A practical community engagement framework will lead to support for your nonprofit programs.
Article In Brief:
- The Problem: Nonprofits are generally admired in our society but organizations that provide direct social services often meet opposition when expanding services in a community due to NIMBY or Not in My Background Syndrome.
- The Context: NIMBY is an example of neighborhood redlining imposed by socioeconomically privileged residents who are opposed to those that are different from them or “don’t belong.”
- The Solution: The author argues that the NIMBY phenomenon is an outgrowth of a nonprofit sector built on white supremacist culture traits such as paternalism, binary thinking, and conflict avoidance. To counteract NIMBY attitudes, a two-step framework is presented for proactive community engagement that will build local support.
If you work in the nonprofit world long enough, you are bound to run into a case of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) Syndrome.
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Organizations of all types, and especially those that provide direct social services, are frequently met with a lack of community support and even downright opposition. Even when neighborhood residents and businesses support your mission and work, folks often balk when new or expanded services are proposed in close proximity to their own lives. False claims of plummeting property values as well as concerns about safety or public health are often red herrings for underlying racism and classism, especially in gentrifying communities. Although the work is admirable, the NIMBY Syndrome wants it done somewhere else.
NIMBY dynamics raise bigger questions about (who determines) who belongs in a community as well as how we tend to dehumanize people we consider to be other. Those with privilege often dehumanize those without, and those without can try to access power and privilege by differentiating ourselves from others. This is why we see NIMBY play out in nearly every kind of community, regardless of socio-economic status (although it is most associated with more affluent or gentrifying communities). In this way, NIMBY can be seen as a kind of grassroots redlining, where residents protect themselves from what they perceive as change or from individuals who are different or “don’t belong,” as defined by those espousing NIMBY views.
Most recently, this dynamic has been seen across the country as nearly every urban area has seen a rise in homeless encampments. Even in cities with progressive policies and robust services for people without homes, proposals to expand shelters or bring city services to encampments in order to improve health and safety have been met with community backlash.
The Problem of Attempting Invisibility
Organizations that provide these services have long adopted an under-the-radar approach, operating quietly and invisibly so as not to disrupt the surrounding community. In the 1980s, for example, young professionals in a Chicago North Side neighborhood enlisted local churches to provide shelter to people experiencing homelessness. As the neighborhood became more affluent, the shelter became rooted in the community with volunteer and donor support but adopted a deliberate strategy to operate with as little visible impact as possible. Signage was minimal, referrals came through word of mouth, and shelter staff rarely connected with the community as a whole, only with individual supporters. The organization took pride in meeting neighbors who had lived next door for years and never realized that a shelter existed so close.
However, this strategy backfired in 2006 as the shelter began planning—in partnership with the host churches—renovations that would improve the building and allow for expanded programming. Neighbors organized a misinformation campaign based in fear, citing unfounded claims of lowered property values, increased crime, and danger to children and families in the area if shelter operations were allowed to expand. The organization was caught off-guard and struggled to combat this misinformation while simultaneously trying to build the relationships and support needed to successfully renovate. After a lengthy and costly legal battle, followed by years of rebuilding trust with neighborhood residents, the organization’s leadership staff and funding were worn out and its clients were further stigmatized.
Unfortunately, in today’s environment of 24-hour breaking news, social media armchair activism, and more divisiveness around nearly every social issue, the potential for NIMBY is something every nonprofit needs to think about now more than ever.
From Reactive to Proactive
Today, another organization in Chicago specifically serves youth experiencing homelessness. However, this organization recognizes that NIMBY continues to be a problem. As such, they take a more proactive approach when developing new programming in new geographic areas. They do this by introducing the organization to neighborhood residents and invite them to provide feedback and guidance as partners in the work.
Although the organization hears similar mumbled concerns about crime, safety, and neighborhood disruption, staff are able to build trust and support proactively. This proactivity helps build a strong foundation and cements the organization as part of the neighborhood fabric from inception.
NIMBY is a Structural Problem
Although these situations might seem hyper-local and neighborhood-specific, it’s important to remember that the NIMBY phenomenon is an outgrowth of a nonprofit sector built on white supremacist culture traits such as paternalism, binary thinking, and conflict avoidance. A community engagement strategy that views neighbors as donors to be cultivated and “kept happy” is fraught with potential to perpetuate structural racism. For example, the nonprofit sector relies on wealthy donors and institutions and they are expected to be grateful of the financial support without challenging how these systems perpetuate structural racism. Fortunately, this model is changing as nonprofits begin to think differently about accountability to stakeholders, including clients and the communities they serve. Community-centric fundraising calls for moving away from transactional relationships to transformative ones that value mutual benefit and collective action.
Nonprofits must work to undo such structural oppression, including NIMBY attitudes. So, the question becomes how can organizations anticipate and counter NIMBY? That is, is it possible to turn our most vocal opponents into champions of our work?
Because racism and oppression are structural problems—that is, they are baked into the fabric of society—they require organizations to engage in ongoing processes to dismantle them. Ideally, your organization is deeply rooted in the community, but these relationships must be increasingly solidified in order to counteract structural problems such as NIMBY attitudes. As your organization grows from grassroots to larger operations and/or expand into new geographies, you need to invest in community engagement as a value as well as an ongoing practice.
Below you’ll find two practical steps to proactive community engagement that will lead to local support for your programs year-round, as well as what to do during a crisis (when you need local support the most).
Step 1: Demystify your programs and services and create transparency.
As humans, we fear what we don’t understand, and when we lack information, our minds tend to fill in the blanks. Organizations need to combat this by bringing our work into the light via honesty and transparency about successes, challenges, and necessary resources. There is a fine balance to highlighting strengths of a community or group of people while also calling upon the community for necessary support.
What this looks like in practice:
- Create FAQs tailored to neighbor questions (download template “Program FAQs List”). Knock on doors and meet formal and informal leaders in the community. Don’t assume that people understand the nuances or jargon of your field. Be prepared to debunk myths. However, your greatest asset will be listening so that you can respond to anxieties in a clear and compassionate way.
- Host open houses in your program space (if possible) to meet staff and clients. If this is not possible (perhaps due to confidentiality requirements), host open office hours at neighborhood coffee shops. You want to make your organization accessible by answering questions and meeting your neighbors. One organization I knew did this by simply opening their doors to trick-or-treaters at Halloween each year, giving staff and clients a chance to get to know neighbors in a fun way.
- Ensure continuous education of local elected officials, police, and other service providers that your organization or clients interact with regularly. When the youth organization mentioned above opened their new shelter, they invited police to visit the site (before clients arrived) to meet staff and understand the building layout. If you need approval from a local official in order to proceed, consider creating a Community Benefits Agreement that outlines your commitment to the community. Although traditionally used between communities and developers, nonprofits are using these agreements more frequently to create mutual accountability with the neighborhoods they serve.
- Make sure neighbors and community leaders know your staff and who to contact with about concerns or questions. Designate a community liaison or hire community engagement staff. When contacted, be responsive, and document your contact.
Step 2: Demonstrate added value that your program brings to the community.
While proximity and relationships are the antidotes to misinformation and misunderstanding, transparency and accountability will bring community support to the next level, ensuring that your organization is regarded as an asset and key community leader.
What this looks like in practice:
- Cultivate volunteers and donors from within the community. Engage faith communities, local business associations, school councils, and neighborhood/block groups. Value time and connections as much as dollars.
- Calculate return on investment for your services and share externally. Does your program help prevent trips to the emergency room or exacerbation of future social issues? Can you translate healthier clients into healthier future generations and healthier communities?
- Commit to the community in other ways. For example, consider looking within the community for hiring, selecting vendors, and/or sponsoring other organizations’ events.
- Join local neighborhood associations and business associations. Have a presence at local meetings and share often. For example, the above-mentioned youth services organization has dedicated staff who attend community events and get to know other community leaders.
- When possible, involve clients/service recipients in becoming ambassadors for your organization and its impact. This can be achieved through Consumer Advisory Boards or other leadership groups that help inform the goals and work of the organization. Clients can also give back directly to the community through volunteering or other mutual aid efforts. For example, some shelters organize snow-shoveling and spring clean-up efforts through which they help maintain the community that they are a part of.
- Consider sending a neighbor newsletter or other targeted communications to your closest neighbors. These bulletins might include operational updates, introduction of new staff, communication of successes/challenges, and invitations to get involved.
Bonus Step: When Crisis Occurs, Increase Outreach
Even with dedicated resources for ongoing community engagement, there are times when an organization may need to increase outreach for an urgent need. This urgent need might take the form of a request for zoning or licensing that requires community support. However, it might also be in response to a crisis, such as a serious crime occurring in or near your facility. Broader current events can also spark renewed fear or questions about your services as well as shifts in neighborhood demographics. When such events occur, organizations need to build upon existing community outreach with new engagement efforts.
What this looks like in practice:
- Ramp up communication and accessibility with more office hours. You might also offer scheduled town hall meetings to hear and respond to feedback. It is important to be accessible; however, it can be appropriate to say no to meetings/events that will not be helpful. (If the organization is involved in an incident that could result in a claim for damages, it is advisable to consult with your insurance company before holding public events about the incident.)
- Draft letters of support and/or collect signatures of supporters. Now is the time to mine the existing relationships that your organization has built over time (with donors, volunteers, influencers, partner organizations, etc.). Focus on people who are winnable but may be undecided. These might just be the extra support your organization needs during crisis.
- Understand your local legal processes as well as the politics of these processes. Consult local laws and get legal support if needed. However, your staff should not hide behind lawyers or external consultants. Whenever possible, organizational leadership should be visible and present, showing that they are a part of the community no matter what.
- Support staff who are leading this work of community engagement during crisis. This might manifest in adequate resources, flexible schedules, and equitable pay; however, your organization should also attend to your staff’s physical and psychological safety.
Using Proactive Community Engagement in the Pursuit of Equity
As the nonprofit sector begins to rethink what accountability means from a racial justice perspective, we need to deliberately move away from a reactive approach. Reactive approaches only protect our wealthier neighbors. Instead, we must embrace open dialogues that build upon shared values while working to combat fears founded on misinformation.
With a thoughtful and measured approach to community engagement, support for direct service programs and their beneficiaries will grow. Ultimately, this will build stronger communities that serve everyone more fully.
Erin Ryan (MSW, MPH) has 23 years’ experience providing direct services and leadership in programs serving people in crisis, as well as community organizing and policy.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.