While working for the City of Lansing’s Department of Neighborhoods and Citizen Engagement (DNCE) back in summer 2018, my colleagues and I realized something was amiss with our Neighborhood Advisory Board Grants program. The program was intended to promote community engagement among city residents, but at the time, it was only available to neighborhood associations—groups that tend to be whiter, wealthier, and more likely to own homes than the average resident.

We wanted to promote more community engagement across the city, so we decided to revamp the program.

The Neighborhood Grants program provides small grants—typically no more than $5,000—to neighborhood organizations to host social events, plant gardens, activate vacant lots with art, or install neighborhood signage. Groups interested in receiving funding submit an application for funds, and the mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Board (NAB) makes grantmaking decisions.

Although the grant program is only a small drop in the city’s overall budget—it makes up only .05 percent of the city’s general fund—it is one of the few funds in the city intended to promote civic engagement, build social capital among residents, and connect residents directly to city employees. If this fund weren’t available to everyone, how could the city claim community engagement was really a priority?

As cities seek to address long-standing racial inequities in their neighborhoods, revisiting those programs designed to promote community engagement—no matter how little their funding might be—will be critical. They can learn from the steps we took in Lansing.

  • Step 1: Reevaluate eligibility criteria
  • Step 2: Ensure program materials are user-friendly and accessible to all
  • Step 3: Build the outcomes you’re hoping to see into funding criteria
  • Step 4: Explain program changes to interested groups and offer support to first-time applicants

Read the full article about community engagement in cities by Martha Fedorowicz at Urban Institute.