Édouard Riou [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

October 8, 2017; Journal-News (Hamilton, OH)

The late Major League catcher and sometime philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Taking this lesson to heart, a group of four community leaders from Hamilton, Ohio—comprising a city department head, a city council member, and two neighborhood association representatives—made the one-hour trip to Covington, Kentucky, reports Mike Rutledge of the Hamilton Journal-News. The goal of the visit was to get new ideas about resident engagement from the Center for Great Neighborhoods, “a nonprofit organization that plays a part in improving Covington’s 19 neighborhoods, pretty much all of them now with active neighborhood associations.”

Here at Nonprofit Quarterly, we lift this story up, both to highlight what was learned and to call attention to the approach. A couple of years ago, in a report that I coauthored with Keane Bhatt for The Democracy Collaborative, we talked about learning journeys—that is, “Field trips to visit similar initiatives—to observe their operations, ask questions, and to draw inspiration.”

My coauthor and I did not invent the term “learning journey,” of course, but it is nice to see the principle of learning from others in action. Too often in the nonprofit world, we act as if we are the first ones to try a new model. In Hamilton, residents heard about what folks south of the Ohio River were doing and decided to make the trip to see things for themselves.

So, what is Hamilton looking to do, and what did they learn from their neighbors in Covington? Hamilton is launching a program called Strong 17, whose goals, in addition to build stronger linkages between neighborhoods and city government, include:

  • Help neighborhood residents organize themselves for the purpose of identifying and completing projects that will address their needs and improve their quality of life
  • Strengthen residents’ identification with and pride in the history and assets of their own neighborhood
  • Increase the number of residents who share this pride in their neighborhood
  • Expand residents’ knowledge of city neighborhoods other than their own and increase relationships among residents of different neighborhoods
  • Improve the City as a whole by mutually celebrating each neighborhood’s identity, assets, culture, and history

To support these goals, the City of Hamilton has launched a “mini-grant” program with grants of up to $3,000 to support neighborhood-based initiatives. Hamilton’s program started just last year. In Covington, Rutledge writes, “the Center for Great Neighborhoods for about 10 years has offered grants of up to $5,000 for community-building projects. A top goal of Covington grants, like those in Hamilton, is to help engage new people in each neighborhood.”

One simple suggestion from the folks in Covington: “Have events that are fun and bring people together.” Center for Great Neighborhoods program director Rachel Hastings emphasizes how important it is “to have some fun, because if you’re just always so serious and not having fun, then other folks are going to be like, ‘Why should I be involved with those people?’”

Another strategy employed in Covington is the use of what the local nonprofit calls “nano-grants.” The Center for Great Neighborhoods has made 140 such nano-grants, which, because they are so small, cut bureaucracy and help foster small-scale events. According to Rutledge’s account:

One woman used a $250 grant to provide art tours for the blind, with the money helping provide bus transportation around the city. The same resident later used a larger grant to buy a new printer, to create Braille menus for local restaurants. In exchange for that service, the restaurants gave tours for the blind.

More recently, an 8-year-old girl sought a nano-grant to create a tiny free library.

And it’s low risk. “If we fund something for $250 and it fails? Oh, well, it’s 250 bucks,” Hastings said.

This model of using small grants to build community is not unique to Covington or Hamilton, of course. The principles employed in Covington, which Bill Traynor called network-centric organizing, were implemented by Traynor at Lawrence Community Works in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The model has also been employed in large cities, such as with Neighborhood Connections, supported by the Cleveland Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Strengthening Neighborhoods program, supported by the Denver Foundation in Denver, Colorado.

It’s worth noting, too, the larger context in which these programs operate. In both Hamilton and Covington, the poverty rate is above 20 percent. The community-building done through mini-grants and the like is not just about having fun events, but also about building social capital, which helps increase residents’ ability to take on larger challenges. For instance, among its other work, the Center for Great Neighborhoods has rehabbed about 40 Covington homes. And even the small grants themselves can sometimes lead to larger impacts. Rutledge gives one example: “A pen of chickens and community garden,” Rutledge notes, “have inspired conversation and community in an area of Covington’s West Side neighborhood. The area, located about a block from the Center for Great Neighborhoods building, now is experiencing a significant rebound.”—Steve Dubb