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Multiple states are turning to online crowdfunding to help fund community projects

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Across the country, crowdfunding is growing in popularity. Even cities and towns have turned to raising money online to help bankroll community projects. Sarah Lehr of member station WKAR in East Lansing, Mich., reports.

SARAH LEHR, BYLINE: The idea of soliciting small amounts of money from large numbers of people is nothing new, but websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have blossomed over the last decade, leading local governments to sometimes use crowdfunding to try to pay for things taxpayer dollars may not. A Rhode Island city that declared bankruptcy raised more than $10,000 online for trash bins. In St. Louis, the city's treasurer got donations from GoFundMe to remove a Confederate statue from a park.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICKLEBALL PADDLE STRIKING)

LEHR: And in East Lansing, Mich., pickleball players are using a government program encouraging crowdfunding to turn clicks into cash. They want to build new courts using a grant up to $50,000 from the state's economic development agency. The money's available for publicly accessible projects ranging from murals to picnic shelters. But here's the catch. Municipalities and nonprofits have to raise at least half the funding themselves from donors using the crowdfunding platform Patronicity. East Lansing Parks Director Wendy Wilmers Longpre says residents like knowing they helped pay directly for something they want. They don't always make that link to paying taxes.

WENDY WILMERS LONGPRE: When you pay your property taxes or income taxes, those go to a broad range of services. And sometimes, people really enjoy the opportunity to give money to a specific resource where they know exactly where their funds are going to go.

LEHR: Martin Mayer teaches political science at the University of North Carolina Pembroke. He's researched civic crowdfunding with a focus on where it's most likely to succeed.

MARTIN MAYER: It's generally not the largest cities, but it's smaller, fairly affluent, well-educated places for the most part. What it comes down to - the success is often linked to the group itself, how well the group markets these projects.

LEHR: And the process can raise issues of equity. Residents with more money and ample free time for planning gain an advantage. Since Michigan launched its initiative six years ago, more than 50,000 donors have funded 300 projects. Melissa Milton-Pung worked on the program through the Michigan Municipal League and calls it an innovative way for local governments to plug budget gaps.

MELISSA MILTON-PUNG: To get further down the list of the wants versus the must-haves, you almost always have to have some form of outside catalyst.

LEHR: And crowdfunding for some governments has become that catalyst. Michelle Parkkonen works for Michigan's development agency and sees it as a grassroots approach for improving public spaces.

MICHELLE PARKONNEN: Even if you do not have that disposable income, you can still be a patron by either getting the word out and assisting with those fundraising efforts or helping to build that local community support. It allows development to happen with communities versus development happening to communities.

LEHR: Ideally, it gives residents new tools to make changes in their communities from the bottom up. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Lehr in East Lansing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Lehr
Sarah Lehr is a politics and civics reporter for WKAR News.