Thursday, November 15, 2012

St. Louis for the crowd funding [Don't say no one ever gave you a chance]

Earlier this year my friend Sabrina, Doer at Brown Paper Tickets, contacted me because her friend, Nathaniel, was traveling the country studying new forms of giving and was going to be near St. Louis.

"Is there anything exciting in grass roots funding going on in St. Louis?" she asked.

Little did I know just how ahead of the curve her question was. Since the end of July (when she and Nathan came through and I gathered a small group of community doers for a discussion), three separate crowd funding initiatives have launched and one has re-launched. All very distinct and different in their structure and purpose.

*clears throat* Is this mic on? St. Louis: you have no excuse to not get a bunch of stuff done.

St. Louis is one of the most charitable cities in the country. The past few years has seen a notable focus, from multiple directions, on making the region more supportive of entrepreneurs and innovation. So it's not really a surprise that there's an abundance of creative grass roots funding initiatives popping up. It was only a matter of time.

The most traditionally grass roots, and oldest (and by "old" I mean approaching 3 years) initiative is Sloup. In person (at local establishments), monthly events where people pay $10 to have soup (provided by local chefs) and listen to pre-submitted proposals. Attendees vote on the proposal that excites them the most, and the take from the door is handed over to the winning project on the spot. Projects tend to be artistic or communications-based and awards tend to be in the hundreds of dollars, depending on attendance.

In the space of "community meets technology," OverFundit is the most innovative. While it runs on a digital platform, the platform is designed as a tool for Doers - people in real communities with real networks who have a track record of accomplishments and impact in their community - and Catalysts - people who support those Doers and bring along their networks to do so as well.

OverFundit will launch in Frenso and St. Louis.

InveSTL is innovative from a community development angle and because it intersects crowd funding and institutional giving. Focused on granting to community development or community focused organizations, they raise money in small (though they will take large) donations. Anyone giving $100 or more in a giving cycle becomes eligible to vote on the grant recipients. So, if you know your neighborhood association is applying for a grant to fix some potholes, you can rally your neighbors to put into the fund and you all get a say - but so do all the other neighborhoods. The money goes into a fund that lives at the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation.  So while a good deal of the small donations are raised at happy hours (throughout the region, in order to help everyone branch out and get to know other neighborhoods), the Community Foundation gives institutional street cred for traditional philanthropists, corporations or foundations to feel comfortable taking part.

InveSTL from Jarred Gastreich on Vimeo.

The most traditional and splashiest effort is the recently launched Rally Saint Louis. Both crowd sourcing and crowd funding, Rally is a digital platform that invites St. Louisans to submit their ideas for making St. Louis more awesome. Ideas are voted on publicly and the top five go to their board (see column on the right) for a resource and funding plan. Then back out to the public for crowd funding. Ideas that are funded go into implementation. Funded, organized, supported and run by the same institutions that were called out in the article that inspired it a year ago, it's struck a nice balance between bottom-up thinking and institutional buy in. Gotta build a bridge, y'all.

If anyone knows of a local crowd funding effort I've missed, please let me know. But with these four efforts alone, St. Louis should once and for all rid itself of the Eeyore-like attitude that nothing gets done.

Because, really - with options like these, we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Now get out there and DO!

Monday, November 12, 2012

How Humans of New York raised $70k in 12 hours [It really is that simple]

It's amazing to me how consistently human we humans are. Our active avoidance of what we know to be true. Our ability to create entire industries in search of answers that are as plain as day - if we can just accept them as so. It's amazing to me how this seeps into every aspect of our lives - not just the squishy feely ones but the ones involving hard cold cash. We are so predictable.

Last night, a little after 8pm CST, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York announced a Hurricane Sandy relief project he put together with tumblr and Indiegogo.

As of 7:30am CST, it's up to $73,500 and counting. They will certainly blow past their $100,000 goal before lunch. The lesson here? Real communities and real relationships have immeasurable value. They are built, not bought, and consistently delivering an honest, interesting and genuine product is a surefire way to build them. And if you've built them honestly, they will gladly and swiftly activate on issues in line with the health and survival of the community. 

I have been following Humans of New York on Facebook since May when someone pointed me toward it via a project I work on called St. Louis for the Love. In short, Humans of New York is a photoblog - "the photographic census of NYC. One street portrait at a time" - as the photographer  describes it. But the stories he captures via his lens have attracted a community, and the community's interaction with the photos and the subjects has become an inextricable part of the project. Routinely, he will post a photo on Facebook and within seconds it will have 1,000+ likes. It's. Fascinating. His formula? Being human. Well, his strategy is a little bit more thought out than that, but at its core, it's that simple. 

While the photographer stays on mission, there have been a number of stories that have grown out of that focus. In  October, an NYU student with a personal tumblr on self-image ended up on the Today Show because of the discussion that erupted on Humans of New York. 

Stella entra on HONY FB

I'll be honest, Humans of New York was one of the places I regularly checked before, during and after Hurricane Sandy. It was a trusted storytelling source dedicated to one of the physical communities of impact with a committed and mostly relevant virtual community (424,000 followers on Facebook) surrounding it. When the fundraising campaign was announced, it was no surprise that Indiegogo and tumblr were on as sponsors and that the charity chosen is a grass roots, family run (but 10-yr old and government endorsed) foundation located in the heart of one of the hardest hit areas (Staten Island). The total is up to $81,000 since two hours ago when I started writing this post. 

When these sort of "organic community becomes behemoth and moves mountains" things happen we all tend to be surprised, and agencies everywhere add it to their file of "social media helps humanize your brand!" stories for the next pitch. But there is nothing magic here. No new tools in play, no major partnership, no fancy agency or expensive ad campaign made this happen. 

The not-so-secret sauce is that the "brand" (Brandon Stanton) started and grew genuinely and organically, with its community, asking of it little and only when it rose up on its own or when circumstance (natural disaster in the physical location of the project) aligned with community values. 

In an age of decentralized and direct-to-consumer media, these are the new table stakes. Brands/products/projects/causes that seek to engage and build relationships have to have the self-awareness and the guts to put themselves somewhat in the hands of the communities they serve. To stop only seeing themselves in their own mirror and open up to how their community is truly interested in them - or maybe not interested in them. And to be open to having a true conversation (read: exchange of ideas - not just "I listened") about how they might grow. 

Because, really - $83,000 in 14 hours. That's math, y'all.