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INCREASING PARTICIPATIONin aNEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION                     Author: Tom Mayer, 1979    Reprinted and distributed by:     Neighborhood Resource Center, Inc.    38 Catherine Street    Albany, New York 12202    (518) 462-5636     May, 1997

    Plans are announced to build a multi-million dollar McDougels in your neighborhood. The proposal calls for a building that would rival the Twin Towers, a parking lot for 2,000 cars, an outdoor eating area the size of Lincoln Park, and numerous drive-in counters for the convenience of Freddie Fastfood and his friends.

    In order to accomplish this beautification project, the developer is proposing the rezoning of 10 square city blocks, razing the residential properties contained therein, and dislocating hundreds of your neighbors.

    The local neighborhood association decides to call a meeting to assess the residents' feelings about this proposal. Will people be interested? Will they attend? Will they want to take action? Will there be any problem with motivation, and involvement.

    The answers to the above questions are obvious! When far less devastating proposals than the above have come to light, residents concerned about the quality of life in their neighborhood have joined en masse to take action and that action is immediate! Meetings are called, strategies planned, committees established, tasks assigned. The enthusiasm, degree of involvement, and number of volunteers is overwhelming. Nearly everyone wants a piece of action!

    A hot issue, like the above, is the kind of stuff that builds an organization—or serves as the impetus for initiating one, if none existed. But how is involvement maintained during periods of time when such hot issues are not present?

    The problem of maintaining interest during non-critical periods is a problem faced by all organizations—not just neighborhood associations. Anyone with the solution could bottle it and become a millionaire. There are no cut-and-dried answers since the circumstances, or people, etc. vary in each situation.

    Perhaps the best way to look at this is to first look at the nature of the organization—in this case, the neighborhood association.

    A neighborhood association is comprised basically of residents in a defined geographical area that have joined together to enhance their quality of life. It is not a single issue group. And because of the diversity in a neighborhood, one would not expect that it would be.

    People with various backgrounds live within a neighborhood's boundaries—there are different philosophies, ages, cultures, races, religions, politics, incomes, life styles and previous life experiences. There are also people with different expectations of what the organization is and what it should do.

    A neighborhood association gets involved in a spectrum of activities whose common denominator is the enhancement of the neighborhood. Because of all this, some involvements are of interest to some members, but of little or no interest to others.

    The members of a neighborhood association are all volunteers. Their stake in the group is their concern for their neighborhood. Membership usually consists in the payment of nominal dues. For those who are involved, it also consists in a time commitment.

    Usually, the people who are actively involved are a small percentage of the total membership This is not unlike any other organization. This nucleus of members serves in the leadership positions. Depending on the group's structure, they serve as officers, committee members, block leaders, etc. Their specific functions are either delineated in the by-laws, or determined on an ad-hoc basis.

    Decisions for acting on any issue are determined in a democratic manner at meetings. Hot issues and major policy decisions which set the course for the association's position, are discussed and decided on at open public meetings. Less serious matters, and other determinations that are necessary in carrying out the group's positions on issues, are usually decided on by the leadership—the officers, Board and Executive Committee, as per the association's by-laws.

    There are various levels of participation in a neighborhood association. These run the gamut from the dues-paying member who doesn't attend meetings, to those who serve in positions of leadership. Increasing participation can be accomplished by increasing the number of members and/or by moving current members to a higher level of involvement. The means available to accomplish this is to create favorable conditions that hopefully people will respond to.

    Keeping in mind that some people will not even respond to a nuclear bomb planted in their bathtub, the following are some thoughts about increasing participation.

Getting the word out
    Keeping people in the neighborhood informed about the association and its activities is probably the single most useful means of increasing participation. It can be done through newsletters, flyers, articles in the media, personal contact. It can have an effect on people who are at different levels of participation.

    First of all, it can effect the non-participating residents. The steady reminder through the inactive resident information of the group's existence and its activities might be what is needed to turn into an active member. Even if this only means receiving payment of nominal dues, that commitment indicates support for what the group is doing, and the first step towards what could become a more active role.

    Getting the word out can also turn some members into accepting a more active role in the organization. Information regarding a certain activity might be up some members' proverbial "alley," as far as either their expertise or interest goes. It might be the only impetus needed for their volunteering to work on a committee or a special project. Once a deeper commitment happens—if the experience is a rewarding one—those members might be ripe for some future involvement.

Public Meetings
    As was previously indicated during non-critical times public meetings serve to keep the residents informed regarding the association's activities and to present a program of general interest. Because those in attendance are there either because of interest in what the association is doing or for the specific agenda item, what happens at each meeting can affect their future involvement. Because of this, public meetings are a prime source of turning people on or off to participating in the group's activities—either through joining or becoming more deeply involved.

    It goes without saying that the publicity for the meeting has a great deal to do with the number of people who attend. The agenda is also crucial in order to turn people out. Having topics of interest that are also timely is essential to motivate people to attend. Discussing a serious problem like property tax assessments would probably be of greater concern in June through August when people could file a grievance, than in December.

    The frequency and length of public meetings during a non-critical time can also effect membership involvement. Holding regular monthly meetings can really put pressure on the leadership to develop meaningful programs that will motivate participation. This is not an easy task. If the level of interesting programs drops, attendance will also.

    Lengthy meetings can also be a major deterrent for attendance. Meetings that drag on turn people off and can become the reason for dropping out. As is noted in the companion booklet, "Starting A Neighborhood Association":
"A short well-planned meeting is much more advisable than a long, drawn out one. People get turned off by lengthy meetings and/or meetings that wander from the agenda. This is a reason why some people don't return for other meetings. The ability to get business completed in 1 or 1 1/2 hours is becoming a lost art. Remember—the success of a meeting is not in any way related to its length."

Broadening the leadership base
A healthy neighborhood association required a diversified leadership base. This can be accomplished by:
(a)    Simplifying tasks:
    All voluntary groups, including neighborhood associations, sometimes have difficulty in filling leadership positions. Member approached for taking responsibility are:
too busy;
afraid the time commitment is too much;
have a headache;
not interested;
not clear exactly what the position entails.
Some of these things can be dealt with, while others cannot.

In recruiting members to accept certain position, the leadership might consider;
breaking down functions to spread the job out;
spelling out specifically what each role is.
    Probably the best way to explain this is to give an illustration: The neighborhood association is seeking someone to take responsibility for the group's publicity. The people who have been asked so far have not responded enthusiastically. The leadership decides to take a different approach.

    The membership is informed that a Publicity Committee is needed. One committee member would be responsible for getting the meeting notices in the newspapers. Another would get flyers printed, and distributed to the block captains. Third member would...... The chairperson's role would be one of coordination—checking with the other members to see that the individual tasks get done. Volunteers are needed for these specific assignment.

    This type of approach informs people what the perimeters of the tasks are, and by doing so, indicates the time commitment that is required. It helps to not only get the job done, but also to involve more people actively in the organization. Instead of one or two members making a contribution, four or six are. If this experience is personally rewarding, they might be ripe for some future role.

(b)    Opening and expanding:
    The leadership of a neighborhood association is delineated in its by-laws. It is that group of people which is entrusted with the authority for, and responsibility of running the organization in the direction that the membership has determined.

    The leadership group often meets on a regular basis between public meetings to carry out the association's business. Announcing the time, date and place for these meetings, and inviting the general membership to attend, might be a key to turning on some additional participants.

    Increasing the number of members who serve on this leadership group would directly involve more people in the internal operation of the organization. This involvement would, in itself, put these members in a more active role. Being one of this "inner circle" might also turn on a person's enthusiasm to some other association activities.

    However, there are reasons why these two suggestions might not be practical. The leadership group is comprised of those members who give a great deal of time to the organization. Opening the leadership meetings and/or expanding the base would add more people to this group. More people usually means lengthier discussions and longer meetings.. Fewer people, who are familiar with background and current circumstances often means less discussion and shorter meetings.
    The pay-off, however, might not come at the leadership meetings; the pay-off might come when volunteers are needed for a project and chairing a committee. By opening the meetings and expanding the base, more people have been moved to a greater involvement in the association. They might now be ready for additional responsibility.

(c)    Keeping former leaders involved:
    Although this is also about expanding the leadership base, it is of such significance that it should be given added emphasis.)
    Often times, in an organization's attempt in recruiting new members, one of its most valuable resources is overlooked—the former leader. That is the person who has given much time and effort to the association, and for one reason or another, is not currently active in the group.

    This evolution—from active to non-active—is the exact opposite of what the organization is trying to accomplish. It often happens because the person is "tired," expresses a need for "fresh blood and new ideas," has done "his part; time for others to do something." Although different from the reasons given by the non-active member, these are usually accepted much more readily. And often there is more effort spent on recruiting new members (which is vitally important) than in encouraging the continued participation of former leaders.

    Because of this person's former contribution to the group, his or her continued involvement adds a certain stability and continuity that is invaluable to the association's functioning. Keeping former leaders involved (i.e.; as an officio or ex-officio member of the leadership), therefore, is an important aspect of membership participation.

    The vast majority of neighborhood associations have been started because of a problem/issue that got people upset enough to collectively take action. Because of this beginning, neighborhood associations are business oriented; the business they are in is the neighborhood's quality of life. They are action oriented groups—their activities include self-help projects, and encouraging government to provide services. Because of this beginning and orientation, the importance of the group's social function is sometimes overlooked, or relegated to a lesser importance than it should have.

    The social aspects of any group are vitally important to the group's existence. Unless a person feels either accepted as a group member or, at least, is striving to feel this acceptance, that person will not be a participant in the association's undertakings. The socialization process, therefore, is crucial for a healthy, active association and a strong, vital neighborhood.

    This process can begin—and with some groups, it does begin—when a family moves into a neighborhood. A representative from the association:
stops by the house;
welcomes the people into the neighborhood;
informs them about the association;
leaves some helpful information (i.e.; trash collection is on Thursday).
This initial friendliness can make the new neighbors feel welcomed/accepted and interested in joining the group.

    The association's meetings, themselves, fulfill a social function. For example. serving refreshments at the conclusion of meetings or neighborhood clean-up events are other ways of providing occasions for socialization. Setting aside opportunities when neighbors can come together for strictly fun (holiday parties, summer picnics) are also important for the group's vitality. The relaxing informal exchanges that take place—acquaintances that are made, friendships updated—are part of a neighborly atmosphere that will make people feel more comfortable with the group, and maybe more interested in getting involved. Remember: The same thing that made John a dull boy ("all work and no play"), will have a similar effect on a group.

    Without going into detail, there are many other social functions—outside of providing the opportunities for interaction—that a group can and should perform in order to maintain and promote participation. Examples of this are the public recognition of individuals for their contributions to the group. Recognition for a job well done makes the individual feel accepted and a valued member of the association. This is not only good for the individual's self esteem, but also healthy for participation in future group projects.

    There are no guarantees or warranties with any suggestions contained on these pages. Some people are amenable to participate while others are not. The bad news is that neither group wears name tags.

    The good news is that there are many, many people in the former category that have already become active. The fact that neighborhood groups in Albany have increased from 6 in 1975 to over 20 today indicates growing interest in neighborhood associations. And it hasn't taken a project the size of McDougels to generate this growth within individual neighborhoods.