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Economy & Business

Rally STL funds first two projects, adjust as they go

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Late last year, a new project set out to change the image about St. Louis through crowd sourcing and crowd funding. 

But as ideas flowed in to Rally STL, co-founder Aaron Perlut found they weren’t about image as much as internal civic change. So they went with it.

In January, Perlut hoped that Rally would help to fund three projects in the course of the year.

Last night, the group announced that the first two projects had reached full funding. It’s a milestone for the young project, but also a sign of an intentional flexibility. 

In the beginning, Perlut expected the projects to be funded mostly by interested individuals. But what pushed Food Roof and Cottonbelt: Mississippi Mondo Intervention into the funded column was money from corporate and civic groups with similar interests. 

Rally’s path so far is a reflection, Perlut says, of the way marketing works today, in real time with a necessity to be nimble. And connecting the larger funders as well as smaller ones may be necessary for future projects, says Mary Ostafi, founding director of Urban Harvest STL, the group behind the Food Roof.

Rally STL is among a handful of homegrown platforms working to harness crowd-funding, social media and civic change in St. Louis, including InveSTL and OverFundIt. Add to that the ever-popular Kickstarter, plus Crowdtilt and Indiegogo, is there room for everyone at the party?

Most involved think yes. And, in St. Louis at least, they’re getting more from the process than just money, too.

Rallying ahead

Rally STL’s formula works like this. People submit ideas, and each month, the top five vote-getters move on to the funding phase. Then, those ideas must reach full funding in three months, or the funds pledged go back to the pledger. 

Early on, Food Roof was one of five ideas to make it to the funding phase, says Ostafi. But every month, it got tougher as another five ideas made it to the funding round. Ostafi also felt some loss of momentum after the initial launch and media attention, but as her project has neared the end, that momentum has returned.

And Rally is to thank for that, she says.

Rally connected the dots, she adds, not just between people interested in making her project happen, but in helping align the project with a company that has similar goals.

“They very much played that role,” she says. “And I think going through the first round, it’s obvious that that’s necessary for these projects to get funded.”

Food Roof had a total goal of $25,000 for this phase of their project and about two weeks to go before their funding phase would end. Thursday’s announcement of the group’s success includes a grant from Bunge North America. Ostafi was asked to keep the amount confidential, but the total raised through the Rally process is $33,000, and Perlut said that Bunge’s contribution made up a “significant portion” of the Food Roof’s total.

“They really loved the mission of the Food Roof and wanted to be a part of it,” he says.

The other project to reach full funding, Cotton Belt: Mississippi Mondo Intervention, needed a total of $21,000. This project, which will give a new facade to the Cotton Belt Building that many see when they come to St. Louis, reached its goal thanks to some funding it got from individuals, plus an additional $10,000 each from the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, and the St. Louis Regional Chamber, for a total of $23,102.

Working with corporate and civic groups to help make ideas happen isn’t really a shift, Perlut says. Even before launching, they’ve sought out corporate support and seen themselves as regional facilitators.

Rally’s other news Thursday night is that they’ve signed a partnership to work with givver.com, a platform for social giving through Twitter. And finally, one project that has, at this point, just launched for funding, offers an idea that’s asking for just 25 percent of total funding. Magic House Installation at Lambert Airport has 1,500 square feet of space in concourse C at the airport, plus $100,000 pledged from the Magic House and corporate partners, Perlut says. 

Of course not every idea that’s made it through to the funding phase makes it. As of Thursday, 14 ideas were in the funding phase, 10 of which had less than 10 percent of funding. 

With 4 percent of the $15,000 for Lighten Up St. Louis, Michael Powers’ project is one of them. And, unless a big backer comes forward, he thinks it unlikely that the funding will come through.

“That doesn't mean that we're going to stop talking about the potential of creating a path for citizens to fund capital improvements in their neighborhoods that might otherwise be years down the line in city and federal budgets,” he says. “So stay tuned.”

Projects with a base of support in the community are best suited for Rally, Powers thinks. It takes a lot of effort and outreach to get through the voting phase, he says, and once in, a lot more to get people to give money.

“I worry that by the time you reach the second phase, you've used up a lot of your social media capital and followers of your project have tired of hearing about it.”

And the size of the projects may matter, too. Those that need $300,000, for instance, may not do as well as those that need less money, he says, as people see the large number and aren't confident they'll make it. Perlut’s noticed that, as well. 

But the group is not going to limit how much people need for their projects, or what kind of ideas are submitted, or from whom. So far, everything from the Food Roof to bringing back the National Soccer Hall of Fame has made it to voting. And, while willing to change course as needed, Rally’s not changing the core of what they’re trying to do, Perlut says.

“We’re here to give everyone a voice that would like one. And then the process democratizes itself. We’re not here to say what’s good and what’s bad.”

InveSTL and Overfundit

OverFundIt, a crowd funding project in beta phase that works to get money into the hands of “doers” in St. Louis and Fresno, Calif., is currently in a holding pattern and working on development behind the scenes, says co-founder Travis Sheridan. 

“Our launch date has been pushed back to June 22nd to coincide with a tech event in California,” Sheridan wrote in an e-mail. “The goal is to go live in both cites on that date.” 

InveSTL has a similar eye toward June, but with some large donations recently coming in, they’re currently 80 percent on the way to their fundraising goal of $10,000. At the next community get together April 25 in the Cherokee neighborhood, the group will go live with a new website, a new T-shirt, and they’ll introduce their grant application process, giving people interested enough time to pull a proposal together.

InveSTL’s purpose has been one of slow and sustained development from the beginning, and the first grant will be $2,500, says Karl Guenther, with InveSTL. 

To get that money, InveSTL will be looking for ideas that are built into broader community development initiatives, among other things.

The group continues to work with smaller donors, people giving just $100, who then have a voice in voting for the top five grant proposals in a funding cycle.

“We continue to crescendo,” Guenther says. “Let’s start something, and let’s keep building and keep making sure we can deliver on the promised we make and we can deliver on our aspirations.”

Room for all?

Despite a lot of work on his project and, right now, not a lot of funding, Powers’ feelings about the Rally process haven’t changed.

“It's a great tool for taking ideas to a broad, civic-minded audience and bringing attention to creative projects to improve St. Louis,” he says.

And for him, not all the benefits come with dollar signs.

“Lighten Up St. Louis has brought me in contact with a host of neighborhood groups and individuals that I would not have otherwise have met,” he says. “I've talked about this idea with a community development corporation, university, city alderman, and even interested residents. This open discourse about workable solutions to neighborhood level problems can only stand to benefit the city as a whole, even if some of the ideas do not come to fruition in the immediate term, or through the Rally platform.”

Ostafi feels the same. She’s met like-minded people in the community that she wouldn’t otherwise have met.

“There’s just been so much opportunity besides the monetary pledges,” she says.

Through the process, she’s met people in the green roofing industry who have given her ideas and advice that she wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Ostafi says construction on the Food Roof should begin this summer and hopes that part of the Food Roof will be functional in time for fall crops to come in. 

Rally will be staying with both funded project through completion, Perlut says. And like InveSTL and OverFundIt once they’re fully up and running, looking for more ideas on how to improve St. Louis.

"I think Rally is still being introduced to the public and exists within a competitive class of well known crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo," Powers says. "Once they get a few wins under their belt and folks realize this as a great model and platform for funding community projects, selling the ideas to funders will be much less of a challenge."

But is there the risk, that with so many options out there for giving, people could get tired and tune out?

Yes, Guenther says. But there's always that risk.

"Sustainability, saturation, and giving fatigue are always going to be an issue but we are about building relationships and engagement for short term and long term change. And we hope that everyone sees a place for themselves in Invest STL. People can engage with us for a short amount of time, a long amount of time, by giving dollars,  by giving time, or by giving a skill set. By having a broad set of ways people can engage with us, we hope people will choose an avenue that fits best for them and is a sustainable way for them to affect change in our region."

At some point, Perlut agrees, donors could get fatigued. But there are 2.8 million people in the region.

“That’s a lot of good that can be done by a lot of people that want to see our region progress,” he says. “I still think there’s plenty of opportunities to help.”

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