Will Byrne
Ashoka Fellow since 2011   |   United States

Will Byrne

Will Byrne has developed a model, which he calls civic consumption, that allows individuals and institutions to leverage their collective purchasing power to shift markets from the bottom up, creating…
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This description of Will Byrne's work was prepared when Will Byrne was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.


Will Byrne has developed a model, which he calls civic consumption, that allows individuals and institutions to leverage their collective purchasing power to shift markets from the bottom up, creating a new, market-based path to create social and environmental benefits in their own communities.

The New Idea

Communities have a powerful mechanism for driving the clean energy economy, one that requires no sacrifice but instead aligns with their own economic interests as consumers: collective purchasing power. Pooled purchasing power is an untapped social impact geyser because communities are a) often unaware of their collective economic power; and b) currently have no way to leverage this power toward tangible local benefits. Will is organizing community organizations and citizens into collective purchasing networks, bundling demand for products and services in clean energy sectors. By aggregating a previously fragmented market for the first time, the model delivers deep value for clean energy businesses and service providers, who often struggle to find customers on the community level.

This new value for service providers creates powerful leverage for participating communities to see direct local benefits from purchasing decisions. In addition to decreased costs for clean energy services and deep environmental benefits, they can ensure that that new economic opportunities and revenues that result from their projects are retained locally and equitably. Will and his team began their work weatherizing homes in the Washington, DC area and have since built implementing partnership around this model in four other states. Since 2009, the organization has mobilized $2 million of investment in clean energy projects—resulting in over 5,000 metric tons of carbon emissions abated, over 40 new jobs created, and nearly $700,000 in energy bill savings for community members and nonprofits.

Will calls this model Civic Consumption—by purchasing goods and services that they need together, communities can not only save but also shift business practices toward local wealth building and environmental sustainability. His vision is for this model to be applied by citizen sector organizations working across a wide spectrum of market sectors, helping communities to build and apply their purchasing power to achieve sustainable and inclusive local economies.

The Problem

There is near universal consensus among climate change experts that overconsumption of conventional energy is one of the leading causes of environmental degradation. Increasingly, the world is witnessing the human impact of environmental degradation—such as the mounting physical, emotional and monetary costs of climate change as weather patterns change and grow more severe, and the health issues faced by individuals living in polluted communities.

At the same time, poverty rates in the U.S. have reached their highest rate in 52 years, largely due to joblessness. Overall, American families are worse off than they were 10 years ago, reversing the trend that each generation is better off than the one before.

These environmental and economic concerns are closely related; overconsumption of conventional energy represents not just the primary driver of environmental degradation, but also a growing threat to peoples’ economic security. For example, increased consumption of fossil fuel amidst dwindling reserves not only increases carbon emissions, but also increases the costs of conventional energy—both of which have been shown to disproportionately impact the poor.

Clean energy sectors—industries providing goods and services in renewable energy and energy efficiency—hold incredible promise in combating these interrelated economic and environmental challenges. The growth of these sectors offers the hope of new job opportunities and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. World events of the last fifty years have created some incentives for energy efficiency, such as the scarcity of resources during World War II or the energy crisis of the 1970’s. During these times, U.S. government as well as citizen groups banded together to conserve energy for the common good. However, these sectors have not grown at the rate needed to achieve scale for economic and environmental benefits, despite unprecedented investment by the Federal government and advocacy by nonprofit and labor groups in recent years. This stalled growth is due in large part to the lack of consumer demand in these sectors.

These interrelated pressures of environmental degradation and economic insecurity directly threaten the livelihoods of Americans in communities across the U.S. And while many people care deeply about improved environmental sustainability, increased job opportunities, and decreased poverty, their means to achieve these goals are often indirect and require a sacrifice of time or money. They are told, for example, that they can advocate for policy change or donate to service organizations working on these issues.

The clean energy economy holds promise in combating both economic inequality and environmental decline. However, unless communities significantly increase their demand for clean energy and energy efficiency, these promises cannot be realized at scale. To unlock this new marketplace, people need to directly experience the benefits of clean energy and energy efficiency services for themselves and their communities. It is this market gap that Will and his team work to fill through their civic consumption model.

The Strategy

Will’s organization, Groundswell, uses the Civic Consumption model to address the core problem of demand and uptake in clean energy and energy efficiency sectors by organizing institutions and individuals into collective purchasing groups for these products and services.

Will began developing the idea in 2009, when he and friends developed a pilot program, modeled on the community organizing tactics of the 2008 Obama for America campaign, to mobilize homeowners in the District of Columbia to weatherize their homes together and create new equitable jobs for D.C. residents. They were inspired by their initial experiences working on helping weatherization job training programs to serve D.C.’s homeless populations. They found that, while there existed many high-quality job training programs for residential weatherization work, the majority of graduates from these programs couldn’t find jobs because local businesses didn’t have enough demand for their work to take on new employees.

Will and his friends hypothesized that they could use community organizing tactics to create new demand for weatherization services; that people are more likely to take action to weatherize if the messages come from their friends, neighbors, and other peer networks. The original program relied on neighborhood canvassing, phone banks, community energy meetings, and social media to communicate with homeowners and move them toward a home weatherization investment.

Groundswell has continued to build on this core concept of applying unique trust within community networks to shift markets toward social benefit through two initiatives: the Community Power Project, which organizes nonprofit institutions to purchase clean energy, and the Strong Homes Program, which applies this model in the single-family residential market for energy efficiency.

The success of these initiatives has proven the ability of the Civic Consumption model to drive demand in clean energy sectors; create new incentives for businesses and energy utilities to generate social and environmental benefits locally; and generate revenue for continued organizing work.

The model drives demand through a community engagement approach that leverages the economics and psychology of pooled purchasing to achieve scale—as the purchasing group increases in size, the savings for each individual participant increases as well. This incentivizes participants to grow the size of the group to achieve maximum savings, thus tapping into their powerful role as peer messengers to recruit new participants.

For example, when Groundswell launched its first Strong Homes Project in Silver Spring, MD, 100 percent of the homeowners who committed to weatherize followed through with a weatherization project. Equally compelling, the group actually grew in size as the project progressed, as additional homeowners in the neighborhood learned about the benefits of the group purchase.

The model relies on partnerships with regional and municipal membership-based institutions to grow interest and participation, with these networks activating their individual members to purchase clean energy and efficiency services as a group. Their effort to leverage community infrastructure and membership networks creates the potential for sweeping consumer behavior change, because leaders within networks are driving the messaging about energy behavior and recruiting their peers to join the group.

Once a purchasing group has formed, Groundswell uses a Request For Proposals (RFP) to bid out projects. The RFP emphasizes community development requirements—applicant businesses must demonstrate how their operations will grow community wealth, by supporting local development initiatives, creating new job opportunities, and driving local and disadvantaged enterprise growth. The purchase group reviews bids and selects the winning contractor based on the quality of service, value of discounted price, and the contractor’s commitment to social goals such as supporting disadvantaged businesses and investing in community development projects. By creating an open bid in the marketplace, the model leverages competitive forces to ensure that participants receive not just the highest quality services, available for the greatest community value. Participants benefit from discounted prices and community investment while also supporting the growth of emerging clean energy sectors and increasing the market share of disadvantaged businesses.

The RFP approach has already begun to yield benefits for disadvantaged businesses in D.C. For example, Groundswell recently issued an RFP for a Strong Homes Project with 14 homeowner participants in one neighborhood. The winning bid consists of a partnership between a well-established home performance contractor and a minority-owned community-based enterprise. This partnership resulted directly from the RFP structure, and will directly increase the flow of resources to disadvantaged populations within the D.C. community.

As compensation for the aggregated customers delivered to clean energy businesses, Groundswell charges service providers a percentage-based fee in order to offset the costs of its program’s operations and organizing efforts of membership-based partners. This generates a sustainable source of revenue for future collective purchase projects. In 2011, Groundswell generated $40,000 in earned income from its role as a project aggregator, all of which is cycled back into operating costs for itself and community partners.

Groundswell has extended its model across three states through deep partnerships with community organizations, and is in dialogue with potential partners in additional cities interested in the novel strategy for community development and sustainability.

While clean energy sectors offer a high impact space to apply Civic Consumption, the model has potential for transformative change in other markets. In order to realize broad landscape change, Will aims to build on the success of this model’s application in the clean energy space to pioneer, grow, and leverage a new field of civic consumption. This field would support a wide range of mission-based organizations and membership groups, working across a spectrum of social issues and services, to apply collective economic power to grow community wealth and sustainability on the local level.

The Person

Although Will had a comfortable childhood, his mother’s work as a public defender exposed him to gross inequality at a young age. Unlike most of his classmates, at the age of 10, Will was already preoccupied with such systemic failures as mandatory minimums around petty drug sentencing. This awareness of deep inequities helped shape his current worldview. Will also drew great inspiration from his older brother John, whom he says was his idol growing up. Will describes John as an indefatigable entrepreneur with whom he created a local music videos, and opened a mini golf course in the woods behind their house for which they charged admission. The act of creating enterprises over and over again made an impact on him. Will’s brother once told him “you have to create the reality you wish to live out,” an adage he has lived by since.

It was this mindset, and the chance to be on the front lines of making social change, that drove his decision to join Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007. While the campaign would become a vast and centralized operation, the unprecedented scope of the organizing effort demanded creativity and leadership from its field operatives across the country. Will helped oversee organizing efforts in Michigan, and his region housed one of the largest universities in the country: Michigan State University (MSU). Seeing untapped power, Will honed a campus-specific strategy and with his team launched a social media-supported voter mobilization competition across student housing. This innovation, a quick success, was adopted by the campaign for major campuses across the country, and MSU ultimately saw 96 percent voter participation across the student body, the highest figure in the national election.

Will’s desire to drive new ideas and mechanisms for change stayed with him after the campaign. In the weeks following the campaign, he moved to D.C. under the ostensible goal of working for the Obama Administration. It was during this time that he and other former campaign members confronted the problem of D.C.’s high poverty rates, and they determined to figure out how trust among social networks could be leveraged to further transform social structures. He was particularly interested in how the citizen sector could leverage lessons he had learned on civic engagement to harness market power that could drive community wealth. He determined to translate those lessons to drive demand in clean energy sectors and make economic growth more inclusive and democratic.

Soon after President Obama’s victory in 2008, while he was in the very beginning phase of building Groundswell, Will was offered a job in the White House. Despite a lack of funding, structure, or business model, his desire to build a team and enterprise that could change the world eclipsed the appeal of a more prestigious and secure role in the government. This has been a path-defining choice.

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