Ioby.org: designing web 2.0 for the environment
Q & A with the founders of the first microphilanthropic website dedicated to local environmental projects.
Questions by Erin Weber, Maggie de la Vega and Holly Burns
Responses by Erin Barnes
Issue 1 Spring | Summer 2009
What is ioby?
ioby (eye-OH-be) connects people to local environmental projects. ioby.org is a meeting place for groups leading community projects and donors and/or volunteers who want to get involved with environmental change in their New York City neighborhood. ioby is the premier online microphilanthropic initiative that supports local environmental efforts.
What is the significance of the name ioby?
ioby stands for “in our backyards” and the belief that environmental knowledge, innovation, action and service begin and thrive in our backyards. This is grounded in two important commitments:
First, ioby offers an informed step outside environmentalism’s NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) history that pushed environmental hazards down the path of least resistance into low-income areas and communities of color. ioby builds an untapped funding source and by directing it to decentralized, community-based environmental projects, ioby supports communities with a larger share of environmental problems and fewer resources to confront them.
Second, ioby offers a reminder that the ‘environment’ is not just the Amazon or the Arctic and that tangible environmental work is urgently needed right here on the streets and sidewalks of New York City. Even people who consider themselves environmentalists are sometimes disconnected from their local environment and unable to see the work going on around them. ioby.org creates a forum for people to rediscover, understand and value their local environment, because we believe the places we live, work and play each day should be the roots from which we understand the environment.
What inspired the launch of ioby?
ioby is a response to two challenges: the global mandate to conserve natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the absolute necessity to engage the public in doing so.
There are small organizations working on important conservation and restoration issues throughout the city, but they are sorely underfunded. What’s more, the organizations and their projects are often nearly invisible to the residents of the communities in which they work.
Yet in spite of this great need, record levels of public environmental interest are in danger of being co-opted by marketing schemes that greenwash business-as-usual consumer trends. By connecting people to projects in their own neighborhoods, ioby changes the concept of the environment from distant or abstract to local and concrete, making the environmental crisis personal, tangible and actionable.
With so much “green” info online, what’s your strategy to become the “go-to” site for connecting people with organizations?
We plan to give people useful information about their local environmental problems, heightening their relevancy. Donors and/or volunteers can see their direct impact by tracking projects’ progress online, or can even walk down the street and see it with their own eyes!
Further, because we are piloting in New York City, ioby is a resource created for and marketed uniquely to New Yorkers. We think that the strong sense of attachment New Yorkers feel toward their neighborhoods will make ioby.org a particularly attractive tool.
What makes ioby unique?
ioby is action-oriented. On ioby.org you can find existing projects that need your help, enabling you to do more than just change your light bulb, pledge or sign a petition. Moreover, you get to see the results of the hard work or dollar you put in. No matter how much you give through ioby.org, you always know exactly what work your donation is going to support. Like our tagline says, it’s “your environment, your choice, your change.”
ioby also has a unique mutual learning experience online. Groups can describe their work, talk about what worked best for them and about what they wished they had known at the outset and they can make recommendations to other groups. In this way, our city’s environmental projects get better and better, and the level of interaction among people who care about the environment and care about New York deepens.
ioby environmental partnerships may begin online, but we hope they continue and grow, face-to-face, neighbor-to-neighbor, person-to-place, in our backyards.
Can you give us some background about microphilanthropy and why it works?
Online microphilanthropy is a new form of charitable giving. It’s gaining popularity because it’s fast, easy, direct, informative and helps people get more connected to the places and people they’re supporting. You don’t have to be wealthy to participate in microphilanthropy—you just need to care. Most large, staffed non-profits seek funding from foundations, corporate sponsors or wealthy individuals. These grants tend to be very large and support institution building for the organization—paying for staff time, office space, the purchasing of new equipment, overhead costs and programming. Smaller non-profits, local government agencies, and volunteer groups usually seek small grants. These grants sometimes support staff time or office space, but usually support discrete projects.
A new version of microphilanthropy combines the concepts of charitable giving, organizational membership and small grants. It allows independent groups to petition individuals directly for support. These individuals have the flexibility in deciding the donation amount, whether it be $20 or larger. When this donation is pooled with others supporting the same cause, a group can easily receive a $500 grant. In this situation, the donors know exactly when, where and how their gifts are going to be used because they are giving directly to a project rather than to a large organization—and many donors find this to be a very satisfying experience.
Many organizations are exploring this model but ioby focuses on two which have a very high degrees of success: donorschoose.org and kiva.org.
These examples demonstrate how powerful small giving can be – ioby uses this model to help support hundreds of environmental projects in New York City.
How are you uniquely using the web to support the environment?
ioby uses the best online tools available to connect people that care about the environment and people that care about their neighborhoods with environmental projects in New York City.
First, ioby creates a virtual storefront for environmental projects. On ioby, New Yorkers can view projects in their neighborhood that they may not have known about otherwise. Each ioby project fills out an online project profile. People who donate or volunteer for projects can see the project’s progress. For example, if a person supports a community garden, they can go to ioby.org to see pictures of the garden growing over time.
This also leads to another great outcome from the web—project organizers can share their experiences with each other online—for example a community garden in Staten Island can share lessons they’ve learned with others growing gardens in the Bronx. This also helps inspire new projects—a person can learn how to start their own gardens by talking with other project organizers.
In what ways will the design of the site engage the visitor and motivate interaction?
Online microphilanthropy makes small giving even easier. Using a website, donors and organizations can more easily talk to each other about causes they believe in. The website becomes an online bulletin board and shopping cart combined, full of great causes that people get excited about and would like to donate to.
Moreover, each ioby project group posts their own project profile page with photos, videos and links and updates about the project. Donors can simply log onto ioby.org and see the progress of the project and follow the impact of their dollar online. And, because ioby encourages local support, our donors can simply walk down the street and actually see the results of their contribution.
At ioby, we believe the places we live, work, and play are the roots from which we should understand the environment so we encourage the building of long-lasting community partnerships among volunteers and donors. Most interactions in online microphilanthropy exist only online, in a purely transactional exchange. On ioby.org we encourage people to get involved with each other and learn from each other—changing passive, transactional experiences into engaged, transformative environmentalism.
When is the official site launching?
The beta site, which launched in May 2009, will operate and grow over the next year. With feedback from our users, we’ll launch an advanced version 2 site in 2010.
How do organizations sign up for ioby?
All they have to do is log on to ioby.org, create an account, make sure they meet our criteria (the project is local, makes no profit, is site-specific, benefits the public and benefits the environment), and submit an application online. If groups prefer, they may also apply on paper.
Can you give our readers a sample of the organizations that have already registered?
We have developed partnerships with over 200 organizations interested in posting projects online–it’s very inspiring! For example, Rockaway Waterfront Alliance is installing a rainwater harvest system, the American Littoral Society is organizing a beach clean-up day, Trees Not Trash Bushwick is building and planting an educational garden and the Astoria CSA is hosting a workshop for community members to learn more about local food. We have a lot of different projects, from those as small as planting some shrubbery and flowers at a memorial garden to those as large as designing and installing a green roof.
Who did you enlist as team members to bring the idea to fruition?
The founders, Erin Barnes, Brandon Whitney and Cassie Flynn have been working on this idea since 2007. We have enlisted the advice of countless friends and colleagues but we’ll mention three here. First, FuseIQ, has helped us build and design a stellar website on a shoe-string budget that really meets the needs of the projects and donors. Second, Gus Speth, the Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies has offered invaluable advice and support during this process. His new book, Bridge at the End of the World, has been a huge inspiration. Third, our fiscal sponsor, the Open Space Institute of New York, and their COO Antonia Bowring, have given us the ability to become operational quickly, which is crucial because the need to support these projects is so urgent.
What tools and strategies have you used to spread the word?
ioby was designed to grow from social networking site integration. Tools like Facebook and MySpace Causes, our 30-second YouTube video, blogs and twitter have allowed us to build a real base of followers in anticipation of the launch of our website. It’s very cool to see the Internet really work for the environmental movement in this way.
What kind of response have you gotten thus far from individuals and project organizations?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Every gardener, every teacher, every block association, every environmental group we meet tells us the environmental project they’ve been trying to get funded. There are shovel-ready projects all over the city, just waiting for that $419 to get the materials.
And in the same fashion, New Yorkers seem very excited about the idea of getting involved in meaningful work in the city. For anyone who is concerned about reducing greenhouse gas emissions around the city or for anyone interested in investing in their own neighborhoods, the opportunity to give a little bit that will go a long way is very appealing. And I can’t even begin to tell you how many people want to volunteer. This is a very important time for our country, and especially for New York, for volunteerism.
What financing opportunities are you pursuing?
Each person that makes a donation to a project has the option of also donating directly to ioby. This helps us to fund our operations that help us support the groups and the projects. Donations enable us to provide technical support and help groups use their blog and upload photos and videos so donors can better follow the impact of their gift. The financial support also helps us vet the projects better and provide a better service to the donors and the volunteers.
We depend in part on the generosity of foundations that support our work, and in the future we will likely pursue the support of companies with whom we share a mission.
How will you measure your success?
We believe a lot of small actions can lead to big changes. So to measure success, we will measure all the small actions as well as all the big changes. To measure success in educating and engaging environmentalists we hope to see an increasing numbers of repeat donors, donors inviting their friends and families to donate and engage, communication between donors and projects on the website and in person and an ever-increasing level of total annual donations. To measure success in supporting local environmental initiatives we hope to find an increasing number of funded and implemented projects, an increasing number of volunteers supporting projects and increasing numbers of new projects. These projects will have tangible, measurable outcomes based on our environmental criteria, such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, increased acres of open space and the removal of pollutants from air, water and land. To ensure that we are building new partnerships, we hope to see an increasing number of new collaborative projects, increasing cross-community exchanges and replicated projects. But beyond measure, the success of ioby will mean a cleaner, healthier environment and a more profound relationship between citizens and their local environments.
What do you see as the future of ioby?
If ioby is successful in New York City, which I think it will be, we would definitely be interested in piloting in a couple other targeted cities. Detroit and New Orleans, Baltimore and Seattle are all on the list of possible areas. Because ioby is designed to respond to and support existing work, we will follow the need and respond to calls from cities.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Utilizing Social Media as a Creative Asset
DEVELOP AN ONLINE DATABASE
ioby: helps find local environmental projects
FACILITATE SHARING BEST PRACTICES ioby: useful for small, local organizations
MONITOR PROGRESS WITH BLOGS
ioby: updates by organizations enable donors to monitor progress
ESTABLISH USER ACCOUNTS
ioby: enable volunteers to measure their personal impact
KEEP IT LOCAL
ioby: projects empower people by giving them the opportunity to make a difference
About the Authors:
Brandon Whitney, cofounder, is the program manager for the Center for Humans and Nature, an interdisciplinary think-tank that explores and promotes civic responsibilities for the environment. Previously, with the Earth Institute at Columbia University, he worked to develop collaborative research programs and inter-institutional partnerships on climate change, global water issues, and extreme poverty. Brandon’s background in community-based conservation and development projects complements his undergraduate degrees in Biology and Political Science from NC State University and Master of Environmental Science in political ecology from Yale University. On sunny days, you can find him running in Central Park or relaxing in the political ecology of the Clinton Community Garden on his block in Hell’s Kitchen.
Cassie Flynn, cofounder, is part of the Climate Change Team at the United Nations Development Programme, which supports climate action at the local, national, regional, and global levels. Prior to UNDP, Cassie worked at U.S. EPA’s National Clean Diesel Campaign, the aim of which is to reduce emissions from school bus engines and construction equipment. She enjoyed a stint in the private sector, where she consulted to multi-billion dollar companies developing strategies to address climate change. Cassie earned her Master’s in Environmental Management from the Yale University and undergraduate degrees in Government and Environmental studies from Bowdoin College. Cassie resides in Brooklyn and thinks there’s no better place in NYC than Prospect Park.
Erin Barnes, formerly the speechwriter for Natural Resources Defense Council’s Executive Director and environmental editor at Men’s Journal, Erin is the acting executive director of ioby in its launch phase and a freelance environmental writer on the side. From 2003-2005, she worked as a community organizer and public information officer at the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition in Portland, Oregon. Earlier, Erin cut her teeth on environmental work on coal-fired power plant regulation at a consulting firm to U.S. EPA’s Clean Air Markets Division. She has a Master of Environmental Management in water science, economics, and policy from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and a B.A. in English and American Studies from the University of Virginia. Erin lives in Prospect Heights, and she loves her neighborhood so hard.