Showcase #2: Neighbors for Neighbors

NFN_Voices

Key features in this community showcase:

  • Social innovation
  • Online-Offline hybrid
  • Self-organization

Key ingredients and learnings:

  • Vision/Purpose
  • Importance of offline
  • Leadership and training

“BRINGING NEIGHBORS BACK TO NEIGHBORHOODS”

That was the elevator pitch that Joseph Porcelli fired back at me when I asked him for the big idea behind Neighbors For Neighbors.

Joseph_Profile_NFN

Erosion of ‘Neighborhood’

It’s a tall order given most neighborhoods are that in name only. Our nostalgic idea of neighborhood and the reality are seldom aligned. The word has become debased as social cohesion has eroded. Even the TV Soap cliché of unlocked doors and neighbors dropping in was displaced a decade ago with reality shows of people in hermetically sealed in houses.

An incident occurred in a Boston ‘neighborhood’ that is indicative of this erosion…and was the inspiration for what became NFN.

Two of Joseph’s neighbors were assaulted. “One of them was a big dude like me…and people don’t tend to mess with me too much…and I went ‘oh shit, maybe I should pay attention to this’”. There had been a lot of assaults according to the police, but no one knew or was doing anything because there was little communication within the community and between it and the police.

Social Innovation: How NFN works.

The organization that Joseph developed is a piece of social innovation. It’s using new tools to do an old thing. He’s attempting to recreate the kind of social glue that used to define ‘neighborhood’: familiarity, allegiance, mutual support and rallying together if challenged. But he’s doing it with a hybrid of social networking tools and good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings and social events.

He’s created a platform that enables neighborhoods to, as the site puts it, “Connect to people who live, work and serve in your neighborhood and discover and organize around common interests”.

In other words, he’s created a place where government agencies (including the police) can communicate with citizens, and hear their issues. It’s a place where neighborhoods can engage online about crime, schools, public transport, but also organize offline around common needs and causes…everything from neighborhood street parties to addressing social injustice.

How it started

Joseph did a very old fashioned, very effective thing to get it going. He handed out 500 flyers at the local subway station to recruit neighbors to talk about the crime issue. These tactics and his considerable charm worked: his ‘conversion’ rate was high. He got 90 people to a kick-off meeting.

It went well. So well, that he organized another meeting, but with a slightly different and more ambitious agenda. Getting people to meet and organize around a need for a safer neighborhood was clearly a good idea and was welcomed. But there was a bigger idea here. And crucially, one that would, as Joseph put it, “add more value by creating more social glue”. He was bothered that this initial spark of neighborhood interaction would die if it was dependent on one issue and had one meeting. He saw that the neighborhood would be strengthened if he “got people to do more for each other with each other”.

In others words, create stickier social glue by having more interactions amongst more people about more issues and interests. Reweave the social fabric. An important side effect should be a decline in crime because its fuel…anonymity and disassociation…will be gradually eliminated.

The second meeting had 120 attendees. They came to the microphone and pitched ideas to see who would like to form smaller groups around common interests: improving the local school, social clubs and so on. He created a marketplace for people find each other and share interests and issues. So he organized the next three meetings like a marketplace, with stalls and ‘customers’ browsing for common passions and interests. The last one was located in a large restaurant with a line of 400 people out the door.

Scaling the social marketplace

This was working great. But maybe it could become more efficient. Maybe if he took the marketplace online where people could search, find and form groups around common interests he could get more people doing more stuff together. Add the ability to post pictures, organize events, have forums, write blog posts and you begin to have something approaching the archetypal picture of a neighborhood that all of us carry in our heads.

That’s more or less what’s happening on Neighbors For Neighbors right now. If you check out the Jamaica Plain home page for example, you’ll see the daily stuff of an active and interacting neighborhood. The last time I looked, there were posts about lost cats, finding housing, a police officer writing about street safety, a citizen posting about trash recycling, and Halloween parties were being organized.

This is replicated in 17 other neighborhoods in Boston. And Joseph is planning on exporting the idea to other cities. He’s spent the past year focused on improving the technology to the point so that it can become a plug and play operation for any urban area that needs to rebuild social glue.

Neighbors for Neighbors is now the envy of traditional community structures. Even the Mayor of Boston is paying it serious attention. On Saturday October 24th both he and the Police Commissioner announced the city’s partnership with NFN.

What it’s done.

There’s now 2400+ plus members citywide. The largest proportion is in Jamaica Plain, where the whole thing started (1500+ members, up from 400+ in a year). NFN has 80+ self-organized groups about all kinds of interests and passions. The most successful are the ‘Neighborhood Zone’ groups where people communicate and take action about crime.

It would be interesting if Joseph could track metrics on crime, feelings of social trust (a key indicator of Social Capital according to Robert Putnam and the Saguaro Seminar).

In the meantime rising site visits, page views and network growth, plus accolades from members are serving as an indicator of success. The one below is representative of many and is taken from comments on NFN’s submission for the Knight News Challenge (an award for innovative ideas that serve communication within communities). It’s one of the leading contenders…I invite you to vote if you think NFN is a cool idea and want to see it replicated in other cities.

“I have been incredibly blessed to see Neighbors for Neighbors grow and develop over the last few years. The impact that it has had on our local community is apparent. Both in simple acts, such as how many people say hello to you when getting your morning coffee or walking down the street. To the larger issues, such as how quickly Neighbors for Neighbors reacted and assisted the community when we had a recent series of muggings. It is a truly wonderful organization that I have been blessed to have in my community.”

A work in progress.

Being a true innovator and having a real sense of social responsibility, Joseph is clear about NFN’s issues. He knows what needs to be fixed for it to be a platform for really high-functioning communities.

These issues are not untypical. And tracking how Joseph deals with them should be instructive.

  1. As he has focused on perfecting the online functionality, offline social interaction has suffered: “And that’s where the value is”.
  2. As they themselves admit, the local Neighborhood Organizers are not yet able to do their job well enough.
  3. The failure rate of self-organized, offline local interest groups is too high.
  4. Although site visits are up, the membership is not active enough.

The third and fourth issues are likely to be symptoms of the first two. So lets look at those in more detail.

1. Online vs. Offline.

Joseph scaled the opportunities for people and neighborhood institutions to find each other, connect and get stuff done. Neighbors For Neighbors is on the cutting edge of municipal organizing. It’s connecting government agencies with the population. It’s “displaced fear with power and trust” as it’s reconnected the population and mobilized them around issues and causes.

But online activity has begun to eclipse offline activity, where the real social glue is made. Putting the neighbor back into neighborhoods can’t just be a virtual experience. People need to see each other, support each other, and laugh with each other. As Joseph puts it “you can’t high-five someone online!”

Joseph now believes he needs to go back and relearn the lessons of the early success of NFN. Now that the online infrastructure is coming together, he’s considering returning to hard work of generating more offline interaction.

Watch this space as we track how he does it.

2. Neighborhood Organizer.

Each neighborhood has a Neighborhood Organizer. And they’re not doing as well as they or Joseph would like. There are two key issues:

  • The Vision/Mission Thing.

They’ve asked for both the purpose of Neighbors For Neighbors, and their roles, to be better defined. “Putting the neighbors back into neighborhoods” was Joseph’s off the cuff response to me asking for the elevator speech (a rather good one, I think.) He’s crafted this more ‘official’ expression:

MISSION

We connect people who live, work, and serve in the same neighborhood by providing tools for them to communicate and to organize around common interests.

VISION

We envision neighborhoods worldwide where neighbors know each other by name, feel safe, have access to and share information and resources, and feel empowered and motivated to actively contribute to each other’s quality of life.

Now his focus is to figure out it can be executed through the online/offline hybrid model, and training Neighborhood and Group organizers to facilitate where the real glue is made: the interest groups, the offline organizing around causes and issues, the engagement of government bodies into the program, etc.

  • The Skills Thing.

The Neighborhood Organizers are the image of the new leaders that are emerging as our society is rediscovers the need for community. Namely, well-intentioned amateurs who see the need for a community, but who do not necessarily have the skills to run one.

The failure rate of organizers is too high. There are 120 groups, but many are dormant. Joseph believes the answer is to train the organizers. He wants to give them the toolsets to enable people to take action. They’ve had success organizing to fight crime. But the real benefit will come when they organize not just to address urgent threats, but also to do everyday stuff like support, social interaction and fun.

As Joseph puts it, the aim is for people to say “I want to do this” and then someone says “I’ll do that with you”. Now the platform is coming together, training is critical. His next step is to put together a curriculum, a best-practice manual and create a network or organizers so that they can mentor and support each other.

Neighbors For Neighbors is an extremely interesting model for the creation of social capital. It’s an online/offline hybrid, exploiting the efficiencies of online communication and organizing to create more frequent and higher value offline interactions.

Like that other online/offline hybrid, Meetup, it’s about local. Except Meetup starts with the passion/interest/need/cause and enables people to self-organize and meet locally around it. NFN starts with the ‘local’ premise: the neighborhood, and then enables people to find and share common passions/interests/needs/causes in the overt service of creating a high-functioning, geographically anchored, archetypal community.

Let’s hope Joseph and his team can develop a replicable model that will re-make neighborhoods into something approaching that nostalgic idea we desperately cling to.

Showcase #1: Govloop

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Key features:

  • Big, fast-growing, active community.
  • Mostly online.
  • Leader has gone ‘professional’.

Key ingredients and learnings:

  • Satisfy real needs.
  • Safe space.
  • Mutual support and power.
  • Who belongs.
  • Stay amateur or go professional?

Who would think that government would be so interesting? Well, actually, not that many. Even most in government are tepid about it. But there is a small percentage that is passionate about what it can do, and who are driven to make it better.

That’s who Govloop is for.

Communities have to satisfy real needs

This might seem obvious. But you’d be amazed how many online and offline communities are started without a proper examination of whether they’re needed. And so they fail, or if they’re smart, they modify themselves to find and then satisfy something that people want, whether it’s a social life or social change.

In this case Steve Ressler (Govloop’s founder) was very clear about the need. And as is so often the case, he identified it by examining his own.Steve Ressler

There’s a new breed of youngish people in government who want to innovate. Judging by Steve’s personal experience, it’s about 4%: “There were about three people out of the eighty in my department who were passionate. The other 77 couldn’t care less”. He felt lonely and dragged down by the ‘jobsworths’ (as we call them in the UK: “it’s more than my job’s worth to make change/rattle the cage etc”…a particular characteristic of government workers there too.)

Govloop is designed to help the innovators find each other, emotionally reinforce each other and get direct help to do a difficult thing in the slow-motion world of government: make change.

There may only be the equivalent of three out of eighty in government at large, but over 21,000 change-makers have found each other using the Govloop community after only 18 months of its existence. Clearly, it’s satisfying a real need.

Communities create safe spaces (Glue ingredient #2).

High-functioning communities create ‘safe spaces’ for individuals to become themselves, protected from criticism and attack because they are amongst ‘like-others’.

Whether politically, religiously, morally, or just on the basis of interest or passion, when individuals identify with each other because they buy into the same values and goals, they tend to be able to express that part of their personality with confidence because they are celebrated for what makes them feel the same inside the community of like-others, but different (and therefore isolated) outside. In this case, the like-others are innovators in government.

The emotional benefit of Govloop’s safe space is, as Steve puts it: “a place for passionate people to connect and get energy”. They feel confident enough to express their ideas and enthusiasms that would otherwise be censured or discouraged within their own departments.

In practical terms, Govloop’s safe space delivers the tools that are needed to effect real change. The forums, groups and blogs are all heavily used to share advice and post requests for help. And to break down silos within government so there’s a real sharing of best practice. Today, for example, there’s someone who wants to know how to handle a potential lawsuit generated by the users of their Facebook page. Another is about how to handle transparency in government.

The most popular part of the site is the ‘Groups’ function. Nearly 600 groups have self-organized around members’ needs…needs that Steve never imagined existed. Whether its about introducing new technology, learning leadership skills, or bringing creativity to government, these mini communities offer mutual support not just in terms of encouragement, but sharing best practice and one-on-one advice

Communities give mutual support and power.

Leverage through numbers is a familiar benefit of social and political movements. Mobilizing millions behind an agenda can change national policy and governments.

But group power can also effect change on a more modest scale. Govloop’s members have used the support of the community, in terms of numbers, to successfully argue the case to implement an idea to the employee’s boss or department.

Communities can get big and require resource.

Govloop has gotten very big, very quickly. It’s taken Steve by surprise. He satisfied a real need with a highly active community that is making change.

But running it part time has become untenable. Like any successful community it needs love and attention to recruit the right people, moderate the blogs and forums, and to continue to satisfy its members’ needs.

His ambition is to massively increase the size of the community to generate the network effect: more members will make the community more useful by having more people give more support and power. For example, the community currently answers roughly twenty questions a day (just part of its role). He wants to see a hundred in the next year.

But that requires some big decisions.

How should he do this? How is he going to support himself? How will he get the resource to really make this into a highly active online/offline community that really stirs up government?

An answer is to go full time. And his solution it to ‘privatize’. GovDelivery, a commercial organization, has just acquired Govloop. The decision has not been an easy, and in some quarters, popular one.

Steve’s dilemma is not an isolated one. And his story of how he solved it, figures he will stay on mission, and garnered buy-in from the community will be the subject of a coming post, probably called ‘Professionalize or not?’

Here’s Steve’s welcome video that describes the community’s purpose.

Here’s a WSJ article that covers how Govloop exploits social media, and uses it to break down silos within government.