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The three necessary ingredients for community. Do you have them?

19 Nov 2012
by Alex Hillman

I’ve realized that people tend to avoid defining “community” because there are so many variations on the recipe. We say things like, “That’s not how my community works” or “we did it this way” to draw lines in the sand based on differences without taking the time to look for similarities.

But in order to have a productive conversation about building communities, we need a baseline. We need to know what we’re working towards to know if we’ve even gotten there.

So I’ve been thinking through an exercise to produce a definition for community that we can work from.

A starting point

At the lowest level, a community must include people. No people, no community.

But you want to build something that is more than just a gathering of people.

You want to build something unique, powerful, meaningful, and most importantly you want it to be sustainable. In order to accomplish those goals, we need to define a “higher order” of community beyond gathering people.

That’s what this definition attempts to do.

The Three Defining Factors of Communities

The kind of community we’re working towards building functions more like an organism than an organization. This kind of community is more like an ecosystem than a network of shared resources. This kind of community expresses understanding amongst its members, rather than relying on consensus.

“…real power and energy is generated through relationships. The patterns of relationships and the capacities to form them are more important than tasks, functions, roles, and positions.” -Margaret J. Wheatley

I have defined the three factors of successful communities as:

1) Participation, 2) Relationships, and 3) Empathy.

I’ve chosen these factors based on my own observations and interactions with communities and their culture, but also because their presence is measurable. 

For any of them you can look at a group of people and answer “yes or no” to the presence of participation, relationships, and empathy.

With some additional work, you can rank that presence in a variety of ways depending on the unique factors of the community, but no matter what the community – where it exists, who it consists of, or what its goals are – these three factors will be measurably present and so, provide a foundation for building and growing with resilience.

Factor #1 Community Participation

How can you tell which farmer has been working in the fields and which one has been napping in the barn?

The working farmers have dirt covering their boots, not just on the soles.

Being on a mailing list and paying a monthly membership is like being the farmer whose boots only have dirt on the bottom. When you observe your community, you want to be able to see and “measure” the growth of participation amongst your members.

Participation creates buy-in. Without participation, a person’s attachment to the community is weak if it exists at all.

Participation creates opportunities for the other factors. Without participation, relationships and empathy will not crystallize.

Participation provides direction. Without participation, every decision becomes a risk of losing people to conflicting interests. When people participate, even if the outcome isn’t 100% what they wanted, they play a part whatever becomes.

Factor #2 Relationships

How many contacts are in your address book? How many of them have you spoken to in the last year? How many in the last month?

Who in that list would you call or email if you needed something? Who in that list would you take time out of your day to spend time with even if there wasn’t a specific reason?

Relationships, like participation, are only measurable when they are active. This is why many great communities feel “alive.”

True relationships trump wider networks. Your member roster, Linked-in groups, spaces, events or discussion lists facilitate relationships, but it’s you that must do the work to maintain them.

It’s up to your community members to maintain those relationships for themselves, with your help and facilitation.

You want to be able to see and “measure” the growth and persistence of these relationships between your members.

Relationships reinforce attachment. People connect to other people far more deeply than they do to anything else.

Relationships create a sense of belonging. By combining participation + relationships, people feel like they “belong” to the community. Building relationships build on top of their participation changes the feeling of participation from something you do to something you’re a part of.

Relationships breed coordination & collaboration. As trust is established, the individuals in the community begin to coordinate their efforts and energies more fluidly. Divergence turns to convergence (hat tip to Geoff D). Every individual effort becomes greater than the sums of their parts when they are connected in this way.

Factor #3 Community Empathy

It’s natural for a group of people to have disagreements and misunderstandings. The presence of empathy isn’t the lack of these rifts, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Community empathy takes place when members go out of their way to think and consider the community and its members. This sounds deceptively simple, but don’t be fooled.

When someone puts himself in the shoes of another member in order to make a decision, that’s member empathy in action.

Nobody in the community, especially you, the community builder, is exempt from the importance of this factor. This is why the first lesson of the Community Builder Masterclass is built to help you take on the perspective of being a member in place of the “role” of being a leader.

Empathy is the hardest factor to “measure”, especially over time, since so much of it seems to happens silently. To observe and measure it, you need to learn to recognize the “halos” of community empathy in action – and how to encourage it.

Empathy broadens worldview. Every time a community member takes the time to understand one of their fellow community members, the way they interact with the world around them shifts even if it’s just a little bit.

Empathy creates room for self-actualization. The tip-top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is Self Actualization. Self-actualization itself contains a number of measurable factors as well, including:

  • Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the fake and dishonest.
  • Comfortable acceptance of self, others, nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.
And others, close to a dozen in total.

These are the Components of Success

Regardless of what kind of community you’re trying to build – where it exists, who it consists of, or what its goals are – these three factors lay the foundation for that community to be successful, and to grow.

But they are only the foundation. Putting them into practice in life and in business, in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our hobbies, and even our families – is much easier said than done.

Each of these factors includes a spiderweb of decisions, habits, and techniques to apply every minute of every day.  It’s taken me at least the last 6 years of dedicated exploration – and probably a lot of the rest of my life – to come to these realizations, and I know that they are concepts that are still evolving and becoming more clear.

Do you think there’s another factor that I missed from this rubric? What is it, and why?

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Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.