ioby inspires backyard environmentalism through online community

Ioby uses tactical urbanism as a short term or small scale transformation of public space,

How does one person change the world?

Global issues like resource depletion, air pollution, and climate change can feel daunting and even paralyzing to an average citizen wanting to somehow help the environment.

To address this feeling of disenfranchisement, three graduates of a master’s program at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies started an environmental organization called ioby in 2008 to ignite collaborative, hands-on neighborhood engagement.

Erin Barnes, Brandon Whitney, and Cassie Flynn created this New York City-based nonprofit as an online space for residents to raise money and connect with resources to implement community change.

Through setting up an account with ioby, an individual or organization can generate funds and locate volunteers. The projects are interesting and varied, ranging from small gardens to bike jewelry to composting toilets. Donors can read project descriptions, view maps of their locations, and receive follow-up information once the projects have been carried out.


So far, 162 projects have been successfully funded, amounting to a total of $382,803 in donations. The average project donation is $35.

Co-founder and Executive Director Erin Barnes says, “I think contributing $20 to $30 to a project in your neighborhood is a pretty small action (but) when taken in aggregate, that’s where the movement is.”

Donors, on average, live two miles or less from the projects they fund. This aligns with ioby’s mission of deepening civic engagement by providing a space for ideas and resources to connect.

ioby differs from online sites like Kickstarter in its 501(c)3 not-for-profit status, which means donations are tax deductible. Projects must have a specific environmental angle and focus on positive change. Unfunded projects expire after seven months, but ioby has a flexible policy towards budget revisions.

Projects with budgets over $1,000 are charged a $35 fee for the materials and labor that ioby dedicates. A 3% 3rd party credit card processing fee also applies to all projects and NYC projects may use ioby as a fiscal sponsor for a 5% fee. Donors have the option of adding a 20% gratuity, which goes towards ioby’s operating expenses.

Each year sees new trends. “I would say that last year was the year of the chicken. Everyone just wanted to start getting hens,” says Barnes. This year’s trend is tactical urbanism, which she describes as, “using a short term or small scale transformation of public space to demonstrate the way that public space could be transformed permanently.”

One prominent example of this is in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens where there are 14,000 people per acre of open space. Because Jackson Heights only has one park made of concrete, a group of children and parents stepped forward to create the Jackson Heights Green Alliance. In 2010 they used a Play Street Permit from the Department of Transportation to temporarily shut down traffic on 78th Street  for a few weekends, replacing it with a playground. In 2011, the group raised $3,400 to have the street closed and the playground up for a whole summer; this past summer of 2012 they raised $6,000 to do it once again. Because of its success, the street will now be permanently closed to traffic with the playground in place.

ioby serves as a tool for low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities. While created for and largely focused on New York City, ioby has now gone national, supporting projects across the country. This brings a new set of challenges and goals.

“Because relationship to place is so important to ioby, it will be interesting to see if we need to be in places to really support projects,” says Barnes. She insists the focus will continue to be on small-scale, tangible efforts that will collectively create lasting change.

Barnes recently visited Portland to discuss urban planning and crowdsourcing at the Ecodistricts Summit, hosted by the Portland Sustainability Institute. “I think that environmentalists can care about a lot of different things but the thing that makes you feel connected is the place…it’s not that we just we want to protect a certain stream, it’s because that place is important and has value. I think that’s a tie throughout the environmental community,” she says.