If you get fired up imagining yourself successfully championing a better local recycling program or a stop sign at that busy intersection down the block, you can make that passion a reality by starting a neighborhood campaign for change. But before you become a community organizer, think through what it’ll take to be successful and whether you’re ready to make the commitment.
It takes time to start a campaign
Launching a campaign takes time, effort, and money, although the measure of each depends on the project. Convincing a local school to load its buses off a busy street might cost a few dollars to make copies of a petition form, for instance, while equipment to turn an empty lot into a playground can cost $40,000 to $80,000.
Time commitment varies as well. Expect to spend two to a dozen hours a week on a campaign—leaning toward the high end as things get started. After that, running a project, such as a neighborhood watch, will probably take a few hours a week, says Michelle Boykins, director of marketing and communications for the National Crime Prevention Council. Be prepared to invest more as “things come up” or to be explicit with others about the limits of your time.
If you’re going to start a campaign, think through the role and tasks that it takes to be successful. You’ll be a leader, so expect to make decisions, get people motivated, and keep the project moving forward. Be prepared to deal with some dissent: Can you be polite but firm?
You’ll need to be a good communicator both one-on-one and to a group. Today’s social media—e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, blogs—are invaluable for updates, but most campaigns start with face-to-face conversations. “Those tools are a great way to keep people in the community apprised of what’s going on, but they’re not as good at getting people mobilized,” says Kristal Heinz, senior program associate for Community Sparkplugs, a program of the Rensselaerville Institute that helps residents around the country improve their community.
Talk to administrators rather than politicians
Depending on your project, you’ll probably talk with local officials. It’s best to start with the agency that has jurisdiction over your issue before calling on elected officials, says Susan Noyes, founder of Make It Better, a community catalyst organization for the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, who was part of a campaign that motivated her town’s park district to clean up a local site.
“When talking to an agency, the hard line is almost never the appropriate response,” Noyes says. “Only go that route at the end of a long process.”
If you don’t feel comfortable with these tasks, you may consider a smaller role in pushing for your project: Write a letter to your local officials, mention the idea to a local nonprofit that might be interested, or call a reporter in the town’s newspaper and explain the issue.
However, if you read the list below, and think, “This sounds doable,” then you’re ready to lead a campaign and be a force for positive change in your neighborhood.
1. Talk up your issue
The first step to generate enthusiasm and support for your idea is to get out and talk about it. Go door-to-door or ask to speak at places of worship and local meetings.
“Build on connections you already have. If your child has a play date once a week, maybe that’s when you talk about how nice it would be if the kids could ride their bikes on local streets,” says Stephanie Serkin, the state and local policy associate with the National Complete Streets Coalition.
Before your first conversation, do some background research on your issue so you’re prepared to make a strong case and answer common questions. And be ready to listen, too. People are more likely to want to be involved when the campaign has room for their ideas.
2. Hold a public meeting
If your conversations give you a sense that people agree with your vision, a let’s-get-this-started meeting is a key moment to gauge real interest in your campaign, build a common vision, and garner commitment. Reserve a room at the neighborhood school or a community nonprofit and invite people in the community to hear more.
Don’t worry if the room isn’t full; sometimes quality trumps quantity. “We didn’t have a huge turnout,” recalls Regina Acosta Tobin of the first meeting she held to fight against a proposed speedway in her community in Columbus, Ohio. “But enough of us started talking and realized we felt passionate about this.”
3. Set strategic goals
Talk through what it will take to achieve your final goal. Who has the power to make it happen? The city sanitation department can decide whether to increase recycling pick-up dates, for instance, but a group of volunteers can run a community garden. What action steps will be necessary? What resources are available and how much money needs to be raised?
4. Build a leadership team
A team to share in campaign duties is crucial—a half dozen members is a good target. Split up responsibilities among your leadership team, and don’t micromanage once projects have begun. Volunteers give their effort in part because they enjoy the work and feel valuable. Constant advice on how to do everything erodes those feelings.
“Have a range of activities to match the amount of time people can donate,” advises Boykins. For a neighborhood watch, she says, time commitment increases from a “window watcher” who keeps an eye on the block, to making bi-weekly citizen patrol sweeps of the community, to publishing a regular newsletter.
5. Maintain momentum
Nothing derails a campaign like a loss of momentum. Have your leadership team talk every other week or so, and don’t forget to keep in contact with volunteers who are waiting to be involved.
Keep everyone’s attention and enthusiasm going with a series of concrete goals—a new bench at the corner to make a street feel more pedestrian-friendly, for instance, or newspaper story on your group’s work. A tight timeline helps forward momentum, too. “Keep projects short-term or work in increments,” says Heinz, who recommends groups aim to be finished within six months.
“If you don’t feel completely ready for a big project like building a playground, take baby steps,” suggests Alison Risso, the director of communications for Ka-BOOM, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports community-built playgrounds. “Have a play date in the community with games and activities that celebrate play. It can be a fund-raising activity, and with a smaller success you can build your community’s confidence.”