As Tension Grows Around Private Donors and Public Spaces, Here's One Bright Spot

Amid tight city budgets and rising needs in urban centers, cities seek out new ways to raise funds in support of parks and public spaces, including attracting private dollars. That’s led to concerns surrounding big questions of equity, donor influence, and neighborhood displacement.

As a result, cities all over the country are tasked with bringing in new sources of revenue while maximizing public control and benefit. 


One emerging tool that’s shown a lot of potential with some strong upsides regarding public engagement is the idea of “crowdgranting.” It involves a Kickstarter-style crowdfunding campaign, in which a large group of small donors pool funds to back a project, and pairs it with a resulting matching grant from a sponsor.

There are many crowdfunding platforms out there, but one successful practitioner of crowdgranting for civic projects is a firm called Patronicity, which started out in Michigan and has since expanded into Indiana and Massachusetts. 

Patronicity takes submissions for civic projects that a community wants to see funded, vets and runs them by the sponsor, then provides support for a fundraising campaign to be matched by the sponsor’s grant. Patronicity takes a 5 percent cut, and a processing company takes 3 percent from all online donations.

In Michigan, for example, public-private partnership agency Michigan Economic Development Corporation first worked with Patronicity in a push to reactivate public spaces. According to Patronicity, the first year yielded 42 completed projects with a 97 percent success rate, making $1.26 million in grants to match $1.5 million crowdfunded. 

Funds have backed things like art installations, farmers markets, movie theaters, sports and recreation centers, waterfront parks, and community centers. The platform’s second geography, Massachusetts, offers backing from quasi-governmental MassDevelopment, and has so far funded nine projects.

Among the largest projects, a Michigan trails nonprofit raised more than $100,000 to purchase and convert a historic cottage into a trailhead information center. Another $100,000 project will fund a youth sports complex in Sparta, MI. They get pretty small too, with one Massachusetts project to create a beehive and wildflower garden for $8,500. 

While the sponsors so far have been state-affiliated entities, Patronicity’s Rob St. Mary pointed out on the Parksify podcast that there’s opportunity for a local program to be sponsored by a city or even a small foundation.

A crowdfunding approach isn’t the right fit for everything, and has some downsides. For one, there’s the fee that goes to the platform. The model also likely only works for a certain type and size of project. Running a successful crowdfunding campaign is also a lot of work and can be quite stressful. They aren't always successful either, and there have been some notorious (non-parks-related) Kickstarters that have gone off the rails. Presumably, however, that’s where the support and vetting from the company comes in, and Patronicity's success rate is encouraging. 

There’s a lot to like about this method. For example, it’s great that the project ideas come from the community and nonprofits, rather than some mega-donor charging in and building a gargantuan project. The application process opens up the number of people who can spearhead a project.  

The crowdfunding element also builds in a level of public buy-in. A park is less likely to go unused with hundreds of people who are paying a small amount to make it happen. Regardless of the specific platform, it’s encouraging to see approaches to local parks philanthropy that combine big donors with grassroots backing, and allow communities to drive priorities.