Successful Neighborhood Self-Help: Some Lessons Learned – A New Introduction

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D

This is not a how-to paper on organizing a neighborhood, nor is it a how-to paper on managing a neighborhood organization, though insights into both topics are contained throughout the sections on different “lessons learned.” 

In this pioneering publication, sponsored by The Minneapolis Foundation, the authors lay out essential elements of success in organizing neighborhood development.

In September 1981, The McKnight Foundation announced the contribution of $5 million to The Minneapolis Foundation to establish the McKnight Neighborhood Self-Help Initiatives Program (MNSHIP). The Program “will have a 10-year life and will develop and expand ways to connect the vitality of neighborhood self-help efforts to the planning, resources, and institutional capacity of the larger community. 

Six months later, a community-based Advisory Committee to the program articulated its grant guidelines: “A Central principle of this program is the conviction that the neighborhood can be one of the most effective structures in which people think, act and work to address their own needs. MNSHIP has been created not only to support specific neighborhood programs, but also to: 

  • create an atmosphere that will encourage, support and increase the participation of residents in neighborhood self-help efforts and encourage participation that reflects the racial, ethnic and economic diversity of the Twin Cities.
  • foster cooperation among existing and emerging neighborhood groups and organizations, and among neighborhoods and other institutions in the community.
  • facilitate the free flow of neighborhood information among neighborhoods, private grantmakers, and other institutions. 
  • foster the ongoing development of neighborhood leadership which has the ability to understand the public and private institutions of our community and to use that understanding to influence the decision making of those institutions.”

Rainbow Research, Inc., an independent organization, was contracted in the earliest days of the program by the Minneapolis Foundation for evaluation services, including gathering and sharing information about how effective neighborhood self-help is as central to the MNSHIP concept as is quality grantmaking. This publication is one of its products.

This is not a how-to paper on organizing a neighborhood, nor is it a how-to paper on managing a neighborhood organization, though insights into both topics are contained throughout the sections on different “lessons learned.” 

The paper is organized into two parts: 

INVOLVING RESIDENTS concerns the necessity of thoroughly involving neighborhood residents in defining the issues, shaping the agenda, doing the work, running the project or the neighborhood organization, and ensuring that a broad base of residents is included or represented. 

ORGANIZING AND MANAGING THE WORK focuses on making neighborhood self-help happen in ways that are effective and that keep the neighborhood and its organization together. Good background research, cooperating with other organizations, setting realistic goals, being consistent, knowing when to get outside assistance and using public resources wisely are each discussed as contributing to neighborhood effectiveness. The lessons presented in this paper surfaced after observing and talking with a wide variety of neighborhood groups. These organizations were new and old, staffed and unstaffed, focused on a single issue and focused on several projects at once.

This publication was a pioneer in the field of evaluation, one of the first ever “lessons learned” styles of evaluation products. And while the lessons date to the early ‘80s, I’d be surprised if any of them are outdated.

The publication lifts up 1) successful strategies for involving neighborhood residents in the work of neighborhood self-help, and 2) principles of organizing and governing the work.

While not all community organizing is done by nonprofit organizations, this article can greatly help the governance and steering of community-based neighborhood self-help organizations.

This publication greatly helped inform the neighborhood revitalization work sponsored by the City of Minneapolis, and also the long-running program of support for community foundations to engage with low-income neighborhoods sponsored by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Furthermore, it served as an excellent example for other large private foundations in using more local community foundations as intermediaries.


This cover article can be cited this way:  Mayer, Steven E., Successful Neighborhood Self-Help: Some Lessons Learned – A New Introduction, Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommunities.com [month, date, year]

Our free report supported by the Minneapolis Foundation can be cited this way: Mayer, Steven E. and Gray, Steven. Successful neighborhood Self-Help: Some Lessons Learned. Minneapolis: Rainbow Research, Inc., 1985.