How to start a neighbourhood association: An interview with Derek Doherty

I asked Derek Doherty about his experience of starting a neighbourhood association.  Derek lives in Acadia Park, the student family housing section of the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus.  He was one of the founding members of the Acadia Park Residents’ Association.  Here’s what he had to say.

How did the Acadia Park Residents’ Association get started, and what was your motivation to help form it?

DD—”I was part of the first council of the Acadia Park Residents’ Association. I say it was first, but I think there was a previous version many years ago.  But, it fell away. And then for a long time there was no representation in the community–no association–no real organization of coming together of neighbours.

And I know there was a desire among some neighbours–they identified the need for this–they felt that we would be better off having something like that.  And then, fortunately, UBC were of a similar mindset too. And so the initial push for an organization I think came from UBC (who are our landlords here) and there was a call for volunteers for people to run for office and they didn’t get anybody.  Then they put out a call again a few months later.

Like a lot of these things, I think the spur for it was a little bit of dissatisfaction.  And–my memory is–a big part of this came from a rope swing that was unceremoniously cut down. And it kind of riled people up and it got them talking and it got them coming together and there was a sense that we were being taken for granted and that our opinions were not really being asked before decisions were made about the neighbourhood–and that it really shouldn’t be like that—that we needed a voice and that we needed a united voice. And so this coincided with the new push from UBC to form a residents’ association.

I actually wasn’t part of the whole rope swing situation–I really wasn’t aware of that–even though I live in the same community (I was a couple of streets away). So I only found out about that part of it afterwards. But, I’ve always been interested in community and how you foster community–and volunteering and getting involved and making connections. I just feel like life is better when you make connections. I feel like knowing my neighbours is a benefit to me personally–I like having human interaction. I feel very fortunate living where I live and having the life that I’ve had and I feel a sense of needing to give back.

And I think the last part of that is I want to model this for my kids. I want them to grow up thinking this is a good thing to do—seeing the importance of it and seeing the value of it. As my wife likes to remind me, my kids don’t learn from my words, they learn from my actions—it’s what we do.

So it was important for me to step up and try to be involved somewhere—I didn’t quite know how I wanted to be involved–I think, like a lot of people, I just knew I wanted to be part of something, but, probably reluctant to take a lead role.  I hadn’t been part of an association like this before. I wasn’t quite sure how I would work out.”

What advice do you have for someone interested in starting a neighbourhood association?

DD—”I think it’s all about relationships, and it starts on the personal level. I think it’s about just getting to know your neighbours first and foremost and encouraging people to start thinking about this and having those conversations. So not even to put up notices but just to see what the level of interest is and to try to expand the conversation and get those people to recommend other people who seem engaged–people who seem that they might be interested. I would just start as slowly as that.

But, before you even look at a structure or even start talking about names or dates or organizations or anything like that, find out who the people are that might push this forward, and what their motivations are, and what they are interested in, and what their commitment would likely be. And I think once you have a sense of that, then it’s about picking the time to move forward. It’s about having some kind of an informal meeting of those people. You’ve got to move on to a little bit of structure at that stage.

And, then it’s about, What do we want for this organization? It’s about setting the goals, setting the outline.  Are we a voice for the community?  Are we there to foster community spirit? Are we there to challenge some of the things that we think are unfair in terms of how we’re being managed as a community?  And, it’s probably going to be a combination of all those things—but, I think that’s a big part of it, too–setting the agenda. What are we about?  Are we just there to host parties for the community, or is it more than that?”

You noted that part of the motivation for the association to form was discontent over a perceived problem in the neighbourhood.  Do you see tapping into such discontent as an effective way to start a neighbourhood association?

DD—”My thoughts on this are that it’s a good starting point. It fires people up. But it burns out. I don’t think it’s sustainable. So it’s helpful just to get a bit of publicity, a bit of noise. But I don’t think it’s enough to keep things going unless it’s a really huge long-term issue. But, even then, you’re going to be left with only the diehard people, and that’s very few, especially in a neighbourhood-association type of organization.  So I think it kicks it off, but there has to be more to it than that.

I think, also, that the chances are that if you’re just motivated by that you’re going to run up against frustrations. Because, as a neighbourhood association, your influence is going to be limited in the amount of sway you have over your landlord or your local authority.  Whatever it is, it’s really going to be quite slight.  So, you obviously have to be skilled in how you deal with them. You have to be realistic, too.  But, are you going to get it by causing a ruckus?  By objecting at every corner?  By throwing up barriers to whatever they’re doing?  I think you have to work with them. I think you have to figure out how to work with them and get them on your side.  Then, I think they’re more willing to accommodate you and see it from your point of view, if you approach them reasonably.”

How can someone advocate for–generate enthusiasm for–a neighbourhood association?

DD—”I think one way to think about it is to find something to come together and work on.  We did have a good example of this with the picnic table building project.  You identify people with certain skills and motivations in your neighbourhood. You also find out who are the people who might be interested in volunteering. It brings together people from different ages too.

And I think it’s an easy win because you know as long as you have the right people and the right resources–which are not too hard to find for something like that–then you have the positive sense that, ‘We came together–we did something!  This worked out!  Look at this–Isn’t this a great start!’ And, when you have that, you might just build on that. I think something like that is a good starting point.”

Part of a neighbourhood association’s responsibility is to represent the neighbourhood. How do you know that you’re doing that?

DD—”Hopefully you are, in some sense, clued in to at least some of your neighbours. You’re not going to know everybody, and, I don’t think anybody expects that. But, I think you should be at least talking to a few of your neighbours, for one thing, and then asking them what they would like to see.

You’ve got to be open to feedback.  You need channels where people that you don’t know can approach you and share issues in a way that they feel is safe, but, also, they need to feel like there might be some result at the end of it. It’s not just that they’re telling you things that then disappear—where nothing ever gets done—because they’ll quickly lose interest and that won’t be good for the long term.

I think events are good–any kind of community event. How many people are you getting to come out? That’s a good sign of engagement, as well. Surveys, I think, do play a role, but it’s hard to get the numbers in any kind of survey. We know that, but it’s still worth doing.  It’s still providing the opportunity for feedback.

Written communication is important—some kind of report. We always had an AGM {annual general meeting}, and then some kind of written report that goes with the AGM.  I think that’s much appreciated. Where people are given the opportunity to read what you’ve done and ask questions about that and what you’re going to do in the next year. I think that’s part of being accountable.  There needs to be a sense that you are accountable, that you listen, that you respond to what they’re telling you.”

What are some pitfalls to avoid when forming a neighbourhood association?

DD—”I don’t know that there is a negative about starting it up. I think the bigger issue is sustaining it.  I think we were lucky–we had a good startup. We had good people involved. People were motivated and we had a good range of skills, which was helpful. So we were able to do a few different things and get a few successes. And, I think that’s a big thing–you need a few successes early on. Just for your own self sense of, ‘I know what this is about; I’m glad I’m doing this.’  That’s motivation. Also for the community, to report back to show, ‘Look, we’ve done a few things.’  Because, they’re wondering, ‘What is this?’ But, I think the other–the bigger–issue is, How do you sustain and how do you keep bringing in people and making sure they’re properly introduced?  I’m not quite sure how you do that but I think that’s the bigger issue.”

What were some things you did that you would recommend?

DD—”Well, I think a no brainer is taking the time to get to know the people in the association–the people that you’re going to be working with–to get to know them on a personal level to make a connection with them. Because, you’re a volunteer and you’re giving up your time to sit with these strangers and try to discuss issues, some which you might be able to do something about and a lot that you can’t.  I talked about wins and successes–there’re a lot of things that you just don’t have a win or success with, so, at the end of the day, the process needs to be somewhat enjoyable.

There will be frustrations along the way and you’re learning it together, and you’re going to make mistakes–especially in terms of how you communicate your ideas or you communicate your motivation. I think there’s a real danger of that coming across wrongly and you have to remind yourself that’s not the person’s intention, but really you can only do that if you get to know them personally.  So, I think I would spend maybe even more time on that at the start of any new organization.  One way is to sit down and have a meal together and socialize.  There’re other ways to do it, too, and I think I’d maybe try a few more of those.”

Do you have any last pieces of advice for us?

DD—”Make the meetings, the get-togethers, always welcoming. In terms of the environment–good acoustics.  Bad acoustics is frustration that you shouldn’t have to be dealing with.  Bring snacks.  People bond over food.

Have a lot of ideas–put them all out there–and then probably forget about most of them. Just narrow it down to, like, three or four that you can maybe do in, let’s say, the year that you’re together.  Focus on three or four big ones.  It’s OK to have lots of ideas, but, in terms of priorities–where to put resources—it should really be just a few things that you can do well.”


The Acadia Park Residents’ Association formed in the spring of 2015.  It is still active.  The original bylaws under which it formed are available here.