Raising the bar for neighborhood organizations

Neighborhoods 2020 plan would set minimum standards for governance, inclusion and outreach

Neighborhoods 2020 would give City Hall greater leverage over Minneapolis' 70 independent neighborhood organizations. File photo

The city’s next-generation model for community engagement aims to make it easier to get involved in Minneapolis’ 70 neighborhood organizations while also encouraging those organizations to diversify their leadership.

It may also shift the power balance between City Hall and neighborhoods in dramatic ways, giving the city greater leverage over how the independent neighborhood boards spend city funds.

The set of Neighborhoods 2020 recommendations released Jan. 28 outlines in broad terms what this new engagement model — successor to the 5-year-old Community Participation Program — could look like. The document distills the work of three volunteer workgroups and cherrypicks promising ideas from other cities with established neighborhood engagement networks, including Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and St. Paul.

Both Seattle and Portland are moving away from systems that channel city funds and engagement activities through neighborhoods. Like Minneapolis, those cities have found neighborhood organizations often struggle to include all the people in their neighborhoods, and so they’re working more with community groups defined by something other than geography, noted David Rubedor, director of Neighborhood and Community Relations for Minneapolis.

Neighborhoods 2020 doesn’t scrap Minneapolis’ decades-old neighborhood system, but it recognizes “people-based” organizations can be more effective at engaging certain cultural communities than “place-based” groups, and it proposes financial incentives to encourage collaboration between the two.

“What our philosophy has been here is the place-based system has had and will continue to have a significant role in Minneapolis,” Rubedor said.

While the Neighborhoods 2020 recommendations honor that history, they also propose new minimum performance standards for neighborhood organizations, covering everything from the groups’ bylaws and financial accounting to their outreach efforts — requiring, for instance, that neighborhood groups actively reach out through door-knocking campaigns or by tabling at community events.

Neighborhoods 2020 would make Minneapolis’ neighborhood program an opt-in system; organizations that don’t want to play by the new rules lose access to city funds. Rubedor described that as a “significant philosophical change” in the city’s relationship to neighborhoods, one that “elevates” the city’s role as funder.

“Like any other funding program, people choose whether they want to be in that program or not and whether they want to follow the program guidelines,” he explained

Several of the proposed rules specifically target the elected leadership of Minneapolis’ neighborhood organizations, who in surveys have appeared whiter, better educated and more likely to own a home rather than rent when compared to their wider neighborhoods. Those rules include term limits for board officers and diversity targets for elected neighborhood boards. Boards that fail to recruit a more diverse membership would be required to develop a plan for action or face financial penalties.

To help bring more diversity to neighborhood boards, Minneapolis may borrow an idea from Los Angeles. While Minneapolis’ neighborhood organizations each follow a different schedule for board elections, Los Angeles’ neighborhood councils coordinate election days — making it much easier for the city to share information on when, where and how to run for a board seat.

“I believe that’s critical … because those (elected leaders) are the folks that basically determine where the money is being spent, what programming is being developed,” Rubedor said.

Just how much money neighborhood and community groups will have to work with in the future is a big question — one not answered in the Neighborhoods 2020 recommendations.

Since the launch of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program in the 1990s, neighborhoods have benefitted from revenues produced by the city’s consolidated tax-increment financing district. The district expires at the end of this year, and TIF district money will dry up by the end of 2020.

In November, the City Council moved to include neighborhood funding in the city’s five-year financial plan. While the $7 million per year discussed then would maintain the current levels of funding for neighborhoods, the volunteer workgroups that contributed to Neighborhoods 2020 recommended funding at a level of $10 million per year.

Neighborhoods 2020 proposes the city’s budget for community engagement be divided between neighborhood and community organizations, with 75 percent going to neighborhood groups. Half of the total funds available to neighborhoods will be used to cover staff salaries, rent on office spaces and other basic, keep-the-lights-on expenses. One-quarter will be reserved for innovative outreach strategies and the final quarter will be available to fund neighborhood-directed projects, such as farmers markets and community gardens, small business development and collaborations with neighborhood parks and schools.

David Bagley, current board president for the Whittier Alliance, said Neighborhoods 2020 was “very consistent” with the goals of that neighborhood organization, which recently completed a strategic plan emphasizing engagement, neighborhood development and inclusiveness. The organization recently brought on two new staff members who dedicate much of their time to engaging the neighborhood’s large East African population, he added.

“The thing that’s got us concerned is the impact of this new funding model,” Bagley said.

He said the proposed model appeared to guarantee neighborhoods only half the funding they have come to rely on, forcing them to spend staff time and money competing for the other half against other neighborhood groups.

“It’s going to be difficult for us to sustain that staff, because now they’ve reduced the predictable element of our budget,” he said.

Neighborhoods 2020 aims to cut costs for neighborhood organizations by steering them into cost-saving partnerships with each other or with community organizations. It suggests combining staff and office space and pooling resources to purchase accounting help and other services.

Rubedor said a number of neighborhoods can only afford part-time staff, and a shift toward sharing personnel could create more full-time positions with better benefits.

Becky McIntosh, who serves as board treasurer for the Windom Community Council and volunteered on a Neighborhoods 2020 workgroup, said she feels optimistic that the recommendations put neighborhoods and the city on the right path. But to succeed, she added, the Neighborhood and Community Relations department will need to “step up their game” and do more to built the capacity of neighborhood organizations.

McIntosh said the organization would need increased city support in their efforts to reach renters in Windom — where access to apartment buildings can be a challenge — and to make meetings welcoming to all residents. Translation services for the neighborhood’s Latino and East African residents and childcare during meetings could boost involvement, but they also have a financial impact the Windom Community Council may not be able to bear on its current budget.

“I think it can be done,” McIntosh said of Neighborhood 2020’s outreach and diversity goals. “Is it going to be challenging? Yes.”

The Neighborhoods 2020 recommendations are expected to reach the City Council in April. The public comment period runs through March 31. For information on upcoming events, or to submit a comment, go to minneapolismn.gov/ncr/2020.