How they did it: Two Detroit projects draw on ioby resources to succeed

ioby is a community crowdfunding platform. In the past 10 years, we’ve helped more than 1,500 local leaders raise over $4.5 million to improve their neighborhoods.

But as proud as we are of these numbers, there’s much more to ioby than fundraising.

ioby is also a connector, an advocate, and an information hub. We offer leaders free guides, webinars, events, and more to help them build successful campaigns and win lasting positive change where they live. On and offline, we build connections that increase accountability and get things done. In the face of daunting bureaucracy, we can help you surmount roadblocks. We’re even known to chip in with yard work on occasion!

To illustrate how all of this looks in real life, we asked two Detroit-based project leaders to tell us how ioby Action Strategists Rhiannon Chester and Joe Rashid helped them shepherd their ideas from thought bubbles to reality.

Bagley Community Pocket Park

Detroit native Samoy Smith moved with her husband and three kids to the city’s Bagley neighborhood a couple of years ago. It wasn’t long afterward that she met Joe Marra, a self-described “tree guy” who had noticed a vacant lot he thought was ripe for reclaiming into green space. Samoy agreed, and the two of them took the idea to their community council. “But we found it to be a tougher sell than we thought it ought to be,” she says.

At first, the council agreed to use its nonprofit status to buy the plot from the Detroit Land Bank Authority, then work with Samoy and Joe to renovate it. But when the organization learned they would have to assume liability for the land, they backed out.

“We were like, ‘Oh no! What are we going to do?’” Samoy says. “So Joe and [neighbor] Vicky Sahami and I got together and said, ‘Let’s form a nonprofit ourselves!’ That seemed like the next logical step.” Samoy says it took some time, but Creating Space Detroit did become a bona fide 501(c)(3).

Shortly after attaining nonprofit status, the group embarked on the purchasing process. They had to submit a grip of paperwork to the Land Bank, including a site plan and budget, as well as a brief letter of acknowledgement from a local official.

“We figured it would be easy enough to get the letter from our district manager, but that just never ended up happening,” Samoy says. “We asked and asked and asked, and eventually we waited so long that our purchase application was denied! I called the Land Bank, and it turned out that they had requested a letter from the district manager, too! This is one of those times when I had a panic attack and called Rhiannon and said, ‘What do I do?!’ She said, ‘Don’t panic. Let’s call city council.’”

“Rhi and Joe were really great support. I could send Rhi an email or call her, and she would say, ‘Okay, I’ll call these people; I’ll talk to this person…’ Or I could just call her and say, ‘Hey, this good thing happened!’ It was great to feel like there was so much support.”

In the midst of their bureaucratic quagmire, Rhiannon says, “Joe and I worked with the Land Bank to move the process forward and overcome some politics. The acknowledgement letter ultimately came from Samoy’s city council rep. Finally when it was received, Samoy was able to purchase the lot through her organization and will be implementing this spring.”

The land itself cost $200, but Samoy and her team crowdfunded over $3,000 on ioby for things like liability insurance, construction materials, and building permits.

“ioby also helped our outreach,” Samoy says. “They walked us through doing a soft launch, which turned out great. We went door to door to invite people a launch party. Everyone had a great time and local businesses got to introduce themselves to the neighbors. That all happened because of ioby. It was a lot more than, ‘We made a website and asked people for money.’ It was much more than that.”

Earlier this month, Creating Space Detroit met with the National Organization Of Minority Architects, who are designing the Bagley Community Pocket Park. “Everything’s on track so far,” Samoy says. “We’re hoping to break ground in May.”

Building a Brighter Neinas

Amy Lazarowitz has taught science at Detroit’s Neinas Dual Language Learning Academy for 14 years. When she first started, there was a block of apartments across the street from the school.

“They were occupied; we had students from there,” she says. “Then they became vacant, and fires started on the weekends… The buildings would be smoldering on Monday morning! So we’d go over there and board the windows up; we’d have cleanup days; we were constantly making sure kids weren’t in there. One parent who was very active got it on the local news a couple times, saying, ‘Isn’t this horrible, to have this across the street from a school?’”

ioby Action Strategist Joe Rashid’s involvement with the property goes back nearly as far, to 2009. “Over the past few years, we got property owner information and contacted owners,” he says, “and when the Land Bank took ownership of the final vacant structure, the school mobilized to get them to take it down as quickly as possible with the help of their district manager.” After a groundswell of advocacy and buzz, Amy says a city crew came and leveled the burned-out buildings on the day before Thanksgiving 2015.

At the start of the following year, Neinas’ principal Natalia Russell “put everyone in one room to discuss what to do,” Amy says. “We had students, people from the city, people from the school district, folks from the neighborhood church… That’s when I met Joe.” From that meeting on, Amy says progress on the revitalization of the site snowballed.

Joe introduced her to the owner of another set of apartment buildings near the school—and also to ioby. After Amy and her Neinas colleagues crowdfunded almost $5,000 to rehabilitate the site, the landowner said he would put up some money of his own. “Then the school district said they’d put in another $5,000. Then the church said, ‘Okay, we’ll sell t-shirts.’ Then parents said, ‘We’ll have bake sales and put in man hours.’ I added in $2,500 from an award I won. Our partners at University of Michigan–Dearborn said they would put in some money. ACCESS, an Arab-American organization, provided thousands of dollars in supplies and over 500 volunteers last May. There were others, too! Once there was buy-in, everybody followed.”

Concurrent with their fundraising, Neinas teachers and a professor from the university helped students articulate their vision of what the land should become. “This vision for an outdoor classroom, naturescapes, a soccer park… it all came from the kids,” Amy says. “If the adults had had their way, it would have been a parking lot.” As of spring 2018, amenities like picnic tables and student art have been installed; Amy says the next steps are putting up fencing, then rolling out the soccer field.

“ioby wasn’t just a site to get money from, it was a person: it was Joe!” says Amy. “He came to meetings every month. When it came time to put the park in, he was there. He was mowing grass, he was digging holes. He bought into it with his blood, sweat, and tears.”

More resources to help you succeed

In addition to Action Strategists like Rhiannon and Joe, here are some of the many other not-strictly-fundraising resources ioby offers local leaders:

Free guides: Get tips on improving public transit in your neighborhood, starting an environmental project in your school, getting involved in racial justice work, and more with these handy downloadable guides.

ioby Action Corps: Our network of experts makes themselves personally available to ioby Leaders seeking advice and answers about how to move their project forward. Need help with communications, meeting with city officials, or, hey, some welding? Ask Action Corps!

Webinars: Browse our previously recorded webinars on topics ranging from large-budget crowdfunding to walkable communities, and look for new sessions to be announced.

Resources: Explore our Resources page for lots more!