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Neighborhood Advocacy Can Advance Your Agenda

Brooklyn councilwoman with microphone at outdoor rallyClear Advocacy May Involve Lining Up Well-Known Leaders Who Support Your Position

Let's talk frankly about effective neighborhood advocacy. We mean your ability to make an impact on your local governments and other community influentials that may have the power to help you improve your community.

A community organization may fuel itself on a low-grade hostility to the city government and to other groups and individuals who are in a position to help the community.

You wouldn't believe some of the vicious comments about their local "powers that be" that neighborhood associations make on their websites; we saw them as we researched this site.

Please stop that. Live with any disrespect from elected officials and city staff that you notice, for the sake of big gains later. Just get to work earning their regard.

Five Hints for Neighborhood Advocacy Success

Make it your goal to be sure that when philanthropists or the city government, even the state and federal governments, start looking for a worthy neighborhood, they think early and often of yours. Opinions of developers and investors can be vastly important too.

The suggestions below will apply to some extent regardless of income and condition of the neighborhood. You just need to adjust for your own local political climate and the particulars of your situation.

On this page we provide several suggested principles.

1. Do as much as you can for yourself.

People still appreciate effort, and that includes elected officials, city staff members, foundations, the media, and influential individuals in the community. Regardless of your income level, do not act or behave helplessly.

If your income level is above the median for your area, corporations and foundations will not appreciate your asking for a 100% handout. Raise some money yourselves. Have fun doing it. See the page on how to fundraise for ideas when you want to show that you are doing what you can to address your own issues.

Remember to map your assets before you count your liabilities. Then your neighborhood advocacy can have the genuine ring of conviction, rather than sounding like a hollow plea for help.

2. Undertake projects that require effort and participation of volunteers.

People who come out and donate a few hours or days "buy in" to your mission and cause.

Clean-up activities of any type are wonderful advertisements for your community with influential people. Inherently leaders recognize that such projects require a commitment of physical labor and time from residents, and it's the contribution of the locals that is valued.

This pertains particularly to low-income neighborhoods, where it helps fight the perception of apathy or even laziness. But high-income neighborhoods also especially benefit from projects requiring physical labor and a good turnout of volunteers, because it demonstrates literally, "We care about this so much that we'll get our hands dirty."

These projects show immediate impact and also fall on the low-cost end of the spectrum. If no clean-up is needed, make it a tree planting or flower planting project. Beautification or park clean-up projects are great for showing the world you care.

If you want to enhance your neighborhood advocacy efforts quickly, stay with these crowd pleasing, one-day commitment types of projects.

3. Form and maintain a good quality community organization.

While we imply a multi-organization neighborhood in naming our page, we'd prefer to see one unified community organization that doesn't fight, at least in public. Make a big effort to keep conflicts low-key and private.

Philanthropists and do-gooders are likely to look for another good neighborhood when they sense internal conflict, because they don't want to make a social error in giving money and attention to the wrong group.

Governments can more easily discount your input if you are in a divided neighborhood. Officials can rationalize that if one group wants this, the other faction may want that.

Potential developers also try to take the temperature of the community organization or organizations, so make sure that your neighborhood advocacy posture is attractive to investors as well.

So you marginalize yourselves by internal fighting or rival associations, in most situations.

If you must fight City Hall, do so in as dignified and business-like fashion as possible. Write cool-headed letters based on good reasoning and research into best practices in other communities.

You can learn those on this website! For instance, if your letters to decision makers are ignored, you may need to learn to how to start a respectful petition to show the strength of your numbers.

But it isn't enough to get along well in public. For a meaningful neighborhood advocacy program, you'll need an identifiable group that is perceived as active.  If you lack this, purchase our $2.99 USD ebook on how to start one. 

If people are really weary of meetings and attendance is low even among know people who care, try a quarterly meeting and offer something uniquely valuable to residents. If you can't meet quarterly, you probably don't have a viable organization and need to re-think the entire question of neighborhood advocacy.

4. Generate neighborhood publicity early and often.

The best neighborhood advocacy strategy you can have is to magnify your achievements, meaning you place them in the best possible light, put a good spin on it, or whatever your metaphor. Remind the media often of your track record.

Invent "angles" for the media. This means thinking of a new approach and adding new information and nuances to a story they may have already told.

Stage easy events, and visual events. If you're holding an event that welcomes children, face painting, costumes, or balloons can add to the possibility that you have television coverage if you're in a TV market. Add dogs if it’s an outdoor event. The media like animals, babies, and small children.

Think about how to add a highly visual element to every event you hold. If you're having a meeting, have an impressive backdrop, which could be made of fabric or painted on a painters’ canvas. Stage your events against a backdrop of your best natural settings or more photogenic buildings. If you have an iconic building, use it almost as a logo.

For more, see our neighborhood publicity page.

5. Show you're doing something serious that needs doing.

Besides shameless self-promotion, you need to make sure you're doing something of substance. Make sure you conduct community development evaluations whenever appropriate; positive evaluations will embolden you to push your advocacy to new heights.

Don't wait for local media to provide you with free neighborhood advocacy. Now with electronic media especially, you can make your own news. But unlike publicity, you need something of real substance to tout.

So hold a meaningful event, such as a neighborhood history tour, or a house tour if you're in an area with interesting architecture or significant housing rehab or renovation.

If and when you're really stuck and you have cheap space, turn it over to some artists for a weekend, week, or month, and then let the public come to view the installation. While a cultural event may not draw as many people as some silly dog parade, it enhances your image with the decision makers, and that's our goal in neighborhood advocacy.

One way to assure that you have a continuing stream of news may be to organize effective standing committees. Somehow a small group of people are just as likely to come up with a worthwhile project as a large group, and of course you can have a more continuous stream of projects if you have more worthwhile ideas. Especially if you have a ready-made committee to make sure the event comes to fruition.

So based on the interests, assets, and problems of your neighborhood, have a children's after-school committee, a clean-up committee, an environmental committee, housing rehab committee, business retention or attraction committee, an alley committee, and so forth.

Weigh the advantages and disadvantages of grouping potential news releases into one. For example, if you're in a large metro area where it's difficult to stand out, you may need to hold onto your news of the first three tenants in a building until you have 50 percent rented.

On the other hand, in a small town where any news travels quickly anyway, and where you can make the local weekly with almost any announcement, certainly break up the announcements into as many increments as possible.

How to Spread the News About Your Great Neighborhood

To distribute your news, try an electronic version of the neighborhood newsletter. We've become convinced that even if most of your neighbors are too poor or uninterested to have Internet service, it's worth the effort to put together an attractive neighborhood e-mail blast or newsletter.

Decision makers in your City Hall and your broader community do pay attention to their e-mail, to the web, and increasingly to social media, so you need a presence there.

If you think more people outside your neighborhood will be reading your electronic newsletter than your local residents, consider what will interest civic-minded people.

If a newsletter is too much work, Facebook or Twitter will work if you promote these social media heavily with young people who will work diligently for you at the outset. If you don't know about these social media, ask someone younger.

Schools could be a resource for you in this regard as well. Ask them if they could make a project of "social marketing" on behalf of your neighborhood. You don't even have to know what that means. If interested, they will take it from there. But we'd prefer you have real news, and not just publicity, as a major component of your social marketing. Then you will be effective in neighborhood advocacy.

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