Entrepreneur

Startup Spotlight: How to fund civic projects without the government

Its not often an entrepreneur cites Mr. Rogers as his role model, but Jase Wilson and Mr. Rogers have a shared mission. Both strive to make neighborhoods stronger.

Wilson is the founder of Neighbor.ly, a crowd funding platform for civic projects. Organizations can post projects on the site and raise money from the community. Neighbor.ly grew out of Wilson’s frustration at community meetings. A self-identified “city geek,” he has two degrees in urban planning and design. Time and time again, Wilson heard great ideas and proposals, but the common denominator was a lack of resources to make them happen. He decided to create an alternative channel for municipal fundraising.

“Cities are broke,” Wilson said. “People need civic projects- the economy, jobs, and quality of life all benefit when good civic projects happen. It’s a problem that needs innovation now. We built Neighbor.ly to help greenlight civic projects, even when the community budget is not so awesome.”

However, stalemates in urban improvement are not only a function of budgets. There are also bureaucratic and political obstacles that slow the whole process, which Neighbor.ly can circumvent. For example, a civic committee may not choose to fund a skate park or Women’s biking co-op, but if these groups can achieve their fundraising goals, their proposals could become a reality.

“This is very much a way to cut through bureaucracy,” he said. “We want to rewire public finance and help cities help themselves to get civic stuff done, without relying exclusively on debt. People can short circuit the process of voting by voting with their dollars directly on the site. This is more efficient.”

Neighbor.ly is still in the early stages and there are a small number of projects on the site. Most of them are located in Kansas City, Missouri where Wilson is based. So far, the platform has helped fund a bike sharing system, Google Fiber initiative, pedestrian walkway renovation, and a Streetcar line. Interested groups (never individuals) can submit their ideas for review and if approved, Neighbor.ly will work with them to figure out the campaign, set goals and timeframes, and hopefully find sponsors. Once the funds have been raised, it is up to the organization to implement them effectively.

So far, many of the proposals on the site are civic projects that could not get funded, but the platform also works for more alternative ideas and people that would rather pursue their visions outside of municipal bodies.

“This will help to usher in a new era of urbanism,” Wilson said. “This is not just about cities that need a million dollars to do basic things. This is about DIY cities, its taking an entrepreneurial, hacker approach to civic thing. It appeals to younger generation that wants to be more involved and have more participation than what it was afforded in past, but is not keen on idea of a traditional, electoral or ballot based vote in the government. There is distrust it in some cases, and rightly so. With all the talk about the deficit, social security, bankruptcy and unemployment, people realize the government may not provide what they need.”

Grassroots movements are picking up around the country and Wilson and his small team are picking up where Kickstarter leaves off by focusing on civic initiatives. In addition to a financial platform, they also provide their expertise and knowledge surrounding urban planning. Wilson said depending on how things progress with the economy, this type of model would be a useful alternative for keeping certain government services alive. Only time will tell.

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