Three Reasons Why People Don’t Participate In, Start or Grow Projects.

Understanding the barriers to participating in and initiating community-based projects can help us create neighborhoods with ample opportunities for involvement. (Reading time: 4 minutes)

In my last post I sung the praises and promise of Participatory City, a UK-based model for strengthening communities by “mainstreaming practical participation.” It’s one of the most exciting and innovative initiatives I’ve seen. 

I also discussed one striking statistic from Participatory City’s research: 60% of people are willing to work together to improve their neighborhood, but only 3% ever do. 

Which begs the questions: How can we harness that 57% difference to make the world a better place?

Let’s find out.

Today I would like to tackle Participatory City’s take on why people don’t participate and grow projects.

I am largely repeating and expounding upon content from the beautifully composed and compelling The Illustrated Guide to Participatory City, which you should definitely take the time to read. All credit for the ideas below is owed to them, although I’ve added some of my own commentary.

Participatory City’s answers and solutions are not much more than a bulleted list, but they are actually a powerfully condensed collection of acupuncture needles pinpointing some of the biggest challenges in community-driven work. 

Why don’t people participate?

  1. Not enough opportunities for participation

There aren’t enough opportunities or there aren’t the types that fit people skills or ideas. 

Solution: Make more opportunities 

    • More opportunities, 
    • More variety,
    • Closer to home.

Commentary: If we want to capitalize on the more than 50% of people who want to make their neighborhood better, we need to flood our communities with opportunity. How many opportunities are there to get involved in something in your neighborhood at this moment? I can take a guess – not enough!  

  1. Opportunities don’t fit

Activities and projects don’t align with people’s life commitments (work, family, etc.), or they require too much time or specialized knowledge.

Solution: Make opportunities fit better 

    • Less time and commitment.
    • More flexible.
    • More practical and social

Commentary: Most people don’t have two hours of free-time for an evening community meeting, or the ability to devote an indefinite number of hours serving on a steering committee. This is especially true for low-income communities where people may work more than one job or lack childcare. Getting more folks to participate means acknowledging people’s time constraints and meeting them where they are at. 

  1. Opportunities feel exclusive

Activities feel exclusive or too confrontational. Opportunities also often appear to be more suited to very confident or educated people, or for people who already know each other well.

Solution: Make opportunities inclusive: 

    • Design projects to be more open in structural, cultural, and logistical ways, with everyone on equal footing. 
    • Make it possible to start small and simple so that there are more opportunities to grow confidence one step at a time.

Commentary: Often community-driven projects start with a small group of passionate and talented people who  already know each other. This group then struggles to reach beyond their immediate social/cultural networks to involve a greater diversity of people and skill sets. 

Why don’t people start and grow projects?

  1. Starting anything feels risky

 People find it difficult to develop ideas and find it risky to start them because they feel exposed publicly and think the ideas might fail.

Solution: Reduce or share the risk

    • Make it easier to start and grow ideas. 
    • Reduce and share personal risk so people feel safer to test early ideas, even if some don’t work.

Commentary:  We all have different risk-to-reward tolerances. For those without a lot of extra free-time or income, beginning something that might fall-short is especially risky. For projects that involve community participation, the polarization and intolerance in our public discourse is particularly intimidating, especially for the conflict-averse among us. 

  1. Not enough support

Most people have never started a neighborhood project and need more support. People too often expected to ‘just do it’ by themselves without the experience. They need to collaborate more effectively for projects to keep going, grow or replicate them.

Solution: Provide long-term support and learning

    • Create new ways for local government and institutions to collaborate and support projects better and create a learning culture long term.
    • Help more people to be involved to grow their expertise.

Commentary: For people with great ideas but no experience, there is really no place to turn to help getting a project off the ground. What if you could just walk into a place in your neighborhood that provides trained staff and funding to test and launch your project? Ah – that’s Participatory City!

  1. Many valuable ideas are small

Not all useful or valuable ideas are sustainable on their own.

Solution: Value and support small ideas

    • Support collections of projects and activities, not just individual ones.

Commentary: The beauty of community-driven projects is that it doesn’t take much to have an impact. All it takes is a place-based project where people can come in contact with other people. Just picking up garbage on your street can build community – but what if there was a “Pick up Garbage Day” in all the adjacent neighborhoods, with shared resources and publicity? Now we’re talking!  

What do you think? How have you seen or experienced these barriers to participation or growing projects?  

Next time we will talk about the “Eight Reasons Why Project Ideas and Projects Die.” Stay tuned!