From Zero to Impact – ioby and the Power of Honesty
To round out our series – From Failure to Resolution – Impact Design Hub spoke with Erin Barnes, co-founder and executive director of ioby, a crowdfunding platform for community-based social change, about starting from scratch after starting up too quickly, and how honesty truly is the best policy – especially when you get it wrong.
Impact Design Hub: Can we start with you just saying a bit about ioby and the work you guys do?
Erin Barnes: ioby works with locals in various cities across the U.S. who have great ideas so that they can become great citizen leaders who plan, fund, and make positive change in their own neighborhoods. Our work is about the idea that place really matters — we’re an internet-based platform that identifies leaders on the ground who are perhaps flying under the radar and may not have tons of access to the web and empower those leaders with a crowdfunding platform to start a project in their community. We piloted ioby in New York City and three years into it a few people from Miami reached out and asked if we would like to replicate our work there, which is how we began expanding across the country.
IDH: What’s the biggest failure ioby has ever experienced since you started and how did you recover from it?
EB: Well, for us, when we started working in Miami, our project was funded really quickly so we hired right away because the partner wanted to start the work really quickly. Honestly, it was our first time working outside of our pilot area and we really didn’t prepare properly, and in the end we weren’t able to have the impact that we wanted to have. We went in not knowing enough about the civic landscape of Miami so we weren’t really able to make sure that we were bringing the best services that we could to the city.
We still have really great relationships in Miami. The partners that we have there are brilliant. It was more about our inability to really adequately describe our service design and to make our services be the right fit on what turned out to be a pretty quick timeline. After our grant funding ended we decided not to renew it because we felt like we had hit so many road bumps in the first year that we didn’t really feel it was a great way for us to continue our work.
What we learned was that it’s necessary to do what we call “Phase Zero” research. We walked away from Miami with a repeated feeling of “ah, if we only we had known that six months ago.” So we started making a list of these things — the things we wish we knew in Miami — alongside a list of things that were really critical for our success in New York. Most of them ended up being about identity and attachment, as in the identity of the residents, attachment to place, and the residents’ various capacities. These were the kind of critical things that were really hard to identify in the fast-paced model we used in Miami. We came in as outsiders. We hired local staff but we didn’t really internalize their knowledge. We basically realized that this kind of work doesn’t have an “off the shelf” kind of solution, so we started Phase Zero, which we use today.
IDH: What does that look like in practice?
EB: Phase Zero is essentially very preliminary research. We do a ton of internet research on the city: We read recent stories about it, try to find out historic information about what’s happening in the city in order to understand how changes happen, what’s going on with the administration, who are the key non-profit leaders, how the residents and the government work together (or don’t). Then we do a long interview process with civic leaders and the neighborhood guilds — for a really quick-and-dirty Phase Zero this could mean interviewing ten people from a target neighborhood that we’re working with, but if we expect to be working somewhere for a few years we might interview something like 60 people.
In our Memphis Phase Zero, for example, we learned that there’s a lot of different fiscal sponsors but none of them were very formalized. We also learned that in very large neighborhoods broadband companies had tried to bring free internet but it didn’t work because a lot of residents didn’t own home computers or they didn’t have credit cards. It’s uncovering this kind of information in our Phase Zero that completely changes the way we work in a place. In our first year in Miami we supported 17 projects and brought in a total of about $44,000 in citizen philanthropy, but in the first year in Memphis we supported 92 projects and brought in $273,000 in citizen philanthropy.
The Phase Zero basically becomes the blueprint for our implementation plan going forward in that city. Our “failure” in Miami is what caused us to start doing this work and it has helped a lot. Now Phase Zero helps us understand what we were getting into and which of our strategies and services are going to be most needed. We did Phase Zero again for Detroit and our Cleveland Phase Zero is nearly finished. Each of these processes have really helped us understand what’s going on directly from the residents rather than just getting a briefing from a city-wide organization or agency.
IDH: Do you share your Phase Zero results with your partners?
EB: Yes we do — we call it “ground-truthing.”
IDH: What are the kinds of reactions you get — are people stunned or do they typically have a sense that it’s right?
EB: The simplest way to say it this is that the people who work for us — the people from the neighborhoods — are usually the ones most surprised by what we find. I think that it’s really easy to be isolated in your own neighborhood — I live in Brooklyn but I might not know anything at all about what’s going on in Queens just because it’s really outside of my purview. In that vein, somebody who’s a really active president of their neighborhood association might know everything about their neighborhood association and nothing about the one next door. For the most part, the people who work city-wide and on policy tend to be the furthest away from actual interaction with residents and therefore are usually the ones most surprised by what we find. The reverse is that the people who work closest to the ground are usually not at all surprised.
IDH: Is Phase Zero also your vetting process, to some degree, when deciding whether or not to go into or partner with a neighborhood or a city?
EB: To some extent. We feel like we have a really strong model and, in some ways, it’s an opportunity for us to say “Maybe IOBY isn’t the best fit for this city,” or “Maybe the city isn’t the best fit for IOBY,” but I think usually before we’ve gotten to that point we already know if it is a good city for us to be working in. I guess Phase Zero helps us to understand really detailed information about the specific challenges we’ll be encountering after we’ve decided to work there.
IDH: Since you guys work closely with so many individual change-makers on the ground, I wonder what some of the failure-based lessons are that you’ve learned from witnessing, supporting, or observing them?
EB: I think the number-one thing that we see time and again is as soon as a person wants to be the only leader on their project — when they’re not willing to partner with other people or build out their team — it’s just a major red flag for us immediately. Our work is really grounded in community development so when we see a solo leader who isn’t really giving anybody an opportunity to engage with them, it’s a pretty easy indication that that the project isn’t going to go very well. It’s like all other things — the power of having the crowd is about getting people to enroll in it through a sense of ownership over the work. They become champions for you, but you’ve got to give them an opportunity to be involved. These people are there because they really care about their block and they really do want to work together to make positive change, but they need an opportunity to do that.
IDH: Any last words of advice in terms of overcoming challenges and confronting failure, possibly for people who want to start their own projects?
EB: I would tell them to look for words of advice from people who you think are smarter than you. That’s what I always do. We’re really lucky to have a really great board of directors and we have another team of advisers called the Committee for Awesome Ideas — they’re just generally smart people doing great work in all of our fields, who were really excited to have the opportunity to answer our questions. We lean on them pretty heavily to help us whenever we’re going through challenging times. So learning to lean on people who you admire and think are smart is always a good thing to do.
Other than that, I think being super transparent about what you’re doing and why is crucial. Be transparent if you’re trying to do something for the very first time, and talk about the way the way that you hope it will go, and that you can’t necessarily be sure of all of the outcomes. That level of transparency in our work has been useful so far, and I think especially for anybody who’s doing a new type of project and breaking out into a new field, which a lot of our IOBY leaders are doing; they’re creating things that are pretty revolutionary. When you’re wading into unknown territory, people respect you more when you bring honesty to that conversation.