Help me build some community spirit.
June 30, 2012 12:29 PM   Subscribe

How can I encourage people to participate in our neighborhood association? What fun events can we plan for our community that will get people fired up about being a part of it? And last but not least, how can I encourage people to pay the very reasonable association dues?

I got frustrated with the apathy and lack of community involvement in our neighborhood, and ended up on the board of our little neighborhood association.

Our neighborhood association covers a subdivision of about 250 homes that were built around 1990. Right now, the neighborhood is about 70% young families and about 30% older folks or empty nesters. Usually only 10-15 people will attend the association meeting which is held once a year.

Everyone is happy to attend our kid-oriented neighborhood events, like the 4th of July parade and the Easter Egg hunt, but no one wants to help plan them. This year, one person literally had to stuff 2,000 plastic eggs by herself for the egg hunt. I would like to encourage people to participate in the planning and execution of these events, not just attendance.

(It gets really frustrating, too, to have people complain about how an event is handled when no one wants to contribute. We cancelled our July 4th parade this year because of lack of interest and I'm already getting complaints about that ...)

I'm also struggling with planning events that will appeal to the folks that don't have kids at home any more. They feel left out when we plan events that cater more towards families with kids.

Our dues are just $25 per year, but we're only able to collect from about 1/4 of the homeowners.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Ostara to Human Relations (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How are you communicating with your constituents? How many people do actually help with events? (It sounds like it's maybe 3-5 at most?) Do the dues pay for anything other than events? Is it a voluntary association or is the whole subdivision required to be part of it? What are the responsibilities of the association? (For example, do you enforce lawn care standards or whatnot?)

Neighborhood associations vary really widely by location and a bit more context would be a huge help.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:35 PM on June 30, 2012

Is this an association that was put in place when the homes were built, or is this an "after-the-fact" association trying to organize in an already-established neighborhood? It makes a very big difference: you're going to have to do a lot of explaining to residents in a previously-established neighborhood about why an association is a good idea.

If all you're looking for is organizing neighborhood events like parades and block parties, then there really isn't even any need for a permanent association.
posted by easily confused at 12:35 PM on June 30, 2012

Response by poster: Dues are voluntary, which is unusual in our area. Most of the surrounding neighborhoods have dues that exceed $100/year and they'll put a lien on your house if you don't pay them. Ours have been $25 for the past 20+ years.

The association is mainly social. We do have basic covenants, but the covenants mirror those of our city. They aren't restrictive. The dues go towards the social events, signage for our annual community garage sale, and maintenance of our entrance and common grounds. We also publish a directory, but advertisers cover that particular cost.

The board is just made up of 5 members. We're usually the only ones putting the events together.

I put out a newsletter that's sent out as a PDF quarterly. We also have a Facebook page and a website with a blog.
posted by Ostara at 12:40 PM on June 30, 2012

Response by poster: Yes, the association has been around since the neighborhood was built.
posted by Ostara at 12:41 PM on June 30, 2012

Glom on to organizations that are successful. With that many young families, the PTA at the local school is likely big. A small handful of church groups probably account for a solid share of your neighborhood. There is likely a school board member or city councilman who has a precinct organization for your neighborhood.
posted by MattD at 12:42 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, don't judge yourself by the success of deeded mandatory HOAs. They have money and power and organizations with money and power don't have to ask people to care. Indeed, mandatory HOAs are often the other way: a very clubby board that discourages outsides and newcomers from getting involved.
posted by MattD at 12:44 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

A group I used to belong to restricted participation to "All members in good standing" --- i.e., anybody who was current on their dues could vote etc., anybody who was NOT up to date on their dues could NOT participate. Would this be possible for your organization?
posted by easily confused at 12:58 PM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it's very important for community groups to cut their cloaks to fit their cloth. It's very easy to get into the habit of having an expectation for what an event is supposed to be, and then try to force people to live up to that standard, but that's not really fun for anyone. Ironically, I think it's the bitching and moaning about "lack of involvement" that makes people less likely to be interested in being involved. So try to be creative. Have each family that wants to come to the hunt bring something to gain attendance- like a dozen plastic eggs they've stuffed at home. Or cancel the hunt and have somebody dress up as the Easter Bunny instead. Keep events low-key and easily scalable- potluck socials are great for this.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:01 PM on June 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

Sometimes proximity alone isn't enough to create a community, but I know that some long-standing organizations began when neighbors got together to deal with a specific problem, e.g., traffic control issues.

Also, have you tried surveying residents regarding what they want from (or, for that matter, if they want) a HOA?
posted by she's not there at 1:15 PM on June 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

Would having a schedule that includes lower-key activities, like regular book clubs or knitting/other handicraft meetings, work? Right now your neighbors may only be aware of the association around big events, and committing to those might be too much for modern, over-scheduled families. However, some low-pressure pastimes may draw the adults without children (and these people could form a regular volunteer base, another plus). Also, is there a way for neighbors to get to know one another outside of planned events, like a tool library or something?
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:17 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some things you could try:

* Organise smaller things that are really low key and don't require a lot of work.
* Use these events to network and make friends; keep in touch with people in a friendly way outside of the organised events; recruit from this base when you do need people to help out with bigger events.
* Keep your ears flapping for people who are opinionated about what you should do. Keep redirecting "Why don't they do XYZ" by saying "Oh we'd love if someone would help us do XYZ! Would you be able to do that?". Occasionally this tactic works. When it doesn't work it normally shuts moaners up quickly.
* If you need a lot of eggs stuffing again, have an egg stuffing party and make an occasion of it.
* Get everyone in a Facebook group together. Whether or not you like Facebook, it's one of the most effective tools I've found for community building, so long as one or two people stay active on there and post reasonably compelling content every now and then. Ask people where is the best place to walk a dog or go for dinner, or what they think of the local school.
* Deliberately have every event include a small way in which everybody can help out. Folks are used to being consumers; if you want a culture where people contribute, you'll have to build it. Slowly. Give out bin bags after a party and ask people (nicely!) to help collect rubbish. Thank them profusely when they do - smile and tell them you couldn't do it without them.

Have you tried having a plant swap? That doesn't require much organising and might appeal more to your no-kids crowd.
posted by emilyw at 1:38 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

My city has a community liaison who helps neighborhood associations get stronger and better, is that sort of resource available?

To get people to attend, you need them to have connections so they WANT to attend. The neighborhood associations that are the strongest typically have a core of neighbors who all know each other and people enjoy being at the meetings.

FWIW, our meetings are monthly or every other month, which seems to encourage involvement and connection-making, and they always have a social component either before or after. The business of the meeting is typically pretty short so people don't get bored.

Among the best-attended are meetings where we have local elected officials attend (city councilpersons, county board, school board, sometimes even the state rep). In election years, when our district is electing new local officials, we usually join with the next association over (who's in our same district for all those positions) and we jointly host a candidate forum. That's always overflowing.

(Also, for posters who don't know, a neighborhood association isn't the same thing as a homeowner's association; a neighborhood association is voluntary (as are the dues) and is basically a booster organization that tries to involve people in the community and advocate for the neighborhood and coordinate people for new stop signs and plans neighborhood events. A homeowner's association has the legal restrictions and mandatory fees and the "you can't grow that on your lawn." Neighborhood associations are really common in some areas and totally unheard-of in others. Sometimes the terms are swapped, but the OP sounds like it's clearly a neighborhood association.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:22 PM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, speaking as someone with a fair amount of experience in non-profits, clubs, neighborhood organizing, AND political organizing/campaigning, you need to first SCALE BACK to what you can accomplish happily and comfortably. Someone stuffing 2000 eggs by themselves is hardly any more than masochism.

Once you've agreed that you're going to work within your means, then you need to consider your various goals and how to accomplish them.

One would be getting more people involved. You've got 25% paying dues? Hell, that's a great base. I'm not sure how much higher you can get this without having a hugely more successful group with high-profile events. So don't worry about that now.

Focus on that 25%. They're invested! They pay money! But maybe they think they pay money and things happen by themselves, like magic. Well, you need to re-educate them. They already have a stake; try to talk to people in this group and find out what is keeping them from participating more. Maybe they want different events. Maybe more participation; maybe more babysitting the kids while the adults have a mimosa events. Maybe they want stuff in the parks, maybe they want block parties, maybe they want fireworks. You won't know until you begin asking. Consider this an informal focus group.

When you talk to people, try to figure out THEIR interest and THEIR wheelbox as a potential participant. Maybe they're great at floral arrangements? Guess what, now every event has a Flower Committee, and she's the chair. Work with what you have and leverage it to get into particular social groups. There's a group of outdoorsy campers? See if you can legally hold an overnight camp in the park. Etc.

This isn't easy and it isn't something that can change quickly, but a more cohesive group can be built if you find ways to listen and include and play to your existing strengths. Also, burnout is normal, and all groups have a lifecycle where various catalyst members come and go. You're the new catalyst, but maybe everyone else is burnt out right now. That's why you need to reboot.
posted by dhartung at 6:38 PM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Our neighborhood has a listserv / Yahoo group and it's quite a useful way to get people involved and aware of what needs to be volunteered for.
posted by mimi at 7:45 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Eyebrows McGee is exactly right, by the way. Our neighborhood association is more of a booster organization -- that's a good way of putting it.

Emilyw -- the plant swap is on the agenda for next spring! I hope it goes well; I've never held one before. My plan is to have it at the picnic shelter in the park.

Dhartung -- your comment was excellent. I'm revamping my newsletter now to include a page with an informal survey about what people would like to do.
posted by Ostara at 9:36 PM on June 30, 2012

Neighborhood associations are very big in our Pacific Northwest town. There's lots of interest in sustainable communities, resilient communities, locavore eating and so on, so we have a built-in basis to work from. Even so, participation in my neighborhood association's activities is pretty spotty.

Like Eyebrows McGee's group, we always get a huge participation when we have forums for local political candidates. Also information about gardening locally, and local community gardens. Getting a giant dumpster for a weekend has been a smash hit, with people dragging amazing stuff out to throw away -- and an informal "free market" grows up next to it. Also, we have a tree planting program, which is very poplar (heh). The association works with the city arborist and the water and power folks to identify places for trees and we find people who will keep an eye on them (water during drought, cut off suckers); we purchase the trees, and the city sends out a small machine to dig the holes. We have an Ice Cream Social in the summer and a Potluck in the winter, although the Board seems more enthused about them than the neighbors do.

My personal favorite activity is supporting Block Inventories. When someone on a block is interested in organizing one, we supply maps of each block. Everyone on the block is invited to get together to identify which houses have children, elderly or disabled people living there, who owns a chainsaw or a generator or a tent, or has a Red Cross certificate in first aid, etc. etc. We each get a map, we write down names and phone numbers and other info. On the back of the map it says, in large letters "OK" -- to put in the window after a disaster. If there's no sign, neighbors will go inside to investigate. ........... This may seem sort of extreme to some reading this, but we know that we will have a major earthquake, the only question is when, and we live on the slopes of a live volcano, and unbelievably severe winter storms can sweep down from Canada. When there is some sort of natural disaster, it may be several days before "the authorities" can get to us. It's a good feeling to know we have resources close by, and that we have at least met our neighbors once before we need to start depending on each other. Once people participate in this, they seem at least marginally more interested in other neighborhood activities.

By the way, for comparison, our neighborhood has 600 addresses, moving over the last decade from mostly rental to mostly young families buying their first home, with a lot of elderly mixed in. We have a monthly meeting, with a subject for each meeting. We have a paper newsletter every 4 months that's delivered to all the addresses. We have a ridiculous membership fee of $5, and the city gives us $500 a year to print the newsletter, do the ice cream social, etc. I also joined the Board hoping to help increase a sense of local community. In my case, though, the problem doesn't seem to be so much the members of the neighborhood, as the members of the Board, who have been serving forever, for no clear reason I can see, and without much energy or interest in making anything different happen. But there's room to change, and energy available from the neighborhood, as long as it's something people are actually interested in. (Plus, it's a wonderful opportunity for me to work on my Loving Kindness Towards Those Who May Seem To Irritate Me.)
posted by kestralwing at 12:06 AM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

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