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Neighborhood Movement

The Method to Our Madness: Social Media, Community and Social Change

Lots of you have remarked that you like that we are keeping this Promise Neighborhoods planning process fun by injecting a little humor and attitude into it. We certainly think Building Neighborhoods is more fun than certain governmental web sites that shall go unnamed (but not unlinked to).

But while we are having fun, there is much more strategic thinking involved than might first be apparent. In fact, this blog represents a unique combination of old and new, establishment and cutting edge.

The Old

The 'old' is a solid base of two membership organizations, the Alliance for Children and Families and United Neighborhood Centers of America, collectively representing about 500 nonprofit organizations around the nation providing over $6 billion in services to millions of people in need. Many of these member organizations are currently the lead applicants, or leading participants, in many of the planning groups around the nation. Also brought to the table is an established Washington, DC presence with connections to the White House, Congress, and all of the nationally known nonprofit organizations in the nation. The Alliance for Children and Families, for instance, currently chairs Leadership 18, a collection of the biggest name nonprofits in the country. I personally serve on the public policy committee of Independent Sector. Those two organizations are the nonprofit equivalents of the Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, respectively.

That's pretty establishment stuff. But as impressive as it might sound, it is only a foundation. To succeed, we must be much more than this. We must connect to others who are doing this work and, together, grow and become a movement.

The New: Using Social Media to Achieve Social Change

That brings us to what's 'new'. The history of organizing provides many lessons for creating movements, but the recent explosive growth in social media provide the most obvious opportunity. This explains the existence of Building Neighborhoods as a blog. But if that were the end of the story, it wouldn't be very interesting. Many organizations have blogs.

This blog aspires to be more. For us, it constitutes an experiment in social media and social change.

Here's the underlying thinking. New Media (like blogs) can be powerful tools if they are used the right way. Two critical components are humor and attitude. They are the power tools of New Media -- they draw attention. Most successful blogs, though not necessarily nonprofit ones, exhibit precisely these qualities. Parallels can be found in television, another powerful medium. Would you rather watch an hour of CNN or Jon Stewart? If you picked the first one, you're a rare breed.

But, just as important, to be successful, social media also need to be social. Dry blog entries are not the stuff of relationship building. Blogs and organizations don't make social movements, people do. The tightest bonds are not professional, they are personal. That's why I stray into banter and engage those of you who email me. That's why Hayling wrote his powerful "Personal Reflections" post.

At the neighborhood level, institutionalization, professionalism, and depersonalization of social welfare and education issues have undermined community. They are building blocks of the very silos we are trying to tear down. At at the national level, they have undermined  our potential to become a true social movement, like those of the 20th Century.  This thinking strongly influenced the definition of neighborhood programs found in our Tipping Neighborhoods to Success paper. It is also partially reflective of the ideas found in the book Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam. And to all you wonky planners out there, these ideas are also heavily tied into the concept of civic engagement, something that is featured prominently in the Promise Neighborhoods application.

These are ideas you might expect to see coming from an activist organization, but didn't we start this blog entry by telling you how establishment we were (i.e., boring)? Yes, we did. But it is no secret that the nonprofit human services sector is hurting. Current federal and state budgets don't suggest things will get better. So crisis demands change -- experimentation, entrepreneurship and, in this case, breaking free from old models and building a movement.

The Results

So how's it going? The proof is in the results. Despite a focus on a highly technical topic (a planning process, for goodness sake!), readership of this blog and subscriptions to our email list have soared. We need to build on that. An obvious next step is to make this conversation less one-sided and more two-way. You may have noticed we are pushing in that direction. The realities of grant competitions make it more difficult, but that's temporary.

So, for those of you who wondered where we going with the blog, we hope you now understand the method to our madness. We are -- all of us -- building a movement.

And for those of you who like the humor and edge, shhh, don't tell anyone ... we actually are this passionate. And we are also having fun.

Related: After one year, Reflections on the Blog. See also Networked Nonprofits vs. Nonprofit Fortresses.

Why Promise Neighborhoods is Potentially Transformative

I am sometimes asked why I think Promise Neighborhoods is such a big deal. True, Promise Neighborhoods is potentially ground-breaking because it proposes integrating a multitude of social service and education programs, breaking down silos and measuring results. But why get so excited if only 20 neighborhoods will be chosen? Pilot programs are proposed and run all the time, so why should we care so much about this one?

The answer is that I think Promise Neighborhoods is at the center of something much larger. At the federal level, this certainly includes elements of the administration's urban policy, such as Promise and Choice Neighborhoods. But if you look more broadly, you can see that the administration seems to be extending the concepts of service integration at the local (place) level and performance measurement into many other federal programs, too.

We are already seeing signs of it in education policy, with the Race to the Top program and the Investing in Innovation fund being prime examples, but also other programs, like the Social Innovation Fund, where the Obama administration is moving from formula grants to grants that are driven by competition and performance.

While I can not say that I have heard anyone in the administration say it this clearly, it seems reasonable to assume that this approach will be scaled up and extended to many other programs as they come before Congress for reauthorization in the years ahead. This is already happening with ESEA. If true, fusty old programs that have been around for years, including Title I education money and various block grants like SSBG, CDBG, CSBG, and so on, will be transformed over the next few years. At that point, we won't be talking about a few million dollars spread over a few communities anymore, but billions of dollars affecting the entire nation.

The fact that some states like Florida and Wisconsin are getting on board even without federal prodding suggests this is part of something much larger. As I wrote in a report called Tipping Neighborhoods to Success, Promise Neighborhoods seems to be the crest of an emerging 'third wave' of social policy that may bring real and enduring change not just to our nation’s urban neighborhoods, but to American social and education policy as a whole.

That makes it a big deal.

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by Dr. Radut