Need Playgrounds In Your City? How About Bike Lanes? Citizinvestor Of Tampa Can Help

Tampa-based crowdfunding website Citizinvestor has reached a milestone in its history thanks to a project more than 1,000 miles away from its headquarters.

Last year, the city of Naperville, IL, needed money to install a statue of a Navy sailor in a local park. The rare six-foot tin-metal statue commemorates the spirit of the U.S. Navy.

Citizinvestor, a crowdfunding website focusing on public and government-affiliated projects, contracted to crowdfund one-third of the statue's $77,000 installation cost. The city and Century Walk, a nonprofit, each pledged to contribute another third.

In 87 days, $27,000 was donated to the "The Spirit of the American Navy" statue installation via Citizinvestor. That covered the one-third sought plus Citizinvestor's fee.

It was the highest fundraising goal a Citizinvestor project has met successfully since the business opened in 2012 and more than double the amount of the Citizinvestor project with the second-highest fundraising goal to be met.

Visitors to the site can choose a project they like and pledge a donation to it. The pledges are only deducted from a donor's account if the project meets its fundraising goal by a deadline.

Within three weeks of the Naperville online ask, the Illinois city installed the statue in its downtown Burlington Square, where a companion piece called "The Spirit of the American Doughboy'' already stood. The new statue was dedicated last fall.

"We're very proud of that project,'' says Citizinvestor Co-founder Tony DeSisto. "We think that it shows the civic funding market is starting to mature.''

Since Citizinvestor launched a year-and-a-half ago, DeSisto and co-founder Jordan Raynor have seen their start-up grow. The business's reach has expanded to include clients from the East Coast to the Pacific seaboard. As Citizinvestor's client list has grown, its services have expanded, providing more tools for getting projects funded.

Homegrown Problem Solvers

Raynor and DeSisto both have backgrounds in public engagement and politics.

Raynor is a sixth-generation Tampa resident and alumni of Florida State University. He served as executive editor of the Sayfie Review, a popular politics blog read by Florida's lawmakers, and worked as a political consultant. One of his jobs was at Engage, a political media company specializing in digital strategy.

DeSisto is an attorney from Rhode Island who has lived in Tampa for the past eight years. He ran for Tampa City Council in 2011 and lost. He then was appointed to a seat on the city's citizen advisory budget committee, which he still holds. In his capacity as a committee member, he noticed "all these great projects the city wanted to provide but couldn't fund,'' he says.

He went to Raynor, who he knew had the technological knowledge to create a funding platform, and the two went into business together to found Citizinvestor.

Both are married. Both were nervous.

"My biggest reservation was, 'Are people going to donate or not?' '' Raynor says. "We've been blown away.''

Creating A Comfort Zone

Citizinvestor seeks to distinguish itself from other crowdfunding platforms, like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, by allowing only governments or government partners to post projects. Citizinvestor charges a fee for the project, but it collects only if the project is fully funded. 

The business's scope has expanded since Raynor and DeSisto started. Initially, it was going to be city-centric, DeSisto says. But the focus expanded to incorporate county and state governments and their partners, such as nonprofits. The co-founders say they are now working on developing the company's first partnership with a federal agency, but Raynor says he can't yet reveal what agency or any details of the project.

Twenty-three projects have been posted on the website, and 15 of those have been fully funded. The eclectic variety of fully funded projects includes: an effort to provide blind kids in Massachusetts with technology, prizes for a Hillsborough County app design competition, efforts to restore the endangered San Mateo thorn mint plant population in California and the purchase of new garbage bins for the centerpiece park in a Rhode Island city that had filed for bankruptcy.  

More than 150 governments have registered accounts on Citizinvestor. The company has especially seen growth in interest in the past six months, DeSisto says.

"I think they're getting more comfortable with the idea,'' he says.

W. Brand Bobosky is president of Century Walk, the nonprofit that Citizinvestor partnered with to raise money for the "Spirit of the American Navy'' statue. He says Citizinvestor is a "very good concept.''

At first, he says, he was skeptical about working with an unfamiliar company and platform. But his organization needed money for the statue installation and had well-tapped local donors.
"What this organization allows you to do is, via the Internet, contact people outside your region,'' he says.

Citizinvestor's campaign opened up an opportunity for fundraisers to expose their project to potential donors across the nation. The fundraising campaign spawned a flood of press, including attention from the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Citizinvestor co-founders "know what they're doing,'' Bobosky says, adding that he would use the service again if circumstances arose.

"In theory, it could be used for any nonprofit fundraiser,'' he says.

An Evolving Resource

Citizinvestor's mission is to "empower citizens to invest in their community,'' Raynor says.

In that spirit, the company has added new features onto its websites that open up new opportunities to obtain crowdfunding projects. One of these features is an Ideas page. On this page, citizens can post their ideas for a project they want to see turned into an official Citizinvestor crowdfunding campaigns. Visitors on the site can "like'' an idea.

DeSisto says governments using Citizinvestor monitor the page, and a well-liked project might catch their attention.

For example, someone posted an idea for a dog park in Tampa neighborhood Seminole Heights on Citizinvestor. DeSisto says officials are now discussing how to fund such a feature if they want to create it, and Citizinvestor has surfaced as an option. 

Citizinvestor has also added phased crowdfunding campaigns. This allows for step-by-step fundraising for a project by breaking it into phases and holding a campaign for each phase. The client can also seek to fund multiple phases simultaneously. For instance, the city of Chickasha, OK, has opened a campaign to crowdfund the replacement of a playground that was demolished. That project is currently in phase one and seeking $100,000 in donated money for new equipment. Phase two is coming soon.

Raynor and DeSisto say they're focusing on productizing their services and expanding their client base. But they're excited they get to call Tampa their home base.

"As a sixth generation Tampanian, I'm very proud of that,'' Raynor says.

Alex Tiegen is a freelance writer living in New Port Richey in Pasco County, north of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.