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STARTING ANEIGHBORHOODORGANIZATION                     Author: Tom Mayer, 1977    Reprinted and distributed by     Neighborhood Resource Center, Inc.    38 Catherine Street    Albany, New York 12202    (518) 462-5636     May, 1997

    The following is an attempt to put something in writing that will help a person in the community understand some of the planning process that takes place in initially organizing a neighborhood association. It offers some thought about setting up the vehicle for — The Association — but with ways of dealing with issues.

    Since the dimensions of an "organizer's" job transcends physical boundaries, there is an unknown and somewhat mysterious aura which surrounds what he or she does. However once it is realized that the basic planning skills needed to organize a neighborhood association — or any group, for that matter — are shared at varying levels by a broad cross-section of the community, the mystery will vanish.

    Those who have planned a party, for example, already have organized a group of people by working through a particular planning process. In the case of a party, here is a brief list of some of the things that are usually considered by its organizer:
(a)    why have a party (purpose)
(b)    what do we want to happen (goals)
(c)    how do we want it to happen (agenda)
(d)    who do we want to attend
(e)    how will they be contacted
(f)    what day, time and place will be appropriate
(g)    who will serve as leader to move the party from one activity to another
(h)    other concerns:
        - what kind of refreshments will be served
        - how will furniture be arranged

    Some of these things are done consciously, while other are given little conscious thought. Regardless of this, the main point is that anyone who has planned and carried off a party — or something of that nature — has already experienced a planning process that is similar in many ways to a process needed to organize a neighborhood association.

    The primary reason that a neighborhood association is organized is in response to an issue, or issues, that have a number of people upset enough to want to take action. The issue can be major — or relatively minor in comparison. The important ingredient is that whatever the issue, it is of significant importance to motivate a number of people to want to take action.

    There are a great many issues, neighborhood complaints, etc. that are constantly being discussed — that have people upset to the point of acting — but that never get developed. The ingredient that transforms a neighborhood complaint into an issue that neighbors organize around is called leadership. What an issue needs to make it a reason for organizing is a person, or persons, to take the proverbial "bull by the horn" and begin to mobilize people to deal with it.
    The initial phase in organizing a neighborhood association often begins with the person, or persons, who assume leadership on an issue contacting a small group of neighbors, who are also interested in acting on the issue, and holding a meeting. This meeting — either formal or informal — often focuses on such topics as:
(a)    discussing and clarifying the pressing issue.
(b)    discussing other issues or problems—some fringe, others recurring.
(c)    discussing strategies to deal with this issue.
(d)    discussing ways that other neighborhood associations or groups have dealt with     similar problems.
(e)    discussing how other neighborhoods formed associations.
    The important end product of this meeting it that the individuals in the group, and     the group as a whole, feel and express a commitment to proceed with the task of     organizing a neighborhood association as the vehicle for dealing with the pressing     issue and other concerns.

    Once this group—called the Steering Committee—has committed itself to forming a neighborhood association, there are certain planning and task—oriented functions that have to be done for the initial neighborhood-wide meeting. Although some of these things could probably be accomplished at the initial meeting, there are enough specific tasks to do that another meeting or two will probably be warranted.

    The location should be as centrally located as possible, and the room should be large enough to comfortably handle the number of people who will attend. However, if the options available are for a room too large, or one too small, opt for the smaller room. It is psychologically better for the group to feel a little crowded than to feel lost in a large room.

    The seating arrangement for the meeting is also important—but not vital to the success of the meeting. The seating arrangement, however, can either facilitate or inhibit communication.

    The "TV arrangement" (head table with rows of people facing it) inhibits a free flow of communication. People have become accustomed to this arrangement, and the passive part that they play—like watching the tube. Another approach, with the chairs in a pattern facing each other (i.e., concentric circles) seems to facilitate communication by making those present feel as if they are part of the group, and not merely passive spectators. A seating arrangement where each participant can see faces of a the other participants is better.

    Choose a date and time that will be of maximum convenience to the people, and that will have the best chance of attracting a maximum audience. If there is a known conflict with another event that several people regularly attend (i.e., Tuesday night bingo), schedule the meeting for another night. If one of the neighborhood issues is an expressed fear of being out after dark, beginning the meeting at 8:30 p.m. might not be prudent. An early enough starting time so that people will be home by dark would add to the attendance. (Also, arranging for transportation — i.e., car pool — or for people to walk together will increase attendance.)
Keep the expectations for the meeting within realistic limits:
(a)    Set a reasonable goal as to the number of people who will attend.
(b)    Plan to create an informal, friendly atmosphere.
(c)    Try to motivate participation in discussions; plan an informative meeting.
(d)    Plan to leave the people who attend with the feeling that the group is worthwhile     and action oriented.

    If, for the first meeting, people are motivated to attend, a neighborly atmosphere is created, and those present feel that the group is worthwhile, then the meeting should be celebrated as a huge success. People will return if they feel interested, feel a part of what is going on and that they are not wasting their time. Remember:
(a)    Don't get hung up in measuring the success of a meeting by the number of people     who attend. This is merely one indicator.
(b)    A neighborhood association is geared for the long haul. Don't let the     disappointing attendance at a meeting discourage your efforts.

    The agenda—what will happen at the meeting and in what order—is very important to the success of any meeting; it should directly relate to the goal set for the meeting. The agenda should be simple—not cluttered—informative and flexible. The agenda for the first meeting should include the history of how the meeting came about (issue, leadership, steering committee meeting, desire to form a neighborhood association, why, etc.). People want to know!

    The agenda should be kept to the topic under discusson and moved along at a reasonable pace. This is the job of the leader to facilitate the flow of the meeting.

    A short, well-planned and efficiently-run meeting is much more advisable than a long, drawn out one. People get turned-off by lengthy meetings and meetings that wander from the agenda. This is a prime reason why some people don't return for other meetings. The ability to conduct a meeting in one to one and one half hours is becoming a lost art. Remember—a successful meeting should not be confused with a lengthy meeting.

    The agenda should be flexible enough to allow any questions, issues, etc., to be raised that those in attendance wish to discuss. The agenda is the vehicle for attaining the goal set for the meeting and not an excuse for inhibiting what the group wants to discuss.

    Often, the first meeting includes a mini-gripe session where the members of the group are encouraged to air their complaints. Sometimes, the agenda for the first meeting includes an open discussion with people from other neighborhood associations to find out how they have dealt with similar issues; and how their group was formed.

The meeting should conclude with:
    (a) a summary of what has been discussed;
    (b) preliminary plans to deal with the issue and
    (c) the decision to begin working on the formation of an organization.
This task of drafting a blueprint of the organization's structure is either given to the Steering Committee or another committee that is formed to work on it.
    Before the meeting breaks up, the group should decide on a specific date, time and place for the next meeting.

    The Steering Committee must select a person who will chair the initial meeting. This leader may be the person who initiated efforts for beginning the group, or someone else. For all practical purposes, this person usually is viewed as the leader (unless the Committee makes provisions to rotate chairpersons) until the group approves the by-laws and holds an election of officers. Some characteristics that the Steering Committee might want to consider in choosing a leader:
    Does the person have a sense of the community? Does this person have the respect of the neighbors? Does the person inspire confidence? Do the neighbors feel comfortable with this person? Does this person have the ability to relate both to the group and on an individual basis? Does this person have an understanding of the group process, and the leader's role in this process? Does this person seem to have a feel for the democratic process? (No one wants a dictator!) Does this person have the ability to listen? Does this person have the ability to articulate the group's desires and positions? Is this person logical, reasonable, self—motivated, and have the ability to motivate others?

    Although this is formally adopted in the by-laws, the Steering Committee has a large say in defining the boundaries by:
(a)    either discussing and deciding on tentative boundaries, and publicizing these in the     notice for the meeting, or,
(b)    by limiting the publicity efforts for the meeting to a specific area.

    The boundaries for the organization should identify what the people feel comfortable defining as the boundaries of the area which is their neighborhood. There are examples of neighborhood associations that geographically are either very large and very small. There are both advantages and disadvantages in either of these models. The following will outline some of these:
Geographically large:   
Advantages    Disadvantages
(a) clout in negotiations: "strength in numbers"    (a) Loses close knit feeling
(b) More people to draw members and leadership from.    (b) Difficult to have personal relationships among members because of numbers.
    (c) Lack of concern for something that happens blocks away.
Geographically small   
(a) Tight knit feeling    (a) Not as much clout in negotiating — numbers are limited.
(b) Smallness encourages the development of personal relationships.    (b) Fewer people to draw leadership and members from
(c) The limitation on boundaries makes the problem for one, the concern of all.    

    A great deal of credit or fault for the attendance at any meeting is due to the quality and quantity of the publicity generated.

    The purpose of publicity is to make people aware of the meeting. The types of publicity generated can include, but are not limited to, use of the media, flyers, posters, telephone, personal contact, etc.. In using printed materials (flyers, posters, etc.), try to include something catchy that will grab people's attention. Also, keep the notice short and to the point; many people will ignore a wordy notice. Any notice should at least answer the questions who, when, where and for what.
Using the media is another way to publicize the meeting. The media is pretty receptive to plugging meeting notices for community groups. For some people, being informed about a meeting by a media source (i.e., newspaper story) adds a certain credibility to the group, and the meeting.

    By far, the best type of publicity for a meeting—if best can be judged by results in motivating people to attend—is personal contact. Neighbor informing neighbor, encouraging each other to attend and participate, is the type of publicity that pays big dividends at the turnstile.

    A big publicity effort is needed to have a well attended meeting. The use of a wide range of types of publicity is most advantageous. Different types will reach different people.

    Make sure that the outcome of your meeting is not sealed by a poor publicity effort. It is an awful feeling of frustration for the Steering Committee to know that they are sitting on a dynamite issue, but that a poor publicity effort curtailed what could have been a terrific turnout—if ONLY people knew about the meeting.

    Besides those things that have already been discussed there are other considerations, of a less important nature, that the Steering Committee should take into account.
(a)    The Steering Committee might want to recruit a few people who would be     available to greet people at the door, introduce themselves, and welcome them to     the meeting. This initial burst of friendliness can be contagious and can make     people feel comfortable with their attendance at the meeting.
(b)    Having a person or two available near the door with a sign—in sheet (name,     address, and phone number) is also recommended . Besides giving the Steering     Committee a record of who attended, it also gives the Committee a list of people     to contact for other meetings and to work on issues. Name tags might also be     available at the sign—in table.
(c)    The Committee will probably want to designate a person who will record what     happens at the meeting.
(d)    The Committee might want to have refreshments available. What kind of     refreshments and when they will be served should be discussed. Several groups     have refreshments available at the conclusion of the business meeting. This     encourages people to stay and informally chat with their neighbors, afterwards.

    From the point of view of setting up the organization, the next important and final step, is the adoption of by-laws by the group. The by-laws, or constitution, is nothing more that the organization's blueprint—it is to the neighborhood association what an architectural drawing is to a house. It sets the size, shape and dimensions, and shows how the parts fit into the whole package.

    Probably near the conclusion of the first public meeting, the idea of drafting a set of by-laws will emerge. This job will either be given to the Steering Committee or a separate committee will be designated to work on it.

    Depending on the type of organizational pattern that the group wants, there are all sorts of by-laws available. Instead of "reinventing the wheel," it would be advisable for the Committee to secure copies of various types, and use them as a starting point.

    The sections and the items included in the by-laws for the neighborhood associations in Albany are pretty standard. There are a few important considerations about by-laws—and several less important ones. The most important points deal with the purpose and control of the organization.

    The "purpose" of the association is spelled out in one section of the by-laws. Although this is usually done in broad enough terms to leave room for some flexibility, the basic reasons for the organization's existence will be enumerated. By delineating the "purpose" in the by-laws, the future course and direction of the organization is set—and therein lies the importance of the "purpose".

    Who has control of the organization is the other critical consideration. Most organizations designate a small elected group to control the affairs of the association. This controlling group may be the officers, or a larger body (Board of Directors, Executive Committee, et.). Although control of the organization is vested in their hands, major issues are brought to the attention of the general membership for debate and decisions.

    In drafting by-laws, it is important to discuss fully this question of who has control and how it will be exercised. There are several models to choose from, but each group must decide which type of by-laws they feel most comfortable with and which best suit their purpose.

    Other items such as membership: boundaries; number, titles and duties of officers; committees; meetings also have to be dealt with. After it is drafted, this document will be presented to the general membership for discussion, debate and final determination. Once formally adopted the organization has a blueprint to follow which spells out its own ground rules and operating procedures.

    There is no "one way" or "right way" for starting a neighborhood association. The basic ingredients — issue, people, leadership, planning process and structure — are necessary components. How they are put together may vary from group to group.

    Keep in mind that there is a wealth of information about neighborhood associations in the Albany community. For a city of our size, we are fortunate to have so many active people who are vitally concerned with the quality of life at the neighborhood level. The experience that these people have gained over the years in dealing with issues through this group process is invaluable — and a rich resource for other interested neighbors.