with their neighbors. The environmental movement had done a lot of work to stop bad things from happening. That's important, but we wanted to make sure people were also doing environmental work making positive change in their own neighborhoods. ioby is a shift to focusing on small action that's led by citizens at the hyperlocal level and done with the help of neighbors. ioby projects are community-led, neighbor-funded environmental projects.

How does ioby work?

If you have an idea for environmental change in your neighborhood, you come up with the budget and the steps you're going to take. You post the project. We review projects to make sure they meet our criteria. When we determine the project is good for the community, good for the environment and makes no profit, it goes live. Every project has three months to get fully funded. Most projects are looking for $1,000 to $5,000. The average donation is $35. Most projects are funded by a dozen or two dozen individuals. About 80 percent of ioby donors live within two miles of the project site. A little more than 50 percent of ioby donors also volunteer with the project.

It's not typical philanthropy. It's about becoming more engaged. We're interested in building a sustainable neighborhood of people who care about the community and about having an environmentally-sustainable community.

What's ioby's long-term goal?

It's using philanthropy as a way to support the infrastructure of environmental stewardship. It's about deeper engagement and having people understand that giving small donations and contributing their time to environmental projects in their own communities is about being a good neighbor. You can be a good neighbor and do good for the earth at the same time.

Your model reminds me of the journalism funder Spot.Us. How did you come up with this model?

The model is based most closely on DonorsChoose.org. We were familiar with their work from friends who are teachers and used that platform to raise money for books for their classrooms. We met with the CEO and COO and asked if we could adapt it to support environmental stewardship in cities. They helped us set out on our earliest stages. As environmentalists, we all were interested in finding ways for people to become more engaged with environmental issues at the local level.

One of our founding principles is that people who live in a community know what's best for the neighborhood. People who live in cities across the country know what needs to be done to make their neighborhoods better, whether it's cleaning up a river bed or starting a farmers' market. We wanted to make it easier for the naturally-inclined leaders to find resources they needed to get their project off the ground.

Which ioby projects do you consider the greatest successes so far?

A lot of projects show how a city works through an activity, whether it's on foot or on a bicycle. One of my favorites is by a group called Velo City. The project is called Bikesplorations. It was started by three women of color who are urban planners. They wanted to get more women of color into the urban planning field. They decided to take under-served inner city youth on bike rides through New York City neighborhoods to teach concepts of an urban planning curriculum. It's clear how a highway changes a neighborhood when you ride your bike through the South Bronx. Taking kids on bike rides encourages active living and exercise, but it's also an interesting way to teach urban planning concepts.

There are a lot of projects about farming and vacant lots. One of the newest projects is by an organization called PODER in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. It's a project to transform a vacant lot into a community space. It's a youth-organized tour to educate residents about the environmental issues in that neighborhood. They'll be beautifying the site and doing community outreach. It's an example of a social justice use of a space. Now it's vacant lot. They want it to become a small park and also an affordable housing unit. They want to engage the community in determining what that looks like.

What are the challenges to accomplishing these projects?

We created a toolkit called Recipes for Change that is a bunch of different project leaders talking about the problems they encountered. I'd say half the project leaders we work with are people who just want to address some blight in their neighborhood and are not necessarily professional fundraisers or community organizers. They simply want to talk to their neighbors about a dirty lot or a river bed that needs cleaning up. For most of them, it's an issue of trying to work with your neighbors on a volunteer project for the first time.

Many project leaders have backgrounds in community organizing. They've done these types of projects before. Because all of our projects are in public space, most of the challenges have to do with going through the permitting process.

ioby started in New York in 2009 and is now expanding to the entire country. Tell me about the expansion.

We'd always intended to support projects nationally, but we wanted to live up to our name and start at the local level. We decided to pilot in New York to make sure we were building an appropriate platform for our goals. We started in our backyard, the five boroughs of New York. Since the New York City launch, we've been able to bring in more than a quarter million dollars for environmental projects across the five boroughs.

Now we know we have a useful platform for environmental leaders and we want to share it across the country. Anyone who has an idea for an environmental change in any city in the U.S. is welcome to start a project at ioby and use it to find the resources and volunteers they need to make it successful.

Why is this work important to you?

It was a combination of the three of us that made us create this. My background is in water. Cassie [Flynn]'s background is in climate change and Brandon [Whitney]'s background is in community-based natural resource management. We met in forestry school getting our Master's. We felt like the environmental movement was focused on things that were far away. We needed to find transformative change that involved all people. It couldn't just be a way for people to buy a new light bulb. People needed to become more engaged at a basic level. We wanted to make it easy for people to get involved with something that was local, tangible and flexible, and most importantly that connected them with people.

Photo: ioby co-founders Erin Barnes, Brandon Whitney and Cassie Flynn

Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure