Philly4Philly, a crowdfunding platform by Citizen Effect, launched last summer with the goal of connecting local nonprofits with a broader field of donors. Less than a year later, it was gone. We asked Citizen Effect’s founder Dan Morrison to tell us what happened, what he learned and what he’s doing now. His answers have been edited for length.
What happened to Citizen Effect and its local projects?
Citizen Effect, like every non-profit, had to raise money for its own operation. We were building an earned revenue stream through operations, which typically came from tips that people gave when they donated to one of our projects.
We reached the point where we [realized] there were competing platforms out there and we were not growing quickly enough to be able to become a self-sufficient organization. We did the calculus and said it is probably the right time for us to wind down our operation and put our efforts toward other projects where we think we can get more bang for our buck from a social good standpoint.
Detroit4Detroit came first. Why did you choose to expand?
Startups get to the point where they need to show that what they’re doing can replicate and scale. It put the pressure on us to take the Detroit model and template, take international work that we had done and quickly go into a new location and prove that it works with less effort than it took to do Detroit. So we went into Philadelphia and tried to do it quickly.
Philly was chosen for the availability of Knight Foundation funds. How did things go with them?
We had launched Detroit4Detroit and then Philly4Philly and the Knight Foundation was on board to continue. They were phenomenal in the whole process and even at the end when we were going back to talk about what the next stage of funding should it be, they understood. They said “great, let’s double down on Detroit. Let’s go to Detroit and learn more so that we can then replicate and scale this thing. It can be done with a little bit more local thought.”
From our Partners
But we looked into the crystal ball and said [Detroit4Detroit and Philly4Philly] are not going to be big enough for us to drive the volume that we need to stay afloat.
What was different about Philadelphia?
We knew from the get-go that cities are different. We went into Detroit with a game plan; we went into Philadelphia and applied the general game plan and then tried to quickly learn about the local tweaks [needed] in Philadelphia.
In Philly there’s a much greater nonprofit presence. It seemed to be a much more traditional and established nonprofit market and therefore, totally understandably, a “prove it to us” approach. Unlike Detroit — where people took it as their own thing and ran with it and promoted it — Philly was much more “wait and see if Citizen Effect can drive volume and traffic to Philly4Philly and the participating nonprofits.” [They probably thought] we were going to be able to drive a lot more organic traffic by ourselves to their organizations than we could. And that’s not a criticism at all. It’s more of a criticism of Citizen Effect and making sure you know the market.
The lesson from Citizen Effect is that this is not a field of dreams — build it and they will come or post it and they will donate — situation.
What made you decide to pull the plug?
One of my biggest worries was [that] we’re out there fundraising and fighting for every last dollar. We know our non-profit partners in Philly and everyone else are doing the same thing so [we had to] make sure if we were going to continue, that we could deliver more dollars to our Philly partners and others than they’d be able to by themselves. I think that’s really where the equation broke down.
Was shutting it down a difficult decision?
There’s a lot of guilt on my part. We know when you go into places, especially like Detroit and also Philly, that there’s a lot of people that parachute in, do their one thing, say how awesome they are and leave. So when we left – not because it was not working in Philly, but because our business failed so we had to leave – that was very, very difficult.
As a founder, I realized six months before that if it doesn’t work then we’re done. I went through the stages of grief before everybody else so when it came to making that decision, it was easy for me, but it was very hard [for] my team, the board, our supporters, our funders. Typically your board and your funders are the rational minds. But there’s so much emotion being part of a startup that you’ve got to talk them through it and then get everybody to the point of realizing this is the right decision.
It was an awesome experience in Philly and just in general with Citizen Effect. We were heavy hearted to let it go, but I think it was definitely the right decision.
What would you do if you could do it all again?
Honestly, if I had it all over to do again, we would have doubled down on Detroit. We’d have stayed in Detroit, learned more, been able to grow and then on our schedule, taken the time to learn about the local particularities of Philadelphia. We didn’t have that luxury at that time. Our board and our funders were saying “we want to know if this works in two locations” which I totally understand. That was just the reality of what was happening.
Do you have any recommendations for other crowdfunding startups?
The lesson from Citizen Effect is that this is not a field of dreams — build it and they will come or post it and they will donate — situation. If you’re going to do crowdfunding, there is time, effort and expertise that need to be put into it to make it effective and successful.
The best partners for us were nonprofits that needed a new fundraising stream because they weren’t getting money from traditional foundations. I think that’s the key to success: making sure to choose nonprofit partners that are going to actively promote.
Another part is finding a few key citizen philanthropists or fundraisers at the beginning. I think of people like Clarence Wardell in Detroit who just took this as his own thing for [the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program]. Once they saw him succeed, [others] took their own initiative to go out and try to recruit as many citizen philanthropists for their organizations as they could.
The other piece is general awareness building around the campaign. One of the most successful campaigns at Citizen Effect I’ve ever ran was around the Japan earthquake. We had Lady Gaga posting it on her home page and tweeting about it. Bloomberg news, MTV, FOX picked up the story. Without that kind of partnership and weight that comes with respected people in the community, it’s really hard for people to even know that the opportunity exists.
What are you doing now?
I run a consulting firm called IMAGINE Social Good and the whole point of my firm is to work with social innovators to realize the good they want to see in the world.
My clients have no marketing or advertising budget. A lot of them come to me and say, “how do you do a crowdfunding campaign?” The education and the training that we were building for all of our citizen philanthropists at Citizen Effect is now the advice that I give my clients. Helping fundraisers is where the success in this whole thing is.
Would you ever come back to Philadelphia?
Absolutely. Would we do it in a different way? Absolutely. There would definitely be more prep time and there would be more understanding about how people in Philadelphia wanted to use the model.-30-
From our Partners
Testing a new Generocity
When ‘who are you’ isn’t an existential question, but a community-building one
Well City Challenge winner Hey Auntie! is a place where Black women can connect
Village of the Arts seeks to deepen and scale its impact as it reflects on its legacy
Recalibration of power: Building an equitable tech pipeline in Philly
How is your community better or worse than it was in February 2020?
What does education have to do with action — in the face of the climate crisis?
On June 17, First Person Arts and EMOC launch a virtual event they hope will shatter misperceptions of men of color
Big Brothers Big Sisters Independence
School-Based Program Coordinator, Mentor 2.0Apply Now
Big Brothers Big Sisters Independence
School-Based Program Coordinator (College Bigs)Apply Now
Sign-up for daily news updates from Generocity