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In my neighborhood, there is a grocery store that has fallen into disrepair and is the subject of frequent complaints and discussion by neighbors on our private social network. The most recent discussion thread has about 150 replies, involving at least 90 different people. For the first time, several people independently volunteered that they would contribute to some kind of community effort to improve the shopping center that hosts the grocery store as its main tenant.

I saw this as an opportunity and decided to be a catalyst for action by setting up a public meeting. I shared a straw poll to find the best time of week to meet, which received dozens of responses. Based on those responses and the availability of a meeting space at our local library, I chose a date for the meeting, 10 days from now. I created a Doodle poll in order to choose the best starting time (in a 3-hour window) while simultaneously collecting names of potential attendees (the first poll having been anonymous).

Some have expressed thanks or approval for my doing this but no-one has offered to help me organize or take a leadership role. I'm more than happy to contribute to the effort but it was never my intent to be the sole organizer going forward.

Here's my problem in a nutshell. I want this meeting to be the start of a real, concerted community action that has the potential to grow into an ongoing neighborhood development committee (or even investment cooperative). At the same time, I don't think I have the capacity to be the sole driving force behind that. I want to transition away from the role of point man or catalyst ASAP, and into a role as part of a core group who will commit to regular attendance at meetings and some higher-level responsibilities. What do I need to do during (or in preparation for) this first meeting to have the best chance of building this core group early on?

It's important to me not to walk out of this meeting with the sole responsibility for taking the next step. At the same time, I think I'm the de facto responsible party for running this first meeting and I intend to make sure it remains civil, open and collaborative. It's a diverse neighborhood that's starting to gentrify and there are a lot of strong opinions that will need to be reconciled. How do I find a balance between leading the meeting and inviting others to take on leadership roles?

I'm not fond of bureaucratic antics like electing a president, vice-president, treasurer and secretary and I don't expect the neighbors will have patience for that either.

  • Have you ever asked for assistance? – Zerotime Aug 3 '15 at 18:47
  • Not with general management. I have been focused on scheduling the meeting and not had time for much else - which will likely continue to be the case leading up to the meeting, but I can stretch myself if necessary. I have asked for help with a specific task related to the upcoming meeting. – Air Aug 3 '15 at 19:14
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Perhaps you need to start off by just encouraging others to help out with the next few things that need to be done before the 2nd meeting. So rather than landing people with roles like "treasurer", "secretary", etc. you plan for the meeting to have 3 or 4 concrete "next steps" and make sure that each one is assigned to a willing volunteer or two.

Then when you have the 2nd meeting you should find that the natural leaders and doers will have identified themselves and you can allow/encourage them further.

As you started this project it will always tend to be seen as "yours", but by encouraging people to take on tasks you are encouraging them to take (partial) ownership of the project alongside you.

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By coming up with this idea of a meeting, you've given the project your signature. Of course, nobody else could have thought of this great idea of coming together and solving it as a community. That's at least how things are out of the view of your neighbours. Even though, you have created the idea, it's not your job to execute it. Creating an idea isn't related to executing one.

Your neighbours most likely think right now that you control everything. At least you organized the meeting. That you haven't asked for general management so far intensifies this perception. Right now, it looks like you can handle this on your own. Well, it's true to the point that you organized the meeting, and people who don't want to take on leadership roles, will definitely rely on this argument.

You must think of this as the following: it's a project based on good will and nobody can guarantee that anything valuable will drop off. It doesn't matter how good your plan is - it's on the free will of everyone, and there's no immediate reason to tackle upcoming burdens. I guess that most of your neighbors have a job, a full week, and are "busy", probably some have children.

If you don't want to be the sole leader, or even just be a participant, just say it. Nobody can blame you. If you come together at the meeting's day, just state that you would be pleased to see other people, expect you, tackling community related problems.

I'm not fond of bureaucratic antics like electing a president, vice-president, treasurer and secretary and I don't expect the neighbors will have patience for that either.

I guess this is quite problematic. While it's true that you don't need a vice-president, treasurer or secretary for small-time projects, you clearly need a structure for your community and this usually is a president, or in online communities: an administrator.

Without a person who takes in submissions and suggestions, your meetings are going to be a complete mess. Everybody wants to talk as soon as possible, not caring for the others. Everybody wants his plan to succeed, and so on.

Actually, your way out of your misere is the bureaucratic way.

I'm happy that everyone of you had the time to come here today.

As you all know, this is our first meeting, and I'm happy that the feedback of the idea was positive. I've thought about a lot of methods to develop this community to its finest, and I came to the conclusion that we should form some kind of a structure. I'll suggest to form a board which administers major submissions, complaints, and other stuff.

If we can elect some people who would like to this on a unsalaried basis, we can fairly distribute workload among them, rather just putting everything on one person.

Basically, you just suggest to elect two people who'll date meetings, try to setup an agenda for every meeting and show you the latest developments (suggestions, feedback, complaints). This should be fine with everyone. You don't need any other position. Just keep in mind something really important: If you have to deal with money, investments, stocks, etc., you have to elect a treasurer. It's a position of trust which should be fulfilled by another, independent person.

Give the people an immediate reason to take on leadership roles. Let them know what has to be done. Right now, they can't know it since you haven't communicated it to them.

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I think the key idea is for there to be a real need and a vaccuum - that's what has already drawn out those 90 people and yourself. It all depends on what the community feels is needed.

Once specific tasks are clear at the meeting for what to do about the grocery store etc, allow a space for people to fill those needs - to take responsibility for those tasks, to organize working groups etc. "Is it clear we need to do X?", "Who wants to organize X?" Even let silence stretch (if it happens), because that powerfully draws people out. The main thing you need to do is resist the urge to volunteer yourself.

It probably will be very project-based at the start, because that is the clear need that everyone feels. So, as you say, electing VP, treasurer etc probably won't engage people, because those roles won't feel needed - and would even dilute and take energy away from the felt needs.

To prepare, you could think about what real needs there'll be for the 2nd meeting - things that you would have to do yourself if you don't get help. At the meeting, articulate those needs, ask for help, and allow a vaccuum to draw people forth.

It's possible that nothing extra is really needed that early on, apart from the project itself - if there isn't a real need, people won't rise to the occasion. So, better not to force it, and wait til the need is clear.

But, at the end, you might ask if there are other issues people are concerned about, apart from the immediate one, to open a space for them. "While we're here, ...". You could mention the ones you personally would like, to see if they resonant. If so, ask if any one of the interested people could organize another meeting for that issue. But do it briefly, avoid getting distracted into discussion, as that would undermine the energy of the present meeting.

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