Six LESSONS on how to build COMMUNITY
Maybe it’s taken the shock of Covid-19 for us to realise the importance of human relationships, but what’s changed from such trying times in the past, is that we are able to connect with kith and kin, thanks to advances made with ubiquitous tech platforms that beam us into the homes and new workspaces of our colleagues, friends and family on a daily basis like no time before.
As someone who has always believed in the transformative power of bringing people together, increasingly, I’ve been asked as to how I build communities and networks, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on what’s worked and, importantly, what’s not worked as well as I imagined it would. But before I do, I thought I’d quote what Google suggested what a ‘community’ was, so that we anchor ourselves with the same meaning:
A community is a social unit (a group of living things) with commonality such as norms, religion, values, customs, or identity. Communities may share a sense of place situated in a given geographical area (e.g. a country, village, town, or neighbourhood) or in virtual space through communication platforms.
1. Your motives matter, make them known. Your values and reasons for creating a community need to shine through, be very transparent about these, as it’ll set the tone and the terms of engagement, both of which are critical for success.
Most people won’t have an issue with joining a community if they know what it’s core purpose is. They need to understand not only why they’re being thought of, but also how they stand to benefit, so the more upfront you are about such matters, the greater the chances of them joining and being active.
I created a community of leaders in philanthropy as a way of bringing together peers from across the world together, so we can learn from each other. As a decision maker, I often found myself in situations where I couldn’t share my thoughts with colleagues, so this group served as a forum not only to share various challenges I faced, but also one where I learnt a lot, which made me a better leader. This community continues to thrive thanks to a WhatsApp group that I set up, and is a great example of being transparent about your motives. Had I set it up with an ulterior motive, I’m pretty sure that the effort would have failed.
2. Find common ground. You need to start somewhere, so finding common ground is important to frame what folks can expect from your community. What I’ve seen happen, more so during the pandemic, is that they provide a support network for people who, often, are extremely isolated in one way or another.
The support system such networks provide include ongoing positive reinforcement as well as constructive feedback. Where there’s common ground, it makes it easier to seek help and input and if the goal is to build strong communities, then this becomes critical to think through.
I’ve also seen people get busier and busier working from home, so the fact that such members of your community can’t attend meetings or formal sessions forces us to put in place some form of online support, where members can go at their own pace. This personalised professional development is key to great communities that are built around learning, especially.
3. Be clear what the rules are, and repeat them often. You’ll avoid so much heart-ache if you’re explicit about what’s acceptable and in the case of bad behaviour what the consequences will be for those who cross the line.
Despite what many think of Facebook, I recently set up a few community groups for specific purposes, and what I really liked what it did was force administrators to consider what the rules for their groups are. They even provide prompts and language that you can use to create your personalised set of rules. Whether one looks at these when they join such a community is one thing, but as an organiser, I know that I have these as a way of ejecting those who misbehave.
Having clear admission criteria for your community, as well as exit rules, is critical. As the definition above says, there have to be some commonalities in a community, and should that change, there should be an understanding of what happens next for members.
4. Build a community with a low ‘jerk’ factor. Whilst they are a huge strength, building diverse communities is really tough.
Often the difference in cultural norms, language, sport and religious beliefs result in differences of opinion and can trigger bad behaviour. Where I’ve seen these matters resolved effectively, have been when there’s been prompt and decisive action.
Where there’s been a ‘fudged’ compromise, you can see the issues that arise erode the value of the network and community building becomes much tougher.
The way to build really beneficial communities is to vet those you want to enrol and take your time to get to know them. Positive references from others in the community are also valuable.
Ultimately, most networks will have ‘jerks’, your role is to minimise the number in your community. Be clear what one looks like.
5. Community management is a job. The bind we often find ourselves in is that we inadvertently create communities which deliver exceptional results, experiences, learnings but we fail to recognise that their sustenance and growth require additional investment of time, money and thought. We often bolt on the role of ‘community manager’ to a junior person in marketing or another department, who along with their own workload has to also drive engagement for this new set of people.
I understand this challenge all too well and have seen it fail every time.
Ideally, if you believe in the power of community, make it someone’s job – their focus.
Finding someone who can perform the role is no easy matter. I would say that those who can relate to others, have great social-emotional skills, demonstrate empathy, and are adept at the use of appropriate tech tools would excel in such a role.
Many years ago, I was fortunate to have been invited to join the Forum of Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum, and the thing they do well, in relation to other such networks, is to emphasise the importance of network building by having staff who are ‘community managers’ lead their engagement with members of their organisation. This one very simple change in job title, can make the essential difference to the experience of those in the community.
6. Size matters. On Facebook, I created a group that now has, almost, 30,000 members who are interested in education, and, similarly, on my YouTube channel there’s 10,000, and on LinkedIn, there’s another 3,000 of us. I see these, not as communities but as groups of individuals with a loose affiliation that bring everyone together.
Community building requires time, money and energy. The larger your community, the more you have to commit resources to it. Whilst, tech tools make convening large groups, as above, easier, it’s another thing altogether to moderate conversation and build shared understanding, which are all critical to building community. I would suggest the ideal size for a network is much smaller than you’d think.
For me the true magic of communities is that they’re personal.
Whilst I can speak about the many up-sides of building professional communities of teachers and leaders in the education sector, I’ve kept my thinking broad for this piece given the relevance of what’s said above to so many different areas of work.
Covid-19 has turned our lives upside down. Chaos has rained down on us. Many of the cherished beliefs we held have been cast aside as a result of what we’re all going through. The one really great thing that’s happened to many of us is that we’ve also connected with those around us to a far greater extent than we had before. The stand-out success for me has been the creation of a WhatsApp group for my neighbourhood, which has been a joy to see become a community.
This much is clear to me, from the hyper-local to the global, we can build ‘community’ when we try.
So, why not start today?