Raleigh is getting serious about ‘crowdfunding’

cowens@newsobserver.comJuly 30, 2013 

— In the next few months, the city of Raleigh will try a new method of raising money, called “crowdfunding,” to finance various public projects.

A City Council committee first discussed the idea in June as a way to raise money for urban amenities such as bike racks, bus shelters and public art. Reid Serozi and other “civic geeks,” at the Raleigh Code for America Brigade proposed the method. A cyclist himself, Serozi was interested in getting bike racks installed in his neighborhood.

The idea would have citizens finance projects – through donations – usually reserved for city government.

“It was definitely never just about bike racks,” Serozi said. “It was about ideas where the city doesn’t have the time or the funds or the resources to implement something, but citizens have the money.”

Since the last time the committee discussed the matter, Assistant City Manager Dan Howe has researched crowdfunding. He gave an update to the City Council’s Law and Public Safety Committee last week. With Serozi’s help, he has discovered examples of other cities using the method to pay for projects, including New York, Kansas City and some European cities.

Serozi said he has noticed a growing trend in crowdfunding efforts in which cities, not citizens themselves, are initiating projects, which makes the idea less overwhelming. Howe said that although project ideas will initially come from the city, if crowdfunding is successful, citizen-generated ideas may be built into the budget process.

Ideas for projects in Raleigh that crowdfunding could finance include bike racks, greenway benches and picnic tables. Howe said the key to finding projects was finding the “sweet spot,” between those that are too big and those that are too small.

“Sizing is really important here,” Howe said.

Howe said the projects being looked at for crowdfunding are things the city already wants but cannot currently fund. Howe and Serozi both said projects with the best chances of success will be hyper-local.

“Interest is most piqued when something is immediately local,” Howe said. On the other hand, he added, hyper-local projects can raise an equity issue among different communities.

Howe recognizes the risk of failure that comes with crowdfunding. One of the most essential parts of implementing the method would be marketing the idea and spreading the word about it to the public.

The structure of the method also requires more research. At first, donations will most likely be collected through neighbor.ly, a website dedicated to crowdfunding. Howe has also discussed a partnership with the City of Oaks Foundation, which could supplement funds collected through crowdfunding.

“All the trustees voice support of being a partner. … Let’s continue the conversation,” said Kevin Brice, the foundation’s executive director.

Howe will continue to look into the idea and refine the list of potential projects.

Owens: 919-829-4567

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