Is the crowdfunding of public projects really all that new? As a Co-founder of Citizinvestor - a crowdfunding and civic engagement platform for local government projects - my team would love to take credit for this “new” form of civic engagement; but the truth is that citizens have been crowdfunding public projects since the Statue of Liberty made its way to New York City in 1884.
As Rodrigo Davies, a researcher at the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has uncovered, in 1884 with the statue due to be shipped from France, the United States government had only half of the funds they needed to build the pedestal where Lady Liberty would eventually stand. With the statue’s future in jeopardy, Joseph Pulitzer launched a call for public donations through his newspaper, The World. Incredibly, in just five months 160,000 citizens donated $101,091 ($1,091 more than was needed) to complete the pedestal and bring the Statue of Liberty to the U.S.
Today, we have a new word for this type of fundraising: crowdfunding. But in the 129 years since this impressive effort, human nature hasn’t changed much. Now, perhaps more than ever, citizens are eager to invest in their communities.
A recent project in the City of Naperville, Illinois bears a striking resemblance to that of the Statue of Liberty. On a beautiful Saturday morning in the Chicago suburb, Navy veterans were honored at the unveiling of the Spirit of the American Navy statue. Like the Statue of Liberty, the Spirit of the American Navy started without a home. The statue in hand, the City of Naperville and its partner non-profit, Century Walk, did not have the money they needed to build the pedestal where the statue would eventually stand in the city’s park.
The City and Century Walk had each committed $25,000 to build the pedestal, but this still left them $25,000 shy of the amount they needed to give the statue a place to rest. With nowhere else to turn, these partners turned to the citizens of Naperville, asking them to step up to fund the public good. Within weeks, citizens crowdfunded the remaining $25,000 necessary to honor the city’s Navy veterans with the new statue.
The citizens of Naperville aren’t the only ones donating dollars to public projects. To date, there are more than 145 government entities signed up for Citizinvestor, 20 of which have already crowdfunded projects. To date, 68% of all projects have reached 100% of their funding goal. What the citizens of New York started in 1884 is now gaining steam all across America - average citizens, passionate about their communities, are stepping up to fund public projects and services when government can not.
The Statue of Liberty is known as a symbol of freedom, but I submit that it is also a symbol of the deepest form of civic engagement - citizens so committed to the continued creation of their cities that they are willing to put their money where their hearts are for the public good. As Citizinvestors in the greater Chicago area and across the country are showing, that spirit of civic generosity is alive and thriving across the U.S. today.