Grassroots Effort Leads to Big Local Change in Urban Area

By Katherine Parker, Associate Consultant, MPA’12

In early March, we completed a six month engagement with a coalition of seven synagogues along Pennsylvania’s Old York Road and presented our final action plan for the revitalization of the area. Although the project is at an end, it feels much more like a new beginning – with the promise of impactful activities and the group’s potential still to come.

As I write this post, the new grassroots community organization created out of the project – the Old York Road Community Organization – is setting out with the revitalization plan in hand to tackle three objectives for the area: support local business; grow the population; and improve community inter-cooperation.

The launch of the new organization, and our work to provide the research-driven recommendations in support of its genesis, is just one reminder of how cyclical our work is here at Research & Consulting. Just as our efforts to prepare the community organization for launch come to a close, my colleague Christina Tierno, is gearing up to publish a new report about promising practices for effective community-based action on a local level.

I recently had the opportunity to review a draft of the report and can say that it is nothing if not chock-full of helpful promising practices and tips for community organizations of all shapes and sizes. The report’s examples are from a survey of over 40 community-based environmental organizations, but the content surely serves as an effective guide for all grassroots initiatives regardless of its topic area.

As many in the field know, organizational dynamics within community-based groups are not always easy to manage and in some cases can actually serve as a barrier to the group’s progress. To combat common pitfalls, and as a sneak-peak to Christina’s upcoming report, here are two tips for community-based organizations:

1. Ensure member engagement and continued involvement:

Community organizations might have an informal feel, but as many organizers know, keeping members engaged and meeting objectives requires a very concerted effort behind the scenes. To keep members and volunteers connected, consider these promising practices:

  • Provide orientation and training materials to new members in order to ease transition into the organization and provide for a sense of collaborative mission.
  • Communicate updates and tangible results from completed projects or tasks at regular intervals in order to sustain momentum within the organization.
  • Take the time to match responsibilities with a member’s personal interest and talents. Members will be more enthusiastic and engaged if they have a personal passion for the issue and demonstrate an aptitude for the task.

2. Engage in effective project evaluation:

Most grassroots organizations do not engage in project evaluation due to time constraints or misunderstandings of its value. As the new report finds, project evaluation can be critical for a community-based organization’s success as it allows for a review what is and what’s not working. To engage in project evaluation, consider these guidelines:

  • Keep evaluations short and simple. Staff time and resources are limited and some may feel that time would be better spent on ‘action’ rather than administrative review. By keeping evaluations tailored, organizations can help to mitigate these issues and engage in effective review.
  • Set evaluation criteria before the project kicks-off and set up procedures for data collection. Setting criteria includes identifying how the team will define success and what measures might be useful for grant applications or partners. This helps to ensure that the data collected is useful for both internal evaluations and external needs.
  • Stick to straight-forward data collection techniques for evaluation. Sophisticated data systems can be both costly and time consuming for local groups. Understanding realistic constraints for evaluation is an important step in ensuring that data collection and program review are completed on the ground level.

That’s just a taste of the helpful recommendations and interview insights from the full report. It also serves as just one example of our team’s interconnected support for community-based initiatives – both new and old. I hope you’re as excited as I am by the upcoming release of this report and will check back soon for updates on its release.

Fels Research & Consulting is a part of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. Check back with us in a few weeks for the release of our report, Sustainable Strategies for Small Communities, highlighted in this post. The report will serve as a practical, accessible manual on the business of running an environmental nonprofit.

Photo credit: xedos4.

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