Grassroots crowdfunding platform ioby makes Cleveland its new backyard

When Erin Barnes first visited Cleveland in 2014 to meet with local leaders and grant makers at organizations like  Neighborhood Connections and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, she brought her philosophy “work small and think big.”

"I was struck by the strong network of community organizers in Cleveland," Barnes says. "It’s a role that’s valued here."
As co-founder of ioby (In Our Backyards), a national crowd-funding website based in New York that turns grassroots neighborhood projects into realities, Barnes and the local organizers shared the mutual desire to create positive change in Cleveland – one block at a time.
But often when it comes to crowd-funding platforms, residents with less digital know-how aren’t likely to start their own campaigns – no matter how transformative their ideas. Others don’t attempt spearheading the type of small-scale projects ioby champions – such as composting sites, street beautification and urban gardens – because they aren’t sure of the steps to actually implement it.
That’s why ioby took its program to the streets in 2012 and planted action strategists in cities coast to coast. It’s their job to find and coach could-be project leaders in what it takes to make an idea a reality.
In March, ioby’s program will come to Cleveland with the hire of a two-year action strategist that will work on the ground and teach residents how to use ioby.
Although the website is completely open to the public and has even been previously used by Clevelanders (see sidebar), the strategist will focus on locating and carrying out potential projects specifically in the greater Buckeye area through a grant from Saint Luke’s Foundation.
ioby’s platform offers plenty of potential to help both individuals and small organizations that may be between grant cycles and need a little additional funding. Because ioby is one of only a few crowdfunding sites that is also a non-profit, they can act as a fiscal sponsor, which makes donations tax deductible.
 “When someone has a crazy idea about what they want to do in their neighborhood – an itch that won’t go away – a lot of times if they bring it up with a decision maker, they might just get a series of nos,” explains Barnes. “We want ioby to be a place that just keeps saying yes.”
With the help of someone like the action strategist who knows the city, projects will be able to reflect the neighborhood’s needs. That’s why Saint Luke’s awarded the grant for work in the Buckeye community, explains Nelson Beckford, senior program officer for Saint Luke’s A Strong Neighborhood.
“We really believe that the resident is the expert,” he says. “Those closest to the problems have the biggest insight into the solution.”
Beckford says he hopes the ongoing projects will shine an overdue spotlight on residents who are working hard to better their city.
“There are certain neighborhoods that get a lot of great attention in Cleveland and other neighborhoods, not so much,” says Beckford. “We’re hoping this project will raise up these narratives of folks rolling up their sleeves and changing things in their own backyard.”
ioby’s new ways of thinking about fundraising also captured the attention of Evelyn Burnett, vice president of economic opportunity for Cleveland Neighborhood Progress. She first saw Barnes present at the Funders Network annual conference in Memphis in 2013. Burnett then joined the ioby board in late 2014.
At the time, Burnett recognized Cleveland’s strong philanthropic roots could be a blessing or a curse. It was clear to her that many organizations were dependent on grant cycles to fund smaller scale projects.
“People become very reliant on philanthropy,” she says. “But ioby is a bit of a paradigm shift from an organization having to wait for a foundation grant every time they want to fund a thousand-dollar event in their neighborhood. And they won’t have to not do it either.”
Having the strategist in Cleveland will help organizations navigate that balance.
For example, this January, ioby hosted two workshops on the best practices of fundraising at the Cleveland Neighborhood Progress offices. The workshops attracted more than 50 people, many of whom have never crowdfunded a project or applied for a grant.
The strategist will work with these people to make their campaigns successful. “The fact that there will be a person on the ground working with existing institutions alongside community organizers makes it a much stronger value,” says Burnett.

Read more articles by Nikki Delamotte.

Nikki Delamotte is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Diffuser.FM, The Grammys, Cleveland Magazine, Cleveland Scene and others.