ioby was founded in 2008 in order to make it easier for local leaders to gain the funding, knowledge, and resources needed to make positive change on a local level. For the past ten years we've worked alongside more than 1,600 passionate, committed community leaders and have watched as small projects have turned into larger initiatives and collaborations have become movements.

We want to take a look back at the past ten years, and tell some of our favorite stories of positive neighborhood change. We want to know: what kind of things can start with a conversation, a neighborhood meeting, a few dollars raised?

For the next ten months, we'll be checking in with leaders nationwide, past and present, and rolling these stories out. Thanks for reading!



5. The Firefly Trail

Northeast, GA, 2017-Present

After living in Fort Collins, Colorado for 18 years, Ivette Bledsoe knew that having a community where she could bike and walk was really important to her. Being able to walk out the front door and bike anywhere she needed to get to in her community, and having neighbors that deeply valued that as an asset as well, helped make the town feel like home for so long.

So when she and her husband—both born and raised Georgian’s—moved back to Georgia in 2016, she knew that one of her first tasks would have to be finding the physical and social infrastructure that would let her continue that lifestyle. That search led her to the Firefly Trail, at the time less of a trail and more an ambitious idea backed by a group of neighbors and residents who shared Ivette’s love of the outdoors.

The idea is to turn the abandoned Georgia Railroad train tracks that run from Athens to Union Point in Northeast Georgia, which have sat dormant since 1984, into a multi-use trail that bikers and pedestrians from across the region can enjoy. It’s an ambitious idea that's lingered for nearly two decades. Ivette is part of a nonprofit citizens group called the Firefly Trail Inc., after the name they hope to give to the eventual trail. They hope to revive that idea, and build out a 39-mile long multi use path that would thread communities together, and reshape how people get around the region. 

“There is a pretty passionate biking and pedestrian community in Athens, and a local chapter of Rails to Trails in Athens. It’s kind of one of those things where it’s like the perfect mix comes together. And because there’s large interest, and the Rails to Trails group is here, together that ignited the idea of going ahead and turning the abandoned Firefly rail bed into a Rails to Trail. Then a local citizens group was initiated, called the Firefly Trail incorporated. And that’s us, that’s the board.”

Building a model mile

After years of little movement, a few years ago a grant from the Department of Natural Resources finally became available–coming through the pipeline after having been allocated years prior–to build a model mile in Maxeys, a town along the path of the trail. At the same time, Union Point and Athens were also gearing up to put in a model mile along their section of the trail. By early 2017, the pieces were finally coming together, thanks to the hard work of the Firefly Trail in supporting local governments as they applied for grant funding for a model mile of the tail. But, they were short of matching dollars to unlock the money set aside for the model mile, to the tune of $60,000. Without it, they would miss this critical opening to jumpstart the project, and the project would stall once again.

So Firefly’s board looked for options to raise the cash. “You know, there are only several ways to get funding for trails,” Ivette said. The obvious options might be to raise tax dollars, apply for federal funding, or apply to grant makers like foundations. But all of those avenues come with hurdles you have to jump through, and they often take a lot of time, two things Firefly couldn’t afford. “We needed the money quickly. We needed it to come with no strings attached.”

Crowdfunding rose to the top as the best fit. They could raise exactly how much they needed, as fast as they could rack in donations, and with very few hurdles to jump through. The board looked to Ivette and asked if she could take on the project of organizing a crowdfunding campaign to raise the match funds they needed. “I was kind of a bit naïve and full of inspiration and not really understanding the project’s history,” Ivette said. “But I just said ‘okay,’ because I could tell that the board was super committed and super motivated. And I felt like those were just the two main ingredients that was needed.”

It also had the added benefit of getting real commitments from real people to the project. The model mile, and their crowdfunding campaign, was only the first step along a 39-mile trail. They knew that that fall they wanted to go to the County–and to the voters–to raise a big chunk of the rest of the money for the Firefly trail’s construction through a transportation tax known as a TSPLOST. Crowdfunding from hundreds of community members could help make that easier.

Firefly Trail ioby

It was a bit of a moonshot, and Ivette had never run a crowdfunding campaign before, but she was up to it. “I just started researching, and researching, and researching. I specifically researched crowdfunding projects that were successful for biking and trail infrastructure. That’s when I came across Aylene McCallum in Denver.” They spoke with each other on the phone, and Aylene shared her own story of crowdfunding with ioby to raise over $30,000 existing funding to build a protected bike lane. Aylene’s success energized Ivette, and helped solidify her team’s decision to choose to work with ioby, in part because of the support and guidance that ioby provides project leaders.

So the board came together, drew up lists of people they knew they could ask for donations, and started making calls in February 2017. It worked well at first, and in the first few months they had raised thousands of dollars. But, like some other big-ticket campaigns, they hit a slump and couldn’t seem to raise more money. So Ivette called up Christina, her ioby Leader Success Strategist, for advice and Christina offered to conference call into their board meeting to do a training with her team. “I’ll tell you, it was like she mesmerized them,” Ivette says. “I mean she got through to them, the importance of how to make an ask, and she had some different strategies of doing that. It was just wonderful.”

The board came out of that meeting with a new sense of purpose. “I remember a board member spoke up, and he's quite a leader on the board, and he just said ‘We don't stand a chance for that TSPLOST if this campaign is not successful. We cannot go and stand proud and say, “Look at what the citizens want,” if we don't have a successful campaign. The two have to go together, they work together. The TSPLOST is dependent on crowdfunding being successful.’ We just all knew what we had to do at that point,” Ivette recalled.

The team dug deep into fundraising through their networks, leaning on their training with Christina, and it paid off; they pulled out of the slump and picked up momentum. “You know, it doesn’t seem like we did anything outrageous. We just kept using the tools,” Ivette said.

Following ioby’s advice, they also didn’t lean heavily on social media for fundraising, instead making most of their asks over the phone and in person. Instead, they got volunteers to help create videos and other content and to share information and constantly report out success through social media. “A volunteer put together a video that really just… It was one of those videos that was short and it was a feeling of, ‘oh my gosh, we’re going to make it,’” Ivette said. “We were halfway there and we only had a month to go, and it really did make you feel like, ‘I want to chip in and get us there. I want to be part of that movement.’ [Our donors] got so inspired because they saw us getting there.” By the end of June 2017, they had successfully raised a whopping $62,195–enough to match the funding they had, and to finally get started on the first mile of the trail.

38 miles to go

With the match funding secured for the first mile of the trail, the board turned to the next 38-miles. Even as they were fundraising, Ivette and her team knew that they wanted to get the Firefly Trail on the ballot, as soon as that November. With the hundreds of donations to the matching fund now secured, they had lots of backup to prove to the Athens-Clarke County Commission that citizens wanted the trail built.

“Boy, we used that to leverage,” said Ivette. “We used [the ioby campaign] to show that we were a legitimate project that was wanted by the people, that it was something that they were willing to pay for. This was a cry out, like ‘how much more do you want your citizens to do?”

The County Commission heard that message, and put the trail on the ballot for a TSPLOST, a special transportation tax, in November 2017. It passed with flying colors, and set aside $16 million for the first third of the trail, a full 13 miles. After four decades of the track sitting unused, and 17 years after the idea was first raised, the Firefly Trail was well on its way to getting built.

"This matters to me"

From the beginning, Ivette and the board got some push back for crowdfunding for the trail. It was ostensibly a public works project, and some were worried that it would make government shirk off some of its key responsibilities. But to Ivette, that’s a flawed argument.

“People would say, ‘You should never use crowdfunding to try to raise money for things that should be paid for by taxes—it’s wrong!’ But I thought about that and decided: no. Crowdfunding is not a long-term fix, but it is a way of saying, ‘This matters to me,’” she said. “It’s kind of like pushing the train a little bit so that it can get rolling. People feel a sense of ownership, a sense of pride to have been on the front end of that. You know it helps bring the idea to light and it also lets policy makers know that there’s enough people that care about this project that they’re willing to dig into their pocket and try to make it happen, or at least get it rolling.” 

This past fall, the first section of the trail opened to much fanfare. With pavement in the ground, they’re riding a wave of momentum to jump start construction on the Southern portion of the trail as well. But perhaps even more importantly, the process of crowdfunding and getting the model mile done was just the start of a group of neighbors and residents saying, “This matters to me.”


<< Back to more stories