Read best-selling author Bill McKibben's take on Front Porch Forum's origins.
April 20, 2019
By: Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli
“We’re looking at several areas immediately adjacent to Vermont where we might be able to provide our service,” Van Drieshe said about the community forum that currently has over 160,000 members, mostly in Vermont. “And we are coming to Washington County as a whole with an offer to invest our resources into the county at no cost.”
Van Drieshe talked to the Washington County Board of Supervisors during their regularly scheduled meeting on Friday in Fort Edward about how Front Porch Forum helps build community connectedness.
“Front Porch Forum is a small Vermont for-profit company started in 2006, we now serve all communities in Vermont and two communities, Cambridge and Argyle, in New York,” said Van Drieshe. “Our mission is to help neighbors connect and build communities.”
According to Van Drieshe, they build what is sometimes referred to as local social capital, meaning the connections between neighbors that help get things done, build community trust and make communities work.
“We do that through a network of community, by community, email newsletters where all the content is provided by local people, many of them neighbors, but also local officials local businesses,” he said. “And once a day, we put out a local newsletter that compiles all of those things from everybody in each community.”
Postings range from the “I lost my dog can somebody help me find him,” to “I’m looking for a ladder to borrow,” “There’s a VFW barbecue this Saturday,” to more weighty topics, like what do people think about the school budget or what to do about a particular intersection that isn’t working well.
During Friday’s meeting, Board Chairman Bob Henke said that Argyle has been using Front Porch Forum successfully.
“We used it for a number of town functions, like a road is washed out, don’t use it this weekend,’” Henke said. “The American Legion’s pancake breakfast has doubled in response. And I’ve gotten a whole bunch of free canning jars.”
Van Drieshe said they found these often-mundane connections create a community’s face.
“We’re a bridge that gives neighbors a reason and a way to connect. In modern times, we’re often missing that,” he said. “It’s where people feel safe to engage and connect with neighbors respectfully and they feel listened to.”
Interestingly, Front Porch Forum was in the process of expanding in Vermont when Tropical Storm Irene hit, and it helped communities respond more quickly, Van Drieshe said.
“They had been working together from the forum, so when a disaster hit, people had those relationships and networks that make it so much easier to respond well when it really matters,” he said.
In the bigger picture, Front Porch has been studying results from over a decade.
“We see very strong results in terms of basic engagement. Residents are more likely to attend a community event, more likely to get involved in a community project or a fundraiser or even more likely to go to a government meeting,” he said. “We also see a real impact for small businesses found a number of customers, particularly neighbors asking for recommendations and the businesses getting the referrals. That is gold for a local business.”
A documentary, “The Story of Vermont’s Quiet Digital Revolution,” about Front Porch Forum has been recently showing in Vermont. It can be found online at https://vimeo.com/279730548.
But interacting with Front Porch Forum is much more personal and simple than social media giants Facebook or Twitter. It is all email, all text and no video.
“We tend to get considerable engagement. Not in the sense of people clicking ‘ like,’ but rather every single posting has an email author button, and if somebody is looking for a recommendation, giving away a free dining room table, they click that button and that person,” VanDrieshe said. “It’s an actual engagement with each other and having a strong center around community.”
There are no anonymous profiles on Front Porch Forum, he said, adding that everyone has to sign up with their real name and address.
Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff asked how Front Porch Forum makes money if everything is free, and Van Drieshe said there are three ads in every newsletter, and that covers a big portion of their costs.
Supervisors also wondered about areas in the county with spotty internet service, and Van Drieshe said they are currently working on an app that will let people use the service, much like when going through a subway without service, as long as they can connect once a day.
Since Friday morning’s meeting, two more Washington County towns, Jackson and White Creek, have signed on, but it will take reaching a threshold of about 100 members for the service to go live, Van Drieshe said.