How to Organize Your Neighborhood

(Originally written in the pre-Social Networking era)

  1. Start with an informal core group of three or four people who agree it’s a good idea for the neighborhood to organize itself, and who are willing to put in the time to organize the first few meetings.
  2. Agree on the boundaries of the area you consider “the neighborhood.” It’s better to start with a smaller, core area at first and grow into more diverse areas later.
  3. Call a meeting of the residents of the core neighborhood. You want to develop a consensus on the need for forming an organization and its general goals.
    • Compose a simple one-page “dear neighbor” letter, consisting of
      1. the purpose of meeting (to meet our neighbors, voice our concerns, see if there’s enough interest to form a neighborhood organization, etc.) It helps if there’s a particular pressing issue (e.g. crime or a particular zoning issue) that needs effective organized effort to protect the neighborhood’s interests.
      2. date, time, address, expected duration
      3. on the back of the letter put a simple hand-drawn map, showing the location of the meeting and where people can park
      4. who’s calling the meeting (should be the one who’ll chair the first couple of meetings and will probably be the initial president of the organization)
      5. point out the common issues and concerns that have prompted the calling of the meeting and which will serve as the initial discussion topics at the first meeting
      6. who to contact (name, phone, e-mail) for more information so that people who are unable to attend the meeting can have their input
      7. Distribute the letter door-to-door (put it ON doorsteps, NOT IN mailboxes) a week to 10 days before the meeting
  4. First meeting
    • Should be chaired by the person who signed the letter. Stick to the outline presented here (it doesn’t hurt to read it out loud, even make a joke of it, but stick to it) or you’ll leave out something you’ll regret later.
    • Be sure someone takes notes, hopefully someone who’s read this document and understands how the notes will be used to inventory and summarize the discussion.
    • The Chair should make brief introductory remarks, expand a little on the topics in the letter, describe the circumstances that led up to calling the meeting, and give an overview of the agenda for the rest of the meeting — individual introductions, break, discussion, decisions.
    • Go around the room and let people introduce themselves — name, address, how long in neighborhood, concerns. The Chair should gently discourage back-and-forth discussion during this phase of the meeting. Allow questions and answers for clarification, but point out that it’s important to keep moving so that everybody has an equal chance to speak and be heard. If you can’t or won’t do this, don’t chair the meeting; let someone else, otherwise the meeting will quickly deteriorate into a half dozen simultaneous conversations and nothing will be accomplished. Keep a list of the topics raised so they can be discussed later, with everyone able to listen and participate.
    • Circulate a sign-up sheet for name/address/phone #/e-mail. This gives people a chance to stretch, go to the bathroom, get refreshments, etc. When everyone has signed the sheet, reconvene the meeting.
    • Have a free discussion of the concerns raised. Try to keep the focus on one topic at a time. Know how much time you can afford to spend on each topic and try not to run overtime.
    • Close the meeting
      1. Summarize the discussion on the various issues so that everyone has a common impression of where the group stands
      2. Ask for volunteers to perform specific tasks and report back to the group at the next meeting, such as getting answers to important questions raised. It’s a good idea to make follow-up calls to the volunteers after a week or 10 days, to see if they’re on task.
      3. Set a second meeting date/time/place, and decide on the area to distribute meeting notices in. Get volunteers to help with distributing the notices. The second meeting should be held three to four weeks after the initial meeting; if it’s too close, people won’t have time to complete their assignments, if it’s too long, they’ll lose interest.
  5. Call a second meeting
    • The purpose is to receive the reports from the volunteers, further discuss actions to take on those issues, make a decision on whether to form the organization and select its leaders
    • Summarize the initial meeting
    • Receive the reports from the volunteers and discuss further actions
    • Introduce the guest speaker, an experienced leader from a similar neighborhood, who can point out how a neighborhood organization can help address the specific issues that have been discussed and other aspects of neighborhood organizations
    • Take a formal vote on whether to form a neighborhood organization and decide on a name for it
    • Select the initial officers. At minimum, the organization needs a president, secretary (to take minutes at future meetings), a treasurer (to keep track of membership, dues, and expenses). The officers will necessarily be part of the initial board of directors.
    • Create a workable number of committees (e.g., crimewatch, newsletter, parks, schools, traffic, social events, environment). Select the initial committee chairs. Committee chairs who want to be on the board of directors should also be on it, but shouldn’t automatically be on the board if they don’t want to be.
    • Select any other members for the board of directors. A board with more than seven members becomes unwieldy. The main purpose of the board is to set meeting dates and the agenda for meetings and newsletters. It should act on behalf of the organization ONLY in emergency situations, and even then it should go to the membership to ratify its decisions at the earliest possible date. Virtually everything should be decided in the general membership meetings. If the Board makes a habit of acting on behalf of the organization, the members will lose interest and the organization will only exist on paper.
    • Circulate a signup sheet and let people indicate which committee(s) they want to be on.
    • Decide on an amount for the annual (voluntary) dues assessment (such as $6 for individuals, $10 for families) to finance the newsletter and meetings
  6. Convene a meeting of officers and committee heads to plan the next several months’ activities.
    • Set the group’s immediate priorities, assignments, future meeting dates.
    • Divide the neighborhood up into “sub-neighborhoods,” or crimewatch areas of about 50 – 60 residences, which will also function as the newsletter distribution areas and your basic “units” for door-to-door contacts and phone trees.
    • Don’t overlook the social function of the organization — hold some sort of informal get-together such as a covered dish picnic, street party, costume party, or whatever, on a regular basis.
  7. Subsequent meetings and activities
    • Meet in public places, not in homes
    • All meetings should have a definite program, an agenda, and goals for what you want to accomplish at each meeting. If they don’t, don’t call the meeting.
  8. If the organization survives its first year
    • incorporate as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt, non-profit corporation. DO NOT incorporate as a 501(c)(3) corporation, as that is for charitable and educational organizations, and if you engage in “political” activities such as bringing neighborhood concerns before the City Commission, you may not only lose your tax-exempt status, but you may have to pay back taxes and penalties for the period you had tax-exempt status.
    • Open a checking account in the name of the organization. (Credit unions are more likely than banks to have no-fee, no-frills checking accounts.)
    • Get an official Post Office box to serve as the organization’s permanent address.

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