|Learn how to promote action to tackle neighborhood issues.|
What do we mean by neighborhood?
What do we mean by promoting neighborhood action?
Why is it important to promote neighborhood action?
When should you promote neighborhood action?
How do you promote neighborhood action?
In Jacksonville, Florida, a neighborhood hosted 22 block parties at the same time. In Boston, Massachusetts, a neighborhood persuaded city politicians to use eminent domain powers to take over land for affordable housing. In Los Angeles, California, a community garden grew into a "Food from the 'Hood" project, where local manufacturers helped high school students market a salad dressing the students had created. In cities and towns across the country, neighborhoods are setting up their own web sites, with neighborhood bulletin boards, calendars, and chats.
These are just four examples of neighborhood action that gave benefits to the neighborhood residents -- benefits that wouldn't have occurred had individuals acted alone, without people coming together. In other words, neighborhood action counts. It creates positive outcomes for people. In this module, we hope to show how you can promote neighborhood action to bring positive outcomes to the neighborhood where you live.
Let's start by defining our terms, and suggesting why promoting neighborhood action deserves a Community Tool Box section of its own.
What do we mean by neighborhood?
Each of us lives in and is part of a neighborhood, but we may have very different ideas about what that is. We each frame in our minds an image of a "neighborhood " with certain characteristics -- positive, negative, or a mix of both. Take a moment to think about what your mental image of a "neighborhood" is, and compare it to the real thing, or to someone else's image. Also, think about the impact of these perceived and real images on fellow neighbors in pursuing a discussion on promoting neighborhood action. The image of a neighborhood that you frame in your mind may fit one of the following lists or be somewhere in between:
- Warm, open, friendly atmosphere
- Open communications among neighbors
- Clean, safe areas
- Bustling with activity, residents interact with other residents (adults, children, older people)
- Easy, walking access to needed stores and services
- Cold, closed, unfriendly environment
- Everyone keeps to themselves, no one talks to anyone else
- Filthy, crime-ridden streets
- Barren streetscapes filled with strangers moving about aimlessly
- No nearby shops and sources to address basic needs
Whether we are aware of it or not, what we do or don't do affects our neighborhood. The goal is to bring together the varying images of neighborhoods (real and imagined) to form a framework of action to make them something we all want them to be. The process of combining these images can start the process of discussion, assessment, and action planning. Promoting neighborhood action involves lots of neighbor interaction.
What do we mean by promoting neighborhood action?
We use the phrase "promoting neighborhood action" very broadly, defining it to include just about any activity that brings neighbors in contact with one another, or helps them appreciate their neighborhood more.
Often, such activity means neighbors working together for a common goal. That is, neighbors joining to clean up a vacant lot, or to get a crosswalk painted, or to oppose the construction of a new mega-store are clear instances of neighborhood action.
But so are smaller and sometimes less goal-directed activities -- getting to know the people on your block, checking on the elderly person down the street, or planting flowers along a median strip. These types of events, in our view, are also examples of neighborhood actions that should be promoted.
Why is it important to promote neighborhood action?
There's a long list of reasons. Let's mention a few:
- Neighborhood action is more likely to produce desired results compared to people acting individually. It would be much harder to clean up the vacant lot alone, or to get the crosswalk painted, or to fight the mega-store. The general principle is that people acting together are generally more effective in reaching their goals than people acting by themselves. There is strength in numbers.
Why is this so? Often, it's because neighborhood action involves exerting influence on decision makers (local officials, traffic controllers, private developers, police) to act in the neighbors' behalf. If the decision makers are public officials, they are more likely to respond to the collective voice of many constituents -- for they are accountable to those constituents, directly or indirectly. Even if the decision makers are private citizens, resisting the neighborhood's wishes may not be in their economic, social, or political self-interest.
- If neighborhood action is successful, it strengthens the chances of more neighborhood action occurring in the future, precisely because there was success the last time. Success is reinforcing; in this case, neighbors will be more likely to take on similar activities again.
- Success is not only reinforcing; it also brings power. Successful neighborhood action can make neighbors feel powerful, both individually and collectively. They may come to feel that their actions count, that they can control their own destiny. These feelings are inherently valuable; but what is more, outside groups may see the neighborhood as powerful as well, and respect that power accordingly. The famous community organizer Saul Alinsky once said: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have." He was right.
- Neighborhood action usually increases liking among people. Through neighborhood action -- through meetings, phone calls, e-mails, and bumping into one another on the street -- neighbors come to know each other better. They may come to realize that they are more similar than they thought before, that they have shared values and common goals. They will tend more to enjoy each other's company, and to seek it out.
- Neighborhood action usually increases trust. People feel they can rely on others for help, for tasks as mundane as feeding the cat when they are on vacation, or borrowing a tool, or just keeping an eye on the house. According to national polls, trust has been on the decline in American society. Successful neighborhood action helps to restore it. And when trust is confirmed, it is more likely to be reciprocated. If you do feed my cat, I'll be more available to water your plants. I'll then feel freer to ask you for something else later on, and you will be more likely to agree. Through this series of many small reciprocal actions, relationships get built, and neighborhood life gets strengthened.
In addition to trust, what we're describing here is an increase in social connectedness, the strengthening of the web of feelings, actions, and interactions that ties people together. Social connectedness has been identified by research as one of the main social determinants of health, and is and important element in the cohesiveness of society.
- Neighborhood action usually increases security. If you know, like, and trust your neighbors, you are more likely to feel secure where you live, both physically and psychologically. You will feel safer and more at ease when you walk down the block, or even in your own home, because fewer people are strangers, and you realize others are around to help you if needed. This sense of security is hard to underestimate.
- Often, neighborhood action simply makes us feel good. It can be wonderful to walk outside and see people you know, to greet them and to be greeted by them, to affirm others and be affirmed in return. A warm and vibrant neighborhood adds richness and meaning to life.
Researchers have recently learned that there are additional, and sometimes more tangible, benefits linked to neighborhood action as well:
- Neighborhood action can reduce crime. (Think of crime watches, and community policing programs.) Recent studies have shown that cohesive neighborhoods are associated with lower crime levels, with the further suggestion that the cohesion may be responsible for the crime reduction.
- Neighborhood action can improve health. Through neighborhood action, the social and interpersonal support networks in the community grow stronger. And researchers have learned that people who have strong support networks are not only healthier, they literally live longer.
- Neighborhood action can produce better outcomes for children. If "it takes a village to raise a child," the neighborhood is a modern day village equivalent. And there is research that suggests that stronger neighborhoods do in fact produce more resilient, more goal-oriented, and better adapted young people.
- Neighborhood action can stimulate local economic development. It's not just that neighbors can support local merchants, or attract local businesses. It's also that through neighborhood action neighborhood residents expand their available social contacts. Those contacts have economic value, especially if you know someone who might give you a job lead (or a job itself), or a discount on a product, or who can support your loan application, or handle your legal affairs. The simple principle is that the more contacts you have, the more likely you will know someone who can help get you what you need, or who knows someone who can. That pays off in dollars and cents.
For documentation on this and the above points, see especially Putnam, Sampson, and Schorr references in the Resources section.
This is a long list of potential benefits, but a very real one. Our list leads to the conclusion that neighborhoods are undervalued in American society, and underutilized as social resources. In both our professional and personal lives, many of us don't pay very much attention to neighborhoods. Perhaps we should.
When should you promote neighborhood action?
One could say "always," and that might be close to the mark, though perhaps too easy and too glib. Here's another way of looking at it:
- Some neighborhoods are strong, cohesive, fairly bursting with activity. They supply all the benefits we've described above. Though probably a minority, neighborhoods like this do exist. They don't need more action right now.
- Other neighborhoods are cold and remote. Neighbors hardly know each other, nor do they care to. They have no time for anything that might lead to another obligation: We've heard people say, "If I get to know my neighbor, he might ask me for something." Those neighborhoods, probably a minority as well, should profit from the right kind of gradual community building steps.
- In reality, most neighborhoods are somewhere in-between. The people living there may be cordial, pleasant, and willing to help out in a pinch. But their lives are in fact demanding, their obligations are largely outside the neighborhood or inside the home, and they don't pay much attention to neighborhood affairs. For these neighborhoods, which perhaps constitute the majority of neighborhoods in the United States, there is surely room for improvement.
But we can be more specific. There are some circumstances when it is especially desirable to promote neighborhood action, and these are:
- When there is a live neighborhood issue that is not being acted upon. We can define a neighborhood issue as a local topic that causes both concern and emotion among a significant number of neighborhood residents. Such an issue could be anything ranging from youth gangs to scraggly lawns, from toxic dumping to overnight parking. (More on "neighborhood issues" shortly.)
- When there is an outside threat to the neighborhood's well being. (Threats are issues, but usually arise from outside the neighborhood rather than from inside it.)
Threats could be anything ranging from a natural disaster (potential or actual), to a recent crime spree, to the threatened closing of a neighborhood fire station, or to a proposed reduction in local service.
- When there is such an issue or threat, and it is being acted upon, but not being resolved to the neighborhood's satisfaction.
- When there is conflict among some different groups in the neighborhood, about virtually any topic, especially when that conflict is deeply rooted or strongly felt.
In the examples above, there are prevailing issues. But in the situations below, there are not:
- When the neighborhood itself is new - it could be a new housing development or subdivision -- and when neighborhood identity is therefore weak, since people have not had much chance to meet one another.
- When neighbors, for whatever reason, don't know each other very well, and don't have much feeling of liking or trust.
- When there is simply some dissatisfaction or disquiet among neighborhood residents, either a vague or a more specific feeling that things in the neighborhood could be better.
It's not that promoting neighborhood action in these cases is absolutely necessary, for life will go on. Nor will it always improve neighborhood quality. It's rather that more often than not, if one goes about neighborhood action wisely, it can help make living in the neighborhood, and living in general, a little better. But how, then, does one do the job?
How do you promote neighborhood action?
The best way to go about promoting neighborhood action begins with your answer to the following question: "Do residents believe there is a neighborhood issue that needs to be dealt with and resolved right now?" While the preferred strategies and techniques do overlap, they are also somewhat different in each case, and we'll discuss each one separately a few screens further on.
But before doing so, let us introduce some general (and interrelated) principles you can use to promote neighborhood action that apply in either situation.
Some Preliminary Principles
Increase opportunities for contact among neighborhood residents
Why? Because when neighbors come in contact with each other, they will come to know each other better. More often than not, when you know someone better, the chances are you will like them more. The more you like someone, the more disposed you are to trust them. And the more you trust them, the more likely you are to act together with them in a common cause, a neighborhood cause, or otherwise.
In other words, there is a natural progression in human relationships, which goes from seeing or contacting -- to knowing, to liking, to trusting, to acting. When you increase the opportunities for contact, you stimulate development along the entire relationship chain.
By "contact," we mean the more scheduled kinds of contact that happen at neighborhood meetings and events. (See the examples following.) But we also mean the unscheduled contact that occurs among neighbors informally on the street, at the store, or in the park. Those unplanned contacts are no less important. But even though they are unplanned, it's possible to create a neighborhood climate that will facilitate those kinds of contacts taking place.
- You can help design physical spaces or structures that will promote contact among people. What would happen, for instance, if you built a neighborhood bulletin board at the park entrance, so that neighbors would stop and look at it? Or what would happen if more tables and chairs were placed in the lobby of the high-rise apartment building? Or how about some more benches around the children's playground so that parents, and anyone else, could sit and talk? (Town planners, or local businesspeople, might work with you on this last one.)
- You can hold events whose main purpose is fun (or fund-raising), but that also have the consequence of neighbors meeting and talking with one another, before, during, and after the activity. This is what happens at youth sporting events (e.g., peewee football, youth soccer), 4-H fairs, neighborhood picnics, PTA meetings, block clean-ups, church bazaars, tag sales, and _________________ (name your own event here) all across the country on virtually every day of the year. (For guidelines on holding such events, keep reading this section.)
- And once those contact spaces and opportunities are established, neighborhood -related services can sometimes be delivered then and there - which is why blood pressure screenings may be held in the common areas of senior citizen housing, or school band collections made in the little league bleachers, or volunteer sign-ups taken at the grade school fair.
Learn about your neighborhood's needs and concerns
Just about every neighborhood has some. And even though those needs or concerns might not call for action at this particular time, at some other time they could. They might become live issues. In any case, you will want to design and carry out actions that will respond to those needs and concerns; for in that way, more people will become involved, and more benefits will be conferred. So if you have a grasp of neighborhood needs and concerns in advance, you will be better prepared to act responsively and effectively.
Those needs and concerns, however, may not be obvious. Even if you know many people where you live, they may not be representative of your whole neighborhood. And even those neighbors you do know may not be motivated to be completely honest with you.
So how do you learn about those needs and concerns? There are many choices, ranging from simple to complex:
- You can talk informally to neighbors about what's on their minds. This kind of learning may be casual and non-systematic, but still very useful.
- You can listen to neighbors at parties, coffees, or other natural social occasions, those occasions depending on the local cultural context.
- You can keep tabs on such informal outlets for opinion, such as bulletin boards, flyers on telephone poles, and letters to the editor.
- You can attend public hearings and other meetings to learn more around what residents in your neighborhood are concerned about.
- You can piggyback a short informal survey onto a scheduled neighborhood event -- at the end of a scheduled meeting, for example, or a social function.
- You can organize your own house meetings or social events, which may then become a form of informal focus group.
- You can check with your town planning department or library to see if surveys of needs or concerns might have been done in the past.
- You can ask your planning department or other branch of local government to see if they might be able to conduct a such a survey, guided by your input.
- You can carry out a more structured survey yourself, if you have the time and resources to do so. Perhaps some students in a nearby college or university might be able to help you.
In learning more about neighborhood needs and concerns, you are not being asked to be a scholar or scientist, even though that kind of knowledge is useful. The idea here instead is to gain as much reliable information as you can, and (don't overlook this) to share it with your neighbors, so that both you and they will be prepared when it comes time to act.
Learn about your neighborhood's resources and assets
This is because neighborhoods not only have needs and concerns, they have resources and assets that can be used to address those needs and concerns. If you know those resources and assets, you can tap into them and use them when you are ready to act.
"Resources and assets" cover a lot of territory, including:
- The organizations and associations that already exist in the neighborhood (e.g., agencies, clubs, leagues, school and church groups, etc.)
- The physical resources and assets of the neighborhood -- both human-made (parks, playgrounds, schools, churches, clinics, stores, public buildings) and natural (forests, lakes, streams, rivers, beaches, harbors, temperate climate, clean air)
- The skills and talents of individual neighborhood residents. For example, if someone in the neighborhood is a graphic artist, that is an asset. Similarly, if someone has special skills in tree care, or tax law, or plumbing, or cake decorating, those are assets too. At present, they may be mostly out of sight. But if you knew them they could be called upon at the right time. The study of assets may be less familiar than the study of needs, but students of neighborhood life now regard it as increasingly important.
Here are some approaches you might take in learning about them:
- Informally: Walk around the neighborhood. Talk to people you meet. Without doing a detailed study or being intrusive, learn more about who lives in the neighborhood and what their interests are.
- More formally: Create a "capacity inventory" for the neighborhood, probably together with other neighbors or outside help. Capacity inventories are special kinds of surveys designed to learn more about the skills and abilities of neighborhood residents. There are many models for designing and using such inventories, several of which are displayed and discussed in Kretzmann and McKnight's A guide to capacity inventories: Mobilizing the community skills of local residents
As with needs and concerns, once you or others have compiled resource and asset information, it will help to share it with as many neighbors as possible.
One example of how both informal contact and learning about assets led to solving an important neighborhood problem
In one neighborhood where the local pond was becoming choked with weeds, but no one seemed to be doing anything about it. Local government was dragging its heels. But that same pond was part of a park where many neighbors walked their dogs. The dog-walkers started talking; and when they did, they found that one of their group was a landscape architect, another an environmental lawyer, another an amateur surveyor, and another an expert on fish. They and other neighbors pooled their collective knowledge; together, they came up with a plan that was better than the one the town had originally proposed. They lobbied the town to accept it, and finally the town did. Eventually, most of the weeds were removed.
All this contact development, and all the needs, concerns, resource, and asset information will serve you well when the time for neighborhood action comes around. The neighborhood will be less fragmented and more cohesive; and you will all have a stronger base of knowledge to build action upon.
But suppose the time for action has in fact now arrived. What do you do then?
When there is an issue
When a significant issue does exist in your neighborhood, chances are you will want to promote neighborhood action by addressing that issue, resolving it, and improving outcomes for everyone.
Much neighborhood action, and possibly most, takes place when issues are present. As we've suggested, most issues are dealt with more effectively when neighbors act together, compared with people acting alone. And to recap an earlier point: When you are bringing people together, it will always help if the neighborhood is already cohesive, if relationships among neighbors are already strong. Neighbors will then be more inclined to trust each other and act together successfully. That's why it's a good idea to stimulate neighborhood contact, for contact usually builds a sense of community.
But beyond that, here are some general steps neighborhood leaders and groups will tend to follow when dealing with neighborhood issues. Each neighborhood, leader, group, and issue is different; however, these steps may provide a framework you can adapt for dealing with the particular issues you face. (The following heading, "When There's No Apparent Issue," gives some further detail.)
Talk about the issue with those close to you
Those people might be your close friends; or those most likely to feel as you do; or those you know will get involved; or those whose judgment you trust and respect; or some combination of the above.
This is a preliminary first step. Its purpose is to learn about other people's perceptions of the issue -- they may well see the issue the same way as you do, but they might not. At this point, you want to listen to other perspectives, to hear different recommendations, to learn who might be willing and able to work with you, and develop some personal support. If it is truly a neighborhood issue, you want to feel some group energy behind it; you surely don't want to go it alone.
Sometimes a neighborhood association may already exist in your neighborhood. If so, this issue may be an excellent one for the association to get involved in. (In which case, talk to the members of the association at the very beginning.) But if not, it's quite possible that an important issue can lead to the formation of such an association, which may also deal with future neighborhood issues as they occur.
Call a larger meeting
Work together with your core group (which might include your neighborhood association, if there is one) to plan and carry this out. Publicize the meeting widely. Extend personal invitations to some of the most influential neighborhood leaders, and ask them to help publicize through their own friends and networks. The meeting, though, should be open to everyone in the neighborhood.
At the meeting, raise the issue once again
Your purpose here is similar to that in your first step, but this time on a broader scale. Tell people what you know about the issue, and ask others what they know; tell them how you feel about the issue, and ask how they feel. Your goals now are to exchange information, share feelings, and build support. Everyone with a point of view should be encouraged to speak. Getting as much information and feeling as possible out in the open will help you when it comes time to plan and carry out action.
Explore possible responses to the issue
It's good to get a number of possible solutions out on the table. Should we meet with a town official? Write a letter? March on city hall? Seek allies from outside the neighborhood? It's also possible to do nothing for the moment until the situation becomes clearer, or to wait until it changes of its own accord. These might all be options. Before you decide on the best response for your situation, you should hear different points of view.
Choose your response
What criteria should you use in doing so?
- The perceived importance of the issue
- The speed with which the issue must be resolved
- The amount of neighborhood support
- The amount of support from the larger community
- The perceived difficulty of carrying out your response, especially in terms of probable numbers of people needed, estimated time, projected cost
- The degree and kind of opposition you may face
- The perceived likelihood of success -- that the action chosen will get you what you want
So, for example, if the trash collectors have been leaving garbage cans in the middle of the street, a phone call may suffice. If police are slow in responding to 911 calls, that might demand a more forceful response. But if you hear of plans to close your neighborhood elementary school, you might consider, or you might require, a long-term and multi-pronged campaign.
Plan to carry out your response
Before acting, think carefully how you will go about it. Who will draft the letters, post the flyers, call the neighbors, and contact the media, if you choose these or other steps? It's quite likely that your plan will involve a combination of actions, rather than just one. But in any case, decide on the specific actions you will take. Divide up responsibilities. Put them in a timeline. As in any sphere of life, the quality and impact of your actions will be improved by a plan. The more complex the issue, the more this is true.
Act on the matter; implement your response
If you have discussed the issue carefully, gained neighborhood support, weighed your options, and planned your responses, your actions should have good odds of success.
Evaluate the results
What happened as a result of your actions? Did you get the outcomes you wanted? Were your goals achieved? Much of the time, the answers will be obvious -- yet sometimes, the results may not be entirely clear. Your success may have been partial; or you may have reached some of your goals, but not others; or it may take some time before the consequences are entirely known.
To help clarify this question, and get better feedback, you may want to take some measurements. Are people still complaining about the garbage cans? What about the actual response times to those 911 calls? And how do the neighbors feel now about the issue? -- that's certainly an important consideration. Measurements, the more objective the better, can supplement your personal observations, and help you decide where you should go from here.
If you have succeeded, you may want to congratulate each other and go back to normal neighborhood life. Alternatively, your success might buoy you to take on a new neighborhood challenge. But if you have failed, though you could simply quit, you might want to change your strategy, or redouble your efforts, or try a little of both. The conclusions you draw from the feedback you get, whether that feedback be formal or informal, will help shape your course of action in the future.
When there is not an apparent issue
The steps above should be valuable when there's a live issue on the table, especially when there's some neighborhood concern that may require swift and decisive action.
But suppose there is no such issue, at least not at the present time. Suppose things are going along reasonably well in the neighborhood, at least as far as most people think. Suppose crime is not a major concern, people feel safe walking the streets, town services are adequate (or even better), and nobody is complaining very loudly. Nothing seems wrong that you can put a finger on.
This situation is more common than one might believe. Not all neighborhoods have issues at a given moment, and even those that do don't have them all the time. In her studies of suburban neighborhoods (where about 55 percent of Americans live), the sociologist M. P. Baumgartner, in The Moral Order of a Suburb, concludes: "People shun confrontation and show great distaste for the pursuit of grievances or the censure of wrongdoing.... On a day-by-day basis, life is filled with efforts to deny, minimize, contain, and avoid conflict."
The absence of an issue, though, doesn't mean that neighborhood action cannot or should not be promoted.
Then how do you proceed?
- First, it's possible to get neighbors concerned about an issue, even if they didn't pay much attention to it before. That issue could be quite genuine, but just unrecognized. For example, residents might truly dislike the truck traffic rumbling down the streets after dark, or really want to replace the broken playground equipment, but might never have thought they could do anything about it. But if you raise the topic, and get people thinking about action, it can become a neighborhood issue. The prospects of success then grow brighter.
- Second, it's possible to bring neighbors together around common interests, rather than issues. For example, folk music might not be a compelling issue in the neighborhood, but many might enjoy it; so who'd like to get together and play?
No one may have talked about planting a neighborhood garden, but if you start the talking, all the gardeners (and maybe others) might say "What a great idea." Or perhaps new immigrants have moved into the neighborhood, who have a common interest in improving their English-language skills, even though they may not yet have identified that as an issue. Okay, then how about meeting once or twice a week?
- And third, sometimes you might want to bring neighbors together for other reasons, when the main "interest" or "issue" is enjoying each other's company. This is a perfectly legitimate and desirable way of promoting neighborhood action; for part of living together is playing together.
- So you can organize a neighborhood event just for the sake of having a good time. Your event could be a picnic, a street fair, a rummage sale, a band concert, a basketball tournament -- the list stretches on. The event doesn't have to be fancy or original or complicated; but it does have to provide some relaxation and fun. (Although you can also use the same event to raise money, or even organize around issues.)
Tips for Running a Successful neighborhood event
Successful events are usually well planned, and their planning usually follows a common sequence. Here are some general guidelines, which parallel but also vary from the guidelines for issue organizing, that will help you plan and carry out a successful neighborhood event of your own.
Find some people to work with you
If you are organizing a community event, you probably don't want to do it alone; it's more work by yourself, it's more fun to join with others, and you can draw upon their own ideas and experience. Your group needn't be formal and needn't be large; a few of you around the kitchen table will do fine at the start. You can always expand later -- and you will probably want to.
Explore the event possibilities
At the beginning, keep the doors wide open. You might jot down a list of possible events, without critiquing at the beginning, rather building upon each other's ideas. Don't be constrained by what's happened before. Let your minds run free; at this stage, the sky's the limit.
Choose the event
What should your selection criteria be? First, the event must be something that residents will support. A potluck supper won't work if people won't cook; don't have a marble tournament unless kids play marbles. Second, the event must be one you can carry off, both in terms of money (including start -up money), expertise, and time. If you want to raffle round-trips to Paris, you need to be sure you can purchase the tickets; if you aim to build an affordable home, will enough neighbors do the heavy lifting? Third, the event ought to be energizing and fun for you as the organizers; if it isn't, why do it?
Find more people to help
Once you've selected your event, chances are you will want more people to work with you than your original core group. Those people will need to be recruited. How do you do that? You can think of some prospects and ask them face-to-face, call them on the phone, send them an e-mail, drop them a note, or combine your approaches. You may also want to recruit others from the neighborhood at large; then you may need to distribute flyers and posters, and also to take advantage of the natural communication structures already existing in the neighborhood.
Define the necessary tasks
Your particular tasks will depend upon your particular event. But tasks common to many events include:
- Publicity - which subdivides into door-to-door outreach, telephone calls, mailings, list-servs, flier distribution, church, club, or school announcements, and general media outreach.
- Financing - including budgeting, raising start-up money, collecting money at the event, accounting for the money collected, disbursing payments, etc.
- Activities at the event - among other things, this means set-up, registration, schedules, contact with performers, exhibitors, or presenters, and also clean-up.
Depending upon your chosen event, your tasks might also include site selection and arrangements; rain or snow dates; rentals; permits; contracts; security; liability; transportation; parking; child care; bathrooms; equipment (tables, chairs, etc.); games; decorations; supplies; tickets; entertainment; sound systems; door prizes; food (including cooks, food preparation, food service, utensils, etc.); and -- last but not least -- evaluation of the event.
Divide up the work
The principles here are that (a) everyone should have something to do, and (b) tasks should match up with personal preferences, skills, and available time. Use your task list as a reference point: Your division of labor can then be done formally, by selecting committees and committee chairs, or less formally, by people simply agreeing to take on a certain job. (Those in charge of specific tasks can also recruit their own additional helpers.) Generally, the larger the group, the more complicated the event, the less experienced the group members, and the less well they know each other, the greater the structure (and the more precision) you should probably seek.
Remember too that someone has to coordinate all the work that has been delegated. That someone might be you, or you together with others. Sometimes these coordinators have titles, such as "Coordinator" itself, or event Chairperson, or Steering or Planning Committee. A coordinating group, whatever its name, might also include any committee chairs.
Especially for complex events, that coordinating group should meet regularly. Its meetings, ideally, should be publicized and open. Everyone should have the names and numbers of all key people involved. But the most important things are that the planning and the overall coordination occur, and that the lines of responsibility are clearly drawn.
Prepare a budget and identify possible resources
Based on your needed tasks, the coordinator or finance committee head should make a list of all projected expense types and amounts: printing, supplies, rentals, permits, security, entertainers, food, insurance, equipment, and others. Another list of anticipated sources and amounts of income should be created in parallel. (It's prudent to be liberal with expense estimates, conservative with revenues.) And don't forget other possible resources: Can you get donations to help with expenses, from merchants or other sources?
The two lists should be compared and reviewed by event leaders; plans should be made for dealing with any deficits or special situations. Adjustments can then be made in either expenses or revenues or both, and steps then taken to disburse funds projected or in hand.
Publicity could also be a separate item in itself -- you definitely have to get the word out! Thoughtful publicity planning and action will certainly be worth your while.
Develop a timetable
The goal here is straightforward: Everyone should know who will do what by when. In other words, deadlines for completion should be set (and taken seriously) for each important task, with those deadlines both being monitored and held to. It's everyone's job, but especially the coordinator's, to make sure task completion stays on course.
The dates for each task can be put in a table or chart. Often that chart will have "weeks before the event" running along the top from left to right, counting down from (say) ten weeks before the event to the actual event date. The rows on the chart will list the individual tasks. Each of them may have a line or bar corresponding to the weeks for which that task will be started and completed.
For some people, all this planning and timetable-drafting may seem like too much work. We understand, but we're on the side of the planners. Our reasons are practical: Careful planning leads to more successful events. The more complex the event, the more this is true. Consider also that careful planning will help you avoid last-minute crunches and oversights that could put your event in jeopardy. The truth is, if you've been thinking about your event from the start, drafting a timetable shouldn't take very long. And the limited effort spent in drafting it (and then, following it) will almost always pay off for you.
On the event day, it's usually a good idea to meet before the starting time with your event leaders to run through the schedule of the day, to take care of any last-minute details, to answer any last-minute questions, and to prepare for any contingencies (rain, performer no-shows, illness, power outages, equipment malfunction, and undoubtedly others too).
All key people, including those at any registration desk, should know where other key people are going to be at any given time, and also know where to reach outside help in case of emergencies. In complex or higher-stakes events (such as those with significant admission fees), you may want to consider buying or renting two-way communication systems so that leaders can be in touch with one another immediately. If it's a longer event (e.g., an all-day fair), you might also arrange to meet about an hour into the event so that you can make any necessary adjustments.
Good luck with your event!
The event isn't over when the audience goes home. Almost any event will have some clean-up attached to it: some on the same day -- taking down the decorations, removing the signs, storing the equipment; and some later on -- paying your bills. So good event planning will also include planning for the tear-down and cleanup
Part of event follow-up always includes giving thanks; we'll focus on the more secular aspects here. Everyone who helped in planning and carrying out the event should be thanked after it is over (ideally, throughout as well), in a manner most appropriate to the event content -- a personal phone call or note, a letter on organization letterhead, an announcement in your newsletter, or perhaps a party just for the event leaders.
Thanking people is important for two basic reasons: First, because it's the right thing to do; and second, because it strengthens the ties of the helpers to your cause in particular and to your neighborhood in general. We never outgrow our need for appreciation. And when people feel appreciated, they are more likely to be available when the next event rolls around. But if they have worked hard and gotten no recognition for it, they may never return.
The last step in conducting a neighborhood or community event is in some ways the most important. That step is to analyze the event to see how well it did in terms of its goals.
One helpful component of an evaluation is for the leaders to get together shortly following the event, after the dust has cleared, but not entirely settled. At this meeting -- sometimes called a post-mortem, or debriefing -- they can discuss what went well, and what didn't go as well, and what could be done to improve things the next time. For if you are promoting neighborhood action, there will be a next time. It might not be quite the same event, but many of the lessons learned here should apply. When applied, those lessons will make the next event better. This is how skill gets acquired, and how neighborhoods grow stronger.
There is more you can do about evaluation, and sometimes it just means taking simple yet vital measurements. If your goal was to fill the auditorium, how full was it? If you wanted to raise $5000, how much did you come up with? Other times evaluation may be more challenging. You might want to survey people at the event, or to look at new member recruitment, or changes in community support, or other post-event consequences. Look for the most objective measures you can find that relate to the goals of your event -- and of course it will help if these types of evaluation are well-planned beforehand. But they are not usually too difficult to do.
Note: The material above is adapted from a "Community Event Organizer," in "Community Events and How to Organize Them," a 1980 pamphlet, now out of print, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
When you have dealt successfully with a neighborhood issue, or when you have held a successful neighborhood event, or when you have linked neighbors together around some common interest, you will have:
- Tightened neighborhood connections
- Stimulated neighborhood identity and pride, and
- Strengthened the foundation for more successful neighborhood activities in the future
Each small act leaves its mark. And each small act should be encouraged; for it will help build a neighborhood that will provide benefits to its residents for years to come.
How to Start a Neighborhood Association is an article by Katherine Cusumano, published in the New York Times on June 6, 2020.
National Neighborhood Coalition focuses on national policy issues affecting neighborhoods.
Neighborhoods USA is a national organization of local neighborhood groups.
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Kretzmann, J., & McKnight, J. (1994). Building communities from the inside out: A path toward finding and mobilizing a community's assets. Chicago: ACTA Publications.
Kretzmann, J., McKnight, J., & Sheehan, G. (1997). A guide to capacity inventories: Mobilizing the community skills of local residents. Chicago: ACTA Publications.
Leighninger, M., Flavin-McDonald, C., & Ghandour, R. (1998). Building strong neighborhoods: A guide for public dialogue and problem solving. Pomfret, CT: Study Circles Resource Center. [Pamphlet available from the Center at Box 203, Pomfret, CT 06258, (860) 928-2616.]
Mott, A. (1997). Building systems of support for neighborhood change. Washington, D.C.: Center for Community Change. [Available from the Center at 1000 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, D.C., 20007, (202) 342-0567.]
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