Blog Post Jennifer Errick May 15, 2014

Got Milkweed? Crowdfunding Creates a Butterfly Effect for National Parks

An innovative new website helps people help the causes they care about.

Late last month, 30 middle-school students in Queens, New York, planted 200 new milkweed plants at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to provide habitat for one of America’s best-known insects, the monarch butterfly. Almost as remarkable as the improvements a few dozen students could make in just one day was how they got there in the first place—through crowdfunding help from 60 people most of them had never met.

Jamaica Bay is a 13,000-acre tidal marsh in Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City, one of America’s largest urban parks. According to Don Riepe, director of the Jamaica Bay office of the American Littoral Society, Gateway is “the seventh most-visited national park in the system, yet it has been neglected because of lack of funding and lack of public access.” Riepe has been leading the charge for decades to make improvements at Gateway and create opportunities to engage more people with the park. “Operation Milkweed: Save the Monarch” is one of numerous projects the American Littoral Society has devised to help restore key ecosystems around New York and New Jersey.

Riepe decided to try something different with this project, however. In partnership with NPCA and the website ioby (which stands for “in our back yards”), he launched Operation Milkweed as a crowdfunding project, inviting people around the country to help make the planting a reality—and support came pouring in.

Kind of like a Kickstarter for community-based improvement projects, ioby is an online platform that connects small donors and volunteers with neighborhood improvement campaigns. Many small nonprofits could put ambitious projects in motion to benefit their communities if they had just a little seed money to make it happen. To date, ioby has helped fund 196 different projects like these around the country by adding together thousands of donations averaging just $35 each. That’s a small price tag to become a hero to a local park—and a beloved butterfly with fewer and fewer places to go.

A few short weeks after launching the crowdfunding campaign, the American Littoral Society exceeded its $1,500 goal by more than $1,000—allowing the organization to not only organize a successful event at Jamaica Bay, but to expand Operation Milkweed: Save the Monarch to their Delaware Bayshore office in South Jersey and consider other sites in New Jersey.

It’s not too late to put a small donation to work that could make a big difference for a beloved park. NPCA is partnering with a second crowdfunding project organized by the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation that would improve a valuable trail in Baltimore using a similarly small investment of capital and volunteer power.

Parks and People has spent the last 30 years building vibrant green spaces in and around Baltimore City and connecting youth with nature through educational initiatives like summer camps, sports programs, and workforce development programs. The group was proud to help plan, design, and fund the Gwynns Falls Trail, a 15-mile path that connects various Baltimore neighborhoods with area parks and attractions, including the Patapsco River waterfront, a popular nature center, a skate park, ball fields, historic homes, and even a splash park.

People and Parks Associate Director Valerie Rupp enjoys taking her bike on the trail, which, she explains, winds through “everything from really dense urban forests to typical Baltimore neighborhoods covered in asphalt,” weaving needed green spaces through different parts of the city. The trail also provides a home for “a huge portion of the city’s wildlife.”

“We put a lot of sweat equity into it, a lot of fundraising,” she adds. “It’s a project that’s really dear to us because we’ve been involved in it from the get-go.”

Next month, Parks and People hopes to celebrate National Trails Day—and the organization’s own 30th anniversary—by working with 50 or so volunteers on a buffer restoration project to prevent soil erosion and clean up trash near a spot called Winan’s Meadow.

To make this project a reality, Parks and People launched a crowdsourcing campaign on ioby—and they still need help to make the project a reality. You can make a small contribution to get them to their $3,161 goal, or you can sign up to volunteer and turn the donations into improvements for the trail.

Adding a couple of bucks to a worthwhile project can give donors more than a passing sense of satisfaction. The American Littoral Society heard from one woman in her 80s who grew up in nearby Rockaway, New York, and has seen the marked decrease in monarch butterflies over the years with her own eyes. To her, the few dollars she gave was an act of hope for the future of her beloved park.

Learn more about crowdfunding projects at

About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.

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