Building Community Democracy

Review of the 2020 Responsive Neighbourhood Small Grants

July 21, 2021

Neighbourhood Small Grants (NSG) offer $500 to community members to hold any activity or event that they believe will help build community in their local area. Since 1999, the program has grown each year and now involves communities across British Columbia. Created, supported and promoted by the Vancouver Foundation, the program has produced countless projects, friendships, and activities that promote neighbourhood belonging and joy amongst its participants.

The Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative at the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue wanted to find out if participation in the NSG program affected project leaders’ social capital (human networks), participation in democratic engagement, and motivation to create change. 


Participating in the 2020 Neighbourhood Small Grants did not change how project leaders reported their community participation, or the number of people they knew in their neighbourhood.

We found that 86% of NSG survey participants participate at least somewhat often in their neighbourhood, and 95% know at least a few of their neighbours well enough to ask for help if they need it. This did not change as a result of the 2020 program.

The more social capital and community participation a project leader reported, the more likely they were to have positive views on democracy.

NSG leaders participating in their neighbourhood are also more likely to believe voting gives them a say in how the government runs things. NSG leaders that participate more frequently are also more likely to trust elections, civil servants and journalists than those that participate less often in their neighbourhood.

Project leaders tended to have reciprocal relationships in their communities that made them feel like they belong.

They described serendipitous conversations and supporting one another as significant in this regard. These findings suggest that acting locally, feeling belonging and supporting one another all correspond to stronger levels of democratic engagement and commitment. 5

Some participants did not see a connection between their project work and democracy.

This disconnect appeared to be rooted primarily in participants' perception of democracy as synonymous with government or institutions and disconnected from grassroots community participation. These participants tended to also have a negative perception of politics.

Participants who linked their project work and democracy identified common values and the empowerment of individuals as the connection between the two.

Participants cited democratic values of inclusion, equity, personal choice, and individual freedom as part of their projects. They also made connections to citizen-led change as key to democracy.

Interviews with project leaders identified the Neighborhood Small Grant Sweet Spot: four attributes and two outcomes that help motivate people to create change in their communities.

Neighbourhood Small Grant project leaders are able to:

  1. Identify issues they care about
  2. Connect their response to the issue with something that brings them joy
  3. Embrace the opportunity through an attitude that encourages trying something new
  4. Use the grant funds to expand on their own previously developed skills and capacities

As outcomes, project leaders reported increased confidence and positive feedback as motivators for future community involvement.

“I like to think that the work I’m doing is building community democracy. I don’t really believe in topdown democracy, and I don’t believe there’s many systems on the planet right now that are actually working as a true democracy. I can’t affect that, but I can affect my community and hope that my community meets your community, and your community meets the next community. Then if something goes wrong– worse than COVID– there’s now a network we can call on to keep moving forward.”

Dialogue Dispatch


Dialogue Dispatch is our community of practice newsletter where we share updates on our team's knowledge exchange activities alongside inspiring case studies, suggested readings and practical tools for people and organizations working to transform the field of democratic participation.

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