Organizations of all types, and especially those that provide direct social services, are frequently met with a lack of community support and even downright opposition. Even when neighborhood residents and businesses support your mission and work, folks often balk when new or expanded services are proposed in close proximity to their own lives. False claims of plummeting property values as well as concerns about safety or public health are often red herrings for underlying racism and classism, especially in gentrifying communities. Although the work is admirable, the NIMBY Syndrome wants it done somewhere else.

NIMBY dynamics raise bigger questions about (who determines) who belongs in a community as well as how we tend to dehumanize people we consider to be other. Those with privilege often dehumanize those without, and those without can try to access power and privilege by differentiating ourselves from others. This is why we see NIMBY play out in nearly every kind of community, regardless of socio-economic status (although it is most associated with more affluent or gentrifying communities). In this way, NIMBY can be seen as a kind of grassroots redlining, where residents protect themselves from what they perceive as change or from individuals who are different or “don’t belong,” as defined by those espousing NIMBY views.

Most recently, this dynamic has been seen across the country as nearly every urban area has seen a rise in homeless encampments. Even in cities with progressive policies and robust services for people without homes, proposals to expand shelters or bring city services to encampments in order to improve health and safety have been met with community backlash.

Organizations that provide these services have long adopted an under-the-radar approach, operating quietly and invisibly so as not to disrupt the surrounding community. In the 1980s, for example, young professionals in a Chicago North Side neighborhood enlisted local churches to provide shelter to people experiencing homelessness. As the neighborhood became more affluent, the shelter became rooted in the community with volunteer and donor support but adopted a deliberate strategy to operate with as little visible impact as possible. Signage was minimal, referrals came through word of mouth, and shelter staff rarely connected with the community as a whole, only with individual supporters. The organization took pride in meeting neighbors who had lived next door for years and never realized that a shelter existed so close.

Below you’ll find two practical steps to proactive community engagement that will lead to local support for your programs year-round, as well as what to do during a crisis (when you need local support the most).

  • Step 1: Demystify your programs and services and create transparency.
  • Step 2: Demonstrate added value that your program brings to the community.

Read the full article about a community engagement framework by Erin Ryan at Blue Avocado.