How to lead a neighbourhood project: An interview with Derek Doherty

I asked Derek Doherty about his experience organizing community projects for his neighbourhood, Acadia Park, the student family housing area at the University of British Columbia (UBC).  He offered the following suggestions.  I thought they were very useful.

What’s a good starting point for someone who wants to lead a neighbourhood project?

DD—”I think it starts with an idea. Look around your neighborhood and try to think of something that would improve the neighborhood or would bring people together–something that people might get excited about. And then talk to your neighbors.

That’s a good way to check whether it really is a good idea.  I’ve had lots of ideas that, after a conversation, I realize are not actually that great.  But, a few of them gather traction. And, you can have a great idea, but, it’s very hard to do anything by yourself. And, it’s actually no fun to do anything by yourself–which is the bigger issue–because it’s no fun. Why would you do it?  Because, you’re not going to do it for a long time.  You’re not going to repeat it. You’re going to get disheartened.

So, if it’s a fun idea that brings people together and you can and gather support from–it doesn’t have to be a lot of people–but I think, at least, it needs to be two or three of you–to kind of push forward with it. I think a lot of people initially will be excited about it, but, in terms of who actually carries it through with you, it’s probably going to be a small number of people. So maybe start big and realize that you’re going to lose people along the way, or that they might not be with you with you for the entire journey–and that’s OK too.

People cannot give the same amount of time and effort, and you have to accept and be appreciative of whatever effort they can give you, because it all helps.  And they are trying to help, too, in whatever capacity they can. So, take time to recognize that and just be grateful of it and then plan for that and manage your expectations, knowing that’s going to be the case.

Funding helps.  Money behind anything definitely helps move it forward.  And, I think, applying for funding is a great way to work out your idea, to sharpen your idea.  Funding sources have criteria that you have to address, and that forces you to think about your idea.  It forces you to think about how you’re going to promote it. The audience you’re trying to reach is a big consideration. What level of experience and tools and assets (in terms of people and their skills) do you need to bring on board to help you with it?  And then, a budget.  It’s just good to have a budget to be realistic and think about what you can actually achieve. And, one of the things they’ll ask, too, is, What defines success for you?  And I think that’s something that I have learned to be a little bit better about.  I’m very good at the initial idea–for getting excited about it–but to actually carry it through and to figure out what the end is, and what success is, is more of a challenge. And, it’s good to be reminded to work that part out, too.”

You’ve done a few projects now. Could you pick one and walk us through how it went from an idea to success?

DD—”OK. Well I suppose I’ll talk about the picnic tables.  I wanted to do something with my hands, because I liked the idea of working with my hands, and I feel I’m pretty useless at all of that and I admire people who can do things like that and who can craft with wood and build stuff. And so I wanted to try something like that. And, I think maybe I was at the playground area with a friend, and we were looking around, and there was an old picnic table in the neighborhood that was falling apart, and either we started talking about replacing that and how much it would cost to replace it or just fixing it up, and then, from that, I had the idea about just building picnic tables from scratch, and what would be involved in that.

Also, I liked the idea of coming together to do something as a group–to have a shared objective of a project to work on, and building something is a really obvious example. You share your labor–it’s the work that you put into it. And at the end of it you have something tangible. And not just that, but it’s something that can be shared among the neighborhood that everybody can use and everybody can benefit from. And, so I liked the idea of that.

And, I think, selfishly, I like the idea of people looking and going, “Wow those guys did a great job! That’s something really cool!”  Yeah, that definitely helps a little bit as well. Just imagining that people would look at that and be appreciative and that it would be there for a while.”

So, from that idea, what was the next step?

DD-“It was just talking to the people that I know and sharing the idea with them and seeing if they thought this was a good idea that could actually be done. And then I had a sense of people who might have certain skills that could help with that–people who I knew that had some woodworking skills and then I would talk about the idea with them.  Could it be done?  How hard would it be? What kind of people would you need to do this?  How many people?  What kind of costs would be involved?

From that, I had a sense that there was enough interest in the community and that there were definitely a few people who would help me carry this through.  I was lucky enough that I knew them personally and I had a sense of who they were and that they would actually follow through.  So then, together with those people, we looked at designs and looked at a rough idea in terms of budget. And then, fortunately, there were a few different organizations that we could apply to for money. And, we started with our own association, APRA {the Acadia Park Residents’ Association}.  APRA had a budget for community projects.  And, so, we were able to direct some of that money towards our first round of picnic table building.

I think an important consideration too is that we started off relatively modestly. The idea was to build two large and two small tables.  And, even that was a lot.  I don’t think we realized how much that was.  It didn’t sound like a lot when it was on paper, but, in terms of actual work, it was quite a bit. But anyway, starting small was good. So, we had the budget–we had the money. And, a few dedicated individuals took the lead on the buying and on the initial setup. And then, it was about promoting it and trying to encourage as many people as possible to come along.   And that was surprising–not a huge number of people, but a good crowd of people that were motivated–and some people who’d never done anything like that before and some people who came with their own tools and were quite experienced and could really help out in a big way. Good weather helped, too.  For any kind of project, picking the right dates and good timing and a good lead up–you want to give notice–and reminders–and lots of reminders. And, even on the day, more reminders–and keep encouraging people to come out.  And, food was a big help as well.  Reminding people that if you come and help out there’ll be pizza.  That’s part of it–coming together to eat and to work.”

What are some pitfalls to avoid when trying to lead a neighbourhood project?

DD—”Well, I think–just manage your expectations.  You may think you’re going to have a lot of people come out and support that event and maybe sometimes that’ll happen.  But, also, maybe it won’t happen. And there’s a variety of reasons why that doesn’t happen. Sometimes it’s bad luck. Sometimes it’s just the wrong day or the weather’s not being very kind. Or, it just didn’t catch the imagination–didn’t inspire in some way. And, so, that can be a bit disheartening sometimes, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, I think.  And, yeah, I think not to take that personally, would be my advice.  Unless it keeps happening. Then you should take that personally. It is you {laughs}.”

What works well when leading a neighbourhood project?

DD—”It was a good idea to step back and, if you see that somebody has a strength, even if their strength is maybe to lead the project–even if you had the idea, but, clearly this person could be leading—well, that’s OK, too, because it’s getting it done. It’s not personal glory.  You shouldn’t let ego stand in the way. And so it’s about recognizing the different talents and the different gifts that people bring to it.  Also, whatever your initial idea is, it might not be that at the end of it. It might be something approximating that, and that’s OK too.  It’s just–allow for a little bit of flexibility.  And, don’t forget to enjoy the process. I enjoyed thinking about it. I enjoyed bringing the people together.  I enjoyed figuring all that out. You’ve got to enjoy the process.”

Do you have any last bit of advice for us?

DD—”Keep trying.  Not everything you put out there is going to work. Keep trying and keep doing.  That’s how you learn what works.”


Derek’s volunteering has led to the addition of over a dozen picnic tables to his neighbourhood community that get used regularly, especially in nice weather, to allow neighbours to relax, watch their children play, and enjoy meals and conversation together.  If you would like to plan a picnic-table-building project for your neighbourhood, you are welcome to use the plans available here.