Neighborhood Advocacy Can Advance Your Agenda

Last Reviewed: June 20, 2024

Let's talk frankly about effective neighborhood advocacy. By this, we mean your ability to make an impact on your local governments and other influential people in the community that may have the power to push for system changes that would help your community.

An example will help. Let's say that your neighborhood really cannot make the progress it needs until residents have access to frequent and reliable transit access so they can get to good jobs.  Neighborhood advocacy entails asking repeatedly and effectively for transit route and frequency improvements.

Brooklyn councilwoman with microphone at outdoor rallyClear Advocacy May Involve Lining Up Well-Known Leaders Who Champion Your Community

Perhaps you need more affordable housing, more action on city-owned vacant buildings, and better trash pickup in the alleys.  What we are calling neighborhood advocacy means actions taken on behalf of your neighborhood to coax or pressure your city and state governments to set up policies and programs that would help your community. By definition, advocacy entails asking for changes that the neighborhood cannot make on its own.

We are distinguishing neighborhood advocacy from positive neighborhood marketing and publicity, although positioning yourself for successful advocacy certainly means that you must raise your profile and your reputation in the community. We will say more about that later.

Seven Cornerstones of Neighborhood Advocacy Success

Based on our experience as community planners and also our own experiences in being active in our own neighborhoods, below we provide the seven most important principles that will make you effective in advocating for your community when the need arises.  The suggestions below will apply to some extent regardless of income and condition of the neighborhood. You just need to adjust for your own local political climate and the particulars of your situation and the political and social climate of your city.

1. Form and maintain a High quality community organization.

While sometimes neighborhoods have two or more neighborhood associations, together with an assortment of homeowner's associations, block clubs, and business associations, we prefer to see one strong and unified community organization that doesn't fight, at least in public. Make a big effort to keep conflicts low-key and private.

Governments can more easily discount your input if you are in a divided neighborhood. Officials can rationalize that if one group wants this, the other faction may want that.

The most likely exception to our "one organization" guideline is that you may have a separate business association in an area where there is a substantial commercial district. Since business associations often serve a completely different purpose than an all-purpose neighborhood association, this arrangement can be fine. When you are ready for advocacy, however, do your best to make sure that the organizations are using the same message and even making their statements jointly to the extent possible.

But you marginalize yourselves by internal fighting or maintaining unnecessary rival associations, in most situations.

If you are reading this but are not part of an identifiable neighborhood association that is perceived as active, you should start one.  You can save yourself a lot of time, frustration, and effort by purchasing our $2.99 USD ebook on how to organize a new association. 

If you are unable to be as ambitious as starting a neighborhood association, you might be able to initiate a block club.

2. Be Smart About Public Policy.

After you have a viable neighborhood association, you still must become knowledgeable about cause and effect in neighborhoods.  If you start asking your city hall for two policies that are complete opposites, without understanding the contradiction, city officials are likely to think they can safely ignore you, no matter how strong your neighborhood association might appear to you.

Or let's say that your local or state government isn't very smart about public policy either, and they give you both of the contradictory policies you are requesting. Then when the results start cancelling out each other, you will be sorry you didn't take the time to appreciate the fine points of the likely consequences of each policy.

If you need help in this regard, as many neighborhoods do, seek advice from a local university, university extension service, any technical assistance organizations that exist in your city, more sophisticated neighborhood associations, and of course this website. Ask questions along the way, making sure you understand the terminology being used and the relationships between existing and proposed public policies.

3. Develop a Respectful Relationship with Your Local Government.

A community organization may fuel itself on a low-grade hostility to the city government and to other groups and individuals who are in a position to help the community.

You wouldn't believe some of the vicious comments about their local "powers that be" that neighborhood associations make on their social media pages and websites. We see them as we research for this site, and as current or former public officials, we have often been on the receiving end of people insulting our integrity, morals, or motives.

Please stop that. Live with any disrespect from elected officials and city staff that you notice, for the sake of big gains later. Just get to work earning their regard.

If you must fight City Hall, do so in as dignified and business-like fashion as possible. Write cool-headed letters based on good reasoning and research into best practices in other communities.

You can learn those best practices on this website! For instance, if your e-mails and calls to decision makers are ignored, you may need to learn to how to start a respectful petition to show the strength of your numbers.

4. Generate neighborhood publicity early and often.

Despite our statement that neighborhood advocacy is not the same as neighborhood publicity, you probably won't have effective neighborhood advocacy unless you get the publicity piece right. So we still say that one of your best neighborhood advocacy foundations is to magnify your achievements. This means you place them in the best possible light, put a good spin on it, or whatever your metaphor.  And then don't be quiet about any achievement, no matter how trivial.

Use social media to generate interesting content that will attract earned media and influential community leaders.  Regular social media posts keep your own residents engaged also.  But of course, for social media to be a net positive for your neighborhood, you need to control them to some extent. 

If you allow commenting, moderate those comments.  Stay on top of what is being posted about your neighborhood, and if you see something negative, respond immediately. If the post is on a page that you control, don't be afraid to remove those posts if they include false information or sharp criticism.  You may want to set a policy of allowing mild criticism and griping from your own residents, but don't let that get out of hand.

Your own social media are really the only place where you can guarantee that your message will be seen in exactly the way you intended.  So use it to the fullest to conduct neighborhood advocacy. Don't be afraid to use your achievements to point out the need for even more favorable legislation or financial assistance.  For instance, if you cleaned up your park, show how great it looks and then fearlessly state that even more city resources could make this park a stellar attraction for your city.

Find someone with the time and dedication to be both persistent and consistent in their use of social media on your behalf. Certainly if you can make contact with a local influencer and persuade that person to be your trumpet, that is a net gain. However, make sure your "influencer" really understands the image you want to project.

In working with more traditional media, remind the media often of your track record. Invent "angles" for a reporter. This means thinking of a new approach and adding new information and nuances to a story they may have already told.

Stage easy events, and visual events. If you're holding an event that welcomes children, face painting, costumes, or balloons can add to the possibility that you have television coverage if you're in a TV market. Add dogs if it’s an outdoor event. The media like animals, babies, and small children.

Think about how to add a highly visual element to every event you hold. If you're having a meeting, have an impressive backdrop, which could be made of fabric or painted on a painters’ canvas. Stage your events against a backdrop of your best natural settings or more photogenic buildings. If you have an iconic building, use it almost as a logo.

Even so, you may want to have a selfie booth with a more intimately sized backdrop; our experience is that if you are located in a mountain community, for example, your locals become immune to the beauty of the natural scenery, but a photo against a selfie backdrop with an unusual and simple graphic motif will spread like wildfire. In the context of neighborhood advocacy, make sure your backdrop is relevant to the cause you're fighting for at the moment.

To distribute news of the latest developments about the cause you are advocating for, try an electronic version of the neighborhood newsletter. We notice that even in neighborhoods where many neighbors are too poor or uninterested to have good internet, their number is slowly dwindling, as programs for better broadband expand and as more and more seniors become quite adept at email. It is worth the effort to put together an attractive neighborhood e-mail blast or newsletter.

If you think more people outside your neighborhood will be reading your electronic newsletter than your local residents, consider what will interest civic-minded people.

Decision makers in your City Hall and your broader community do pay attention to their e-mail, to the web, and increasingly to social media, so you need a presence there.

If a newsletter is too much work, Facebook or Twitter will work if you promote these social media heavily with young people who will work diligently for you at the outset. If you don't know about these social media, ask someone younger.

Schools could be a resource for you in this regard as well. Ask them if they could make a project of "social marketing" on behalf of your neighborhood. You don't even have to know what that means.  If interested, they will take it from there. But we'd prefer you have real news, and not just publicity, as a major component of your social marketing.

But when you are considering neighborhood advocacy, be sure to take your efforts one step beyond positive neighborhood publicity.  Make sure to talk freely and frequently about what else you need to make your neighborhood a stellar example for the whole city.

For more, see our neighborhood publicity page.

5. Show you're doing something serious that needs doing.

Besides shameless self-promotion, you need to make sure you're doing something of substance. Make sure you conduct community development evaluations whenever appropriate; positive evaluations will embolden you to push your advocacy to new heights.

Don't wait for local media to provide you with free neighborhood advocacy. Now with electronic media especially, you can make your own news. But unlike publicity, you need something of real substance to tout.

So hold a meaningful event, such as a neighborhood history tour, or a house tour if you're in an area with interesting architecture or significant housing rehab or renovation.

If and when you're really stuck and you have cheap space, brief some artists about your particular burning issue that needs advocacy, and then turn it over to some artists for a weekend, week, or month, and then let the public come to view the installation. While a cultural event may not draw as many people as some silly dog parade, it enhances your image with the decision makers, and that's our goal in neighborhood advocacy.

One way to assure that you have a continuing stream of substantive news may be to organize effective standing committees. Somehow a small group of people are just as likely to come up with a worthwhile project as a large group, and of course you can have a more continuous stream of projects if you have more worthwhile ideas. Especially if you have a ready-made committee to make sure the event comes to fruition.

So based on the interests, assets, and problems of your neighborhood, have a children's after-school committee, a clean-up committee, an environmental committee, housing rehab committee, business retention or attraction committee, an alley committee, and so forth.

Weigh the advantages and disadvantages of grouping potential news releases into one. For example, if you're in a large metro area where it's difficult to stand out on traditional media, you may need to hold onto your news of the first three tenants in a building until you have 50 percent rented. The value of social media is that as your own publisher, you can announce each and every new tenant if you can be original enough about it.

On the other hand, in a small town where any news travels quickly anyway, and where you can make the local weekly with almost any announcement, certainly break up the announcements into as many increments as possible.

6. Undertake projects that require effort and participation of volunteers.

People who come out and donate a few hours or days "buy in" to your mission and cause. This strengthens your organization both internally and externally.

Clean-up activities of any type are wonderful advertisements for your community with influential people. Inherently leaders recognize that such projects require a commitment of physical labor and time from residents, and it's the contribution of the locals that is valued.

This pertains particularly to low-income neighborhoods, where it helps fight the perception of apathy or even laziness. But high-income neighborhoods also especially benefit from projects requiring physical labor and a good turnout of volunteers, because it demonstrates literally, "We care about this so much that we'll get our hands dirty."

These projects show immediate impact and also fall on the low-cost end of the spectrum. If no clean-up is needed, make it a tree planting or flower planting project. Beautification or park clean-up projects are great for showing the world you care.

If you want to enhance your neighborhood advocacy efforts quickly, stay with these crowd pleasing, one-day commitment types of projects.

7. Do as much as you can for yourself.

People uniformly appreciate effort, and that includes elected officials, city staff members, foundations, the media, and influential individuals in the community. Regardless of your income level, do not act or behave as if you were helpless.

If your income level is above the median for your area, corporations and foundations will not appreciate your asking for a 100% handout. Raise some money yourselves. Have fun doing it. See the page on how to fundraise for ideas when you want to show that you are doing what you can to address your own issues.

Remember to map your assets before you count your liabilities. Then your neighborhood advocacy will have the genuine ring of confidence, rather than sounding like a hollow plea for help. We find in our planning practice that the neighborhoods that believe they have positive momentum are more successful in advocating for their own specific needs than the ones that continually sound pitiful.

Read More About Topics that Might Relate to Your Advocacy

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  4.  > Neighborhood Advocacy

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