The good people of Alexandria, Virginia had a problem: Local non-profit organizations wanted to do good, but they needed donations of time, money and supplies. Citizens wanted to help, but they were often lacked monetary resources, or knowledge about how they could make the biggest impact in their community.
Instead of wringing their hands about this frustrating disconnect, the volunteers of ACT for Alexandria decided to design their own solution.
ACTion Alexandria, is a newly launched citizen engagement website that provides easy ways for community members to find ways to help out. It is a platform to connect individuals to nonprofit organizations.
Community Manager Tracy Viselli likes to call it a "technology-aided barn raising."
"The formula for barnraising is community needs + limited resources = collective social action. It's how communities have always solved problems," said Viselli. "It's just that now, we have some new tools to help us reach more people at one time, and hopefully to reach out to them in different and engaging ways. With ACTion Alexandria, we are providing the hammers, nails, and some infrastructure, but it's really the community that will need to build the collective barn."
At first glance, ACTion Alexandria bears a striking resemblance to other online idea platforms such as UserVoice or IdeaScale.The difference, say organizers, is that this site is built on a dedicated foundation of offline support, which it leverages in an easy-acess online forum to encourage fast-action sharing.
"Online community is a great way to connect citizens and organization–particularly if you can leverage the social web because that is increasingly where neighbors, families, friends, etc., are connecting," said Viselli. "Many people can't make a city council meeting after work because of their jobs, child care, or because it's too much trouble for them. We are hoping that we developing a way for people to be civically engaged in new and different ways. And hopefully this means that new people will also become more civically engaged."
ACTion Alexandria works closely with local government and nonprofit organizations to collect and prioritize community needs and turn them into actions and challenges for citizens.
Visitors to the site are greeted with a choice between two different types of actions: featured actions, which are created and promoted in partnership with local organizations, and community actions, which are things people can do right away to help their community.
If they see a need in their community that's not being met, both individuals and organizations also have the opportunity to submit their own actions on the site.
According to Viselli, the ACTion platform also allows non-profits and city officials to track engagement across all programs in addition to monitoring the feedback on their individual challenges to find out at macro level what broad categories matter most to the citizens of Alexandria.
"We also want to help other communities build their barns by creating a model other communities could use–literally," said Viselli. "The project is open source and we expect to eventually create a Drupal distribution of our platform to make it easy for any kind of community to adapt and run with."