Why Minneapolis should value strong neighborhood organizations

The last few weeks have been a roller coaster for people involved in neighborhood organizations in Minneapolis. The City Council added an amendment at the last moment to the city’s 2011 Budget to use uncontracted NRP Phase II funds to pay for the new Citizen Participation Program for the next two years. Or as one of my colleagues asked “Isn’t that like using my Visa to pay for my American Express?”

What has been missing from the discussion of acronyms and funding sources is: Why are healthy, strong neighborhood organizations important to Minneapolis’ future?

The reason neighborhood organizations are so important to Minneapolis’ future is because of their unique ability to build community, bring people together, and leverage resources.  

What makes neighborhood organizations so unique and important is that, by definition, they are focused on building connections and empowering the people who live and work in a specific geographic area to improve their neighborhood.

So while other groups are focused on bringing together people with similar backgrounds, ideas, and values; neighborhoods are working to bring people together who often share only proximity. Building connections between Minneapolis’ diverse populations is critical to the city’s future. A key factor in successful community building is providing an environment for people to come together, voice their opinions, adapt to the situation, and work together to accomplish tasks; which is considerably easier when people have existing relationships.

The reason neighborhood organizations are so successful in bringing people together is because people care about where they live, their house, their block. They want to be involved in shaping what their community looks and feels like; something that is really hard to do in a city of nearly 400,000 people.    

The time people invest by giving back through their neighborhood is one way they are able to leverage resources. An example is here in Lyndale, where in an average year we receive around $200,000 in public funding. From that initial investment we are able to raise another $200,000 to $250,000 in funding from foundations, corporations, individuals, etc. On top of this fundraising, we are able to organize community members to invest between 6,000 to 7,000 hours of volunteer time back into the neighborhood. The value of the volunteer time contributed is around $90,000 a year — a sound return on investment when you consider everything we do is directed at improving Minneapolis.   

The work our volunteers do involves everything from working with the police to clean up problem properties, picking up litter, removing graffiti, to helping reduce energy usage … in essence we provide people with the most direct way possible for them to improve their neighborhood.  

As small nonprofits neighborhoods are able to adapt to the issues at hand; something we saw recently in the response to the assaults in Powderhorn and how Hawthorne has led the way on foreclosures.

Reducing public support for neighborhood organizations threatens to lock the city into a dangerous mindset. Traditionally the way city services have been delivered is when a need is identified, the city hires staff and pays them to fix, clean-up, work on the issue, etc. As we move into an era of constrained budgets and declining revenues, neighborhood organizations provide a way for the city to think about community building using a more distributive model.

The advantage of this kind of approach is that it gets people involved in contributing their time, energy, ideas, and often money into improving their community while increasing their sense of ownership. The hard part of this approach for some people is that they have to give up a certain amount of control to make things work. It also means that they need to communicate clearly and be transparent, otherwise people will stop contributing.

In essence it means doing the exact opposite of what happened with the city’s budget.

Minneapolis neighborhood organizations have done incredibly important work over the past 20 years leveraging more than $1 billion in investment in Minneapolis. The real test for the city: Does it provide neighborhood organizations with the support they need to get people involved or do they continue with an unsustainable model of centralized control.

Mark Hinds is the executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association and the District 6 Representative for the City of Minneapolis’ Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission.