With the closing of the Promise Neighborhoods competition, so too does the first year of the Building Neighborhoods blog. It’s time to assess. What worked? What didn’t? How should it change?
We tried a lot of things with this blog over the past year – news, advocacy, and technical assistance – all delivered in a passionate and playful tone. Some things worked and some things didn't. Let’s look at each of these experiments one at a time.
Community Building: Building Neighborhoods was originally intended to be a community-building tool. The base of the community was the collective memberships of United Neighborhood Centers of America and the Alliance for Children and Families, but we knew that these were just two organizations among many. We wanted to harness the incredible power, energy and expertise found outside our membership and to help build a much larger, interconnected movement.
In this we were largely successful. The email list grew to about 1,400 people and the traffic to the blog typically ranged from 500-1,000 user visits every day during the planning period. That’s a good size audience, and the expertise and power of each one of those readers multiplied its size many times over.
News: Building Neighborhoods was always intended to be a source of news about the place-based movement. Originally, most of that news was simply repackaged from other sources, but over time we began to break news of our own.
Our location and work in Washington has helped. We have access to policy makers that others lack and can often get them to go on the record. We also are in contact with many other organizations that are doing similar work. We hope to continue writing about them through a combination of feature articles and interviews.
But we also like the serious journalistic side of this work, including the longer, magazine-length articles that we have written. We hope to continue writing them. Interestingly, we have also discovered that the news we report not only has an immediate value to our readers, it also has an archival value to researchers. We have been contacted by many in the academic world who seem to be using the archives and resources as a beginning point in their research. That is encouraging.
In all, the news aspects of the blog seem to have been a solid success and we feel very comfortable continuing on that path.
Advocacy and Opinion: Perhaps more than anything, Building Neighborhoods is an experiment in advocacy journalism. It is run out of the Washington, DC office of the Alliance and UNCA, after all, and our primary job is to advocate.
For purposes of this blog, our advocacy has two intended audiences. First, we try to advocate on behalf of our members and the broader movement to those in power. At the same time, however, we have also tried to be champions of reform to the nonprofit sector, including our own members, so that those who are just waking up to the power of this movement can come to embrace it.
These twin goals are not easy to achieve and involve risk. Advocating publicly to those in power has its benefits, not least the added access and influence associated with being a pseudo-media source. I think it is safe to say we have not been ignored.
But public advocacy also runs risks. We have tried to leaven those risks by only sharing some opinions on the blog, and others offline. The inclusion of humor was also intended to provide a lighter touch. Finally, we hope that our obviously strong level of support for the administration and the place-based movement has bought us a certain tolerance for our occasional poking and prodding around the edges.
Still, regardless of the risk, advocacy is central to our mission and we will continue it one way or another. We also see it as our responsibility not only to speak truth to power, but also to speak on behalf of those who have valuable insights to share, but are afraid to speak out themselves. This is a shockingly large number of people, probably most of our readership. In those cases, we always share their opinions anonymously and we will share them even when we disagree. This is central for us. If there are costs, we will pay them.
Advocating to those in power is one thing. Advocating to those not yet converted is another. Many of our readers may have been puzzled by our occasional messages that explained and defended the place-based movement. Given that many of our readers are already sold on the idea, who were we talking to? In those cases, we were addressing a segment of our audience that is interested, but skeptical. It is easy for those of us so tightly wrapped up in this work to forget that not everyone shares our views, but they are out there.
In this and all cases, while we did not hesitate to share our opinions, we never pretended to hold a monopoly on truth. We always tried to air opinions that were not our own so that all sides could be portrayed fairly. Given that we are advocates, not professional journalists, it is not clear if we were successful, but we tried. Looking ahead, we will consider ourselves successful if we can share our views less, and the views of others more. That will depend on our ability to get others to speak up.
Tone: We originally believed that to achieve our community building goals, we would need the blog to be both informative and interesting. Toward that end, we purposefully adopted a tone that was passionate, playful, informal and occasionally irreverent. We also saw the tone as integral to the larger concept of movement building, which explains the seemingly dissonant inclusion of music and culture.
The strategy has produced positive results. The tone may have helped us achieve our readership and community building goals. We certainly received a lot of positive feedback. Moreover, we strongly believe in the concept of movement, and some of that was intertwined with the tone (particularly to the extent that it was purposefully playful and personal, rather than distant and professional). Also, sometimes it helps to adopt a playful and affectionate tone when speaking truth to power.
Still, as in all things, finding the right balance is key. In this, we ask our readers to be patient as we continue to find where that balance lies.
Technical Assistance: Hayling and I tried our best to help anyone who asked during the planning process, and that turned out to be a good number of people and projects. We appreciated your trust and strictly respected confidentiality. Your trust and feedback paid off with a wealth of information about what is really happening out there. That has informed our policy work and thus (we think) informed the decisions made by those in power, just as we had hoped. By empowering us with your trust, you have empowered us all.
Policy implications aside, however, we also experimented a bit in the TA space. That experience is worth sharing:
- The Promise Neighborhoods Planning Guide: We are especially proud of this document, which was released last September and was widely read and distributed in the Promise Neighborhoods community. It became obsolete the day the Promise Neighborhoods planning grants were announced, but it appears to have been invaluable to planning groups in the months leading up to that day. As many have discovered, assembling a successful application really took many months of preparation, far more time than was allowed by the application period. We think our Planning Guide helped many groups get the head start they needed.
- The Buddy System: This was also one of the more successful of our experiments, in this case during the application period itself. We matched quite a few cities, both large and small, and we hope they were helpful to one another. We know they were helpful to us, since they often shared their experiences and challenges with us. We pledged to respect confidentiality, so we will not share who they are unless they choose to do that themselves. But if they do, it will be interesting to report on their experiences in more detail. We also wish them luck. We pledged not to be biased toward anyone, but it is hard not to root for those who have vested such high levels of faith and trust in you.
- The Planning Call Series: Our planning calls were reasonably successful, but they were also time consuming, both for us to organize and for those who listened in. In the end, we decided to limit the series and shift our focus to written materials, which we thought could be absorbed more quickly. If we revisit the concept, we will need to upgrade our technology.
- The External Peer Review Process: This was a bust for several reasons. First, most of our potential peer reviewers were already engaged in local efforts, and so they could not really provide that service to others. Second, the Department was asking for peer reviewers at the same time. Indeed, we soon just started sending people who came to us their way. But lastly, there didn’t seem to be much need for external peer reviewers. It became obvious that academics and others were easily filling that void locally. The fact that the external peer reviewers weren’t needed was, we hope, a good sign.
- The UNCA FAQ: This also was unsuccessful but, once again, for a very good reason. DOE itself was far more responsive than we thought they would be and they deserve credit for that. A separate FAQ from us really wasn’t needed.
Looking Ahead: Overall, we think our experiment with Building Neighborhoods has been a success. As with any entrepreneurial venture, this one had its ups and downs. We learned a lot and hope you did too. We look forward to giving you more of what worked and less of what didn’t. In the meantime, we will keep tinkering.
Regardless, it is worth concluding by saying how much we value your attention and support. This movement is full of an enormous number of big-hearted, incredibly talented people. We thank you for giving us some of your time.