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In Philadelphia, an Experiment in Funding Civic Projects

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, September 13 2012

Photo Illustration: Citizinvestor

Sadly, money does not grow on trees. But a new Kickstarter-style platform's first project is based on the idea that maybe the reverse can be true.

Citizinvestor, a platform to crowdfund civic projects, officially launched Wednesday in Philadelphia with its first project: TreePhilly, a campaign led by Philadelphia Parks & Recreation in partnership with Wells Fargo and Fairmount Park Conservancy, to plant trees throughout the city. The project partners are asking the good people of Philadelphia to put up $12,875 towards the idea in the next 59 days. So far 18 backers have given a total of $555.

The site works something like this: Cities and towns pick projects that are worthy of funding and, through Citizinvestor, ask people to step up to provide the backing. Users of the platform pledge their support. When the dollar amount of pledged money meets the project's goals, each donor's card is charged and the transaction goes through.

Citizinvestor plans to roll out partnerships with other large cities in the coming weeks.

The company worked with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's Office of Technology and Innovation to help get the partnership off the ground, co-founder Jordan Raynor said in an interview, and the city had been one of the first to respond when Citizinvestor began contacting municipalities across the country a couple of months ago. Philadelphia is also a partner in Code for America, a fellowship program that connects groups of technologists with city halls across the country. Citizinvestor was a finalist in a Code for America incubator program for civic startups.

"We were able to push this through at a pretty rapid pace for when you're talking [about government process]," Raynor said.

"It was kind of weird for cities to deal with," Raynor said of the first contacts his company had with government offices, offering its service for free. "They scratched their heads, and lawyers and finance didn't know what to do with us at first."

Officials had some questions about how the handling of the money would work, he said. If Citizinvestor had been handling the money itself it could have meant difficulties because the project might have had to go through an official procurement process, according to Raynor — but that's not the way the arrangement is structured.

Citzinvestor worked with Philadelphia officials to settle on an appropriate first project, something "that people can connect with and that citizens will really care about," he said. Philadelphia had been planning the TreePhilly project before, and Citizinvestor can now act as a funding source "to make this project come to life."

In addition to the project in Philadelphia, all users can now use the platform to create petitions for projects they would like their local governments to sponsor and help to fund through Citizinvestor. As interested users raise petition signatures instead of raising dollars, Raynor said, Citizinvestor will help connect the sponsors of viable projects with its contacts in city agencies to help bring ideas to fruition. Citizinvestor has developed an algorithm that it will publish soon to determine when a petition has reached a viable point, taking into consideration factors like the population of the city of the project in question and the estimate of a project's actual cost.

Citizenvestor is also working on creating toolkits for cities and citizens to help spread the awareness of projects both offline and online including both mobile and print components.

Philadelphia is likely to add new projects as early as next week, and is looking at projects like a playground in a low-income neighborhood. "There's no shortage of government projects that municipalities don't have the budget to do," Raynor said. "This has the potential to transform the way government projects and priorities are determined, go a really long way to making government more accessible, making the budget process more participatory, and using technological tools to allow citizens to put their money where their mouth is and vote with their dollars."

Raynor said that Citizinvestor is reaching out to faith-based organizations and civic groups to help launch projects benefiting low-income areas, where people might be less likely to contribute. In addition, Raynor said, in the long run, the ability of affluent neighborhoods to crowdfund projects in their neighborhoods has the possibility to free up city money for other projects benefiting low-income residents, moving them up in priority if projects in affluent neighborhoods can more quickly pay for themselves.