[I originally wrote this article for the excellent Strong Towns website.]
At age 9 I attended my first kids’ disco. At the start of the evening, the girls were pressed anxiously against one wall and the boys stood nervously against the opposite wall. Everyone wanted to come into the middle and dance together but we were all too shy to be the first one to step forward. Eventually, encouraged by each other we got a little more confident, edging forward until the two groups finally met. The rest is dance history.
Isn’t reaching out to our neighbors for the first time a similar situation? We’re social creatures, we generally like knowing our neighbors, getting together is usually fun. And yet, who among us wants to be the first to step forward, to experience that nervous feeling of putting yourself before your neighbors face to face, not knowing what reaction you’ll get?
Starting is always the most difficult part. I’ve been there: Standing on a stranger’s doorstep on a chilly night, nervously ringing the doorbell, hoping that the answer wouldn’t be hostile. But, as I’ve discovered from my early doorbell ringings at age 8, the majority of neighbors are happy to open their doors to good intentions.
So you want to organize your first social get-together for you and your neighbors. What do you do? How do you make it a success? Let me share what I’ve learned over the years about organizing neighbor socials.
Before we get into the event organizing process there’s an important preliminary step you may want to take: Find an organizing buddy. Just one other neighbor, or even a friend, for support and encouragement, to bounce ideas off, and to help with outreach, can make a world of difference.
Found your organizing buddy? Great, now let’s begin…
1. Choose your event, its location, and when it’ll happen
What kind of event would you like to organize? A potluck, discussion on a pressing issue, or something else? Keep it simple with broad appeal for the first event. Make sure there are ways for people to contribute – the potluck is the most common approach. Food and drinks are crucial at every event.
The closer your event’s location is to people’s homes and the more accessible it is the better. Consider organizing neighbor-oriented events outside on your street. I’ve found that organizing events out on the sidewalk, which is neutral territory, often gets the most attendees and doesn’t require anyone to open up their home. Similar venues include front yards and garages. If organizing an outdoor event, you may want to have a plan B location, such as inside someone’s house.
Set your event’s date at least two weeks ahead of when you’ll start promoting the event. Social events can be fine any day, including weekend mornings/afternoons. Serious events might be better for mid-week evenings (people might want to be outside having fun on the weekends). But really, the time and day is down to your own judgement.
2. Promote your event
Let your neighbors know about the event at least two weeks in advance. Hand deliver an event flyer to every household you want to invite. Typed flyers work fine, although photocopied hand-written flyers (see above for one I made recently) might catch people’s eyes better. Generally, I tuck a flyer halfway under someone’s front doormat. For apartment buildings, I tape a flyer to the front door. If you already have some neighbors’ email addresses or phone numbers, use those too.
For the most direct and effective outreach, as well as dropping off a flyer ring your neighbor’s doorbell and introduce yourself. Most people will be touched by your sincerity. If a neighbor knows your face they’re more likely to come to your event. And you can also collect an email address or phone number for updates leading up to the event.
3. Throw your event
Time to enjoy your event! Be as friendly yet genuine as you can. Welcome people, shake hands, introduce yourself, use people’s names (especially in the first minute of meeting them; this will help you remember names), and show a sincere interest in getting to know your neighbors.
Here are what I try to include at every event:
- Food and drink – absolutely critical. Pull out your best recipes!
- Sticky name tags – this will help people remember each others’ names
- A contact sheet – make sure everyone writes down their name, email, phone number, and address
Lastly, at your event talk with your neighbors about what you might do together next. Another social, a block party, movie night, work party, a meeting to discuss something serious, or something else?
4. Keep up the momentum after your event
Using your neighbors’ contact information shared at the event, contact everybody soon after to thank them for coming and to set up next steps. The next event shouldn’t be too far into the future. The nature of that event is up to you and your neighbors to decide.
Consider setting up an email list for your street, which will allow people to communicate on an ongoing basis. Our block uses Google Groups. Communication infrastructure like this is extremely valuable. Actively participate in your group and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Post your own topics and reply to other people’s.
it could be The best thing you’ve ever done…
Bringing neighbors together for the first time requires a bold step forward by just one or two people. That person could be you. If it is, you may one day look back and see it as one of the best things you’ve ever done. You’ll be a hero.
Knowing your neighbors and being a part of each others’ lives is one of the greatest joys. You have my warmest encouragement in getting started. Don’t hesitate to contact me for further advice or support on reaching out to your neighbors for the first time.