Charity Begins at Home: Crowdfunding for Real Estate Agents

A start-up centered on a revolutionary new gardening tool. A detailed, complex board game featuring dragons, warlocks and other figures of fantasy. A philanthropic effort to bring clean water to a remote village in Central Africa. These are but a few of the many things you can directly support by contributing to a crowdfunding campaign.

“Crowdfunding” emerged around the beginning of this decade. Enabled by online platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, the movement allows people to promote their latest ventures — whether entrepreneurial, altruistic, social or cultural — and find potential funders from around the globe. The total amount of donations sought by crowdfunding campaigns can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few million, depending on the nature and scale of the program in question. And many offer interesting prizes and swag for contributing at certain levels.

No matter how esoteric your personal interests might be, you’re all but guaranteed to find crowdfunding opportunities in those areas. But what about your professional interests? If you’re reading this, you likely practice real estate. From that perspective, which crowdfunding programs should you support and what forms should that support take? Criteria for Crowdfunding Projects As real estate agents, your decision to get behind a project should come down to one fundamental question: Does this make the community in which I live and work a better place? (And it’s worth taking a moment to point out that this differs from real estate crowdfunding, which brings together a multitude of individual investors for the purchase and/or development of single properties.)

Additional questions you should ask include:

  • Will this have a substantial and lasting impact on my community?
  • Is this coming from an established and/or reputable group or organization?
  • Will this make the people who live here proud of that fact?
  • Would it make others want to live here?
  • Is this project true to my brand?

Even after narrowing it down, you might find there are still plenty of options to choose from — organic urban farms, wayfinding historical signs, community theaters, playgrounds, and so many other local amenities and attractions. Read on for examples of programs real estate agents should support and ideas on how to leverage that support.

A Public Art Project

Nicole Steinberg
Photo credit: Courtesy of Nicole Steinberg

For more than three decades, Mural Arts Philadelphia has created thoughtful and compelling public art throughout the City of Brotherly Love. It receives 30 percent of its annual funding directly from the city, and the rest through a combination of individual donors, foundations and other sources, says Nicole Steinberg, the organization’s director of communications & brand management.

“We’ve been working for a long time in a close partnership with the city to make Philadelphia a cultural destination and a better place for the people who live there,” she says. “All of our artists work with communities and neighborhoods around Philadelphia to create works of art that reflect their aspirations, their challenges, their dreams. Our founder Jane Golden calls our collection a ‘visual autobiography of the city.’”

Mural Arts Philadelphia recently ventured into crowdfunding in a big way with Monument Lab. The program, slated to run through Fall 2017, is the largest ever undertaken by the organization. It aims to redefine the ways in which people think about monuments, while also bringing Philadelphians together with the exchange of stories and ideas through art. It involves two curators, 10 sites, 21 artists and 21 temporary (for now) monuments throughout the city — all done at a cost of at least $50,000.

A work of public art created for Mural
Arts Philadelphia
Photo credit: The Times cocept design 2017 Tyree Guyton

To get the funding required to make Monument Lab a reality, Mural Arts Philadelphia launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year. Promotion included a polished, professionally shot video, a map of the sites, artists’ renderings of what some monuments would look like and more. At its conclusion, the Kickstarter campaign raised more than $54,000 from 432 backers. Beyond any prizes they might have received for their donations, contributors to Monument Lab can take satisfaction in doing something good for their city.

“This is a project that goes beyond public art,” Steinberg says. “It’s really important for this time in our country, when people’s voices need to be heard more than ever. You can make your voice heard through participation and engagement. It’s not just about looking at the artwork. The heart of the project is in its focus on equity, diversity, democracy and representation.”

Moreover, Monument Lab will have an impact on public art in Philadelphia for years to come.

“We’re keeping track of all the research and data from this project,” she explains. “It’s really public art meets history meets research. We’re going to deliver a report to the city next year, which will have recommendations and help inform what Mural Arts does in the future. It’s worth everyone’s while to be a part of it. By making a donation early on, you’re getting in on the ground floor in terms of access and information about the project.”

Creative Spaces

Marissa Lucero
Photo credit: Courtesy of Marissa Lucero

On the other side of the country, San Francisco fashion designer and education advocate Marissa Lucero has a dream. Well, two of them, actually: The first is to teach girls in the Bay Area and beyond about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) concepts through fashion design. And the second is to further integrate the thriving fashion and STEM scenes in this tech hub. To work toward both of those goals, she started Maker Studio SF with Suz Somersall and Elana Polichuk earlier this year.

“We are a group of women who are bringing communities together to make a change,” Lucero says. “We’re on a mission to use creativity to design the future.”

Maker Studio SF provides space for girls aged 8-16 to learn about specific topics such as fashion engineering and 3D printing and then apply that knowledge with hands-on activities. As they make, they learn.

“It’s fun, it’s creative,” Lucero explains. “We’re training in an applied learning style that allows students to relate to the curriculum and to grasp, on a visual level, how to make or build something. I have students saying things like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize fractions were so simple.’”

Participants enjoying Maker Studio SF
Photo credit: Courtesy of Marissa Lucero

Lucero and her colleagues recently set up a crowdfunding campaign for Maker Studio SF on Indiegogo to help meet rising demand. The organization needs money for low-income student scholarships, stipends for interns, and supplies such as sewing machines and fabric. At press time, the campaign, still going, had raised nearly two-thirds of the $20,000 it needs to grow in the immediate future.

Getting support from the community, whether in the form of contributions, promotions or donated spaces, has meant everything to Lucero. Jamestown, a real estate investing company, provided a space for classes in San Francisco’s famous Ghirardelli Square for six months. That kind of backing has been critical to Maker Studio SF’s success to date.

“For this to work, we need to provide space where they can be creative,” she says. “My initial project, which is My Fashion Design Kit, started at the community center. If it wasn’t for that local recreation center, all this would not have happened.”

What Can Real Estate Agents Do?

Of course, there’s always the option to donate money to the cause of your choice and be done with it. But if that’s the approach you take, you could be missing opportunities. If it’s a local organization or project, you can get directly involved by volunteering your time, donating supplies or spaces, serving in a leadership role, and other ways. This, in turn, can help you grow your sphere of influence.

And real estate agents and brokerages often have well-developed marketing and promotional capabilities. When it comes to these kinds of crowdfunding projects, you should share your involvement with the groups and organizations in question on your professional social media accounts, websites and so forth. Put aside concerns about grandstanding, and remember that as a real estate professional, you want to demonstrate an active interest in your community. These organizations definitely won’t mind the extra PR. If talking about your support of their mission leads to attention, financial support and participation from other people, that’s a win for everyone.

More Crowdfunding Possibilities for Real Estate

Here are a few more unique ways to support local initiatives through crowdfunding:

Rendering of + POOL
Photo credit: Courtesy of + POOL

A Community POOL in New York

A team of architects has an audacious plan for New York City: put a massive, multi-sectioned swimming pool in — not next to — the East River somewhere along the shores of Brooklyn. This large outdoor structure, named + POOL, would float on the river, filtering the water for swimming and also collecting important data on its bacterial and chemical contents. The group behind + POOL has raised close to $1 million so far, with some of that money coming from crowdfunding, and it’s expected to be installed and ready for use in about five years.

A bicycle map for
San Francisco
Photo credit: Courtesy of Mat Kladney

A Bicycle ‘System’ Map for San Francisco

In 2014, cycling enthusiast and then-medical student Mat Kladney came up with a simple yet clever idea. He developed an easy-to-read map of San Francisco’s bicycle routes, similar to the ones found on subway systems, to help his fellow bike riders navigate the city better. Kladney’s project, which covered over 200 miles and 17 bicycle lines, raised more than six times his original financial goal via a crowdfunding campaign.

Beer & Sausage in St. Paul

From eyesore to eatery: That’s what happened after Tom Schroeder of St. Paul, Minn., purchased a run-down, pre-Civil War limestone building in the city’s Upperton neighborhood. After doing some historical research into the property, he discovered it had started out as a beer saloon run by Anthony Waldmann, a German immigrant. To preserve this old structure and add some charm to the community, he renovated it with plans to take it back to its roots. Thanks in large part to a successful crowdfunding effort, this fall Schroeder will open the Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery, a place with craft brews, a sausage-centric menu and lots of local character.