The Secret To Building Your Community


Friday, 5.22am

Sheffield, U.K.

Most men today cannot conceive of a freedom that does not involve somebody’s slavery. – W. E. B. Du Bois

As we get older it becomes harder for us to imagine doing anything other than what we’re doing right now. We’ve dropped more than one anchor, and these commitments keep us in place, constraining our freedom to move around. Of course, we get certain things in exchange; money, security, family, associates, so it’s not a bad thing by any means. As long as we are where we want to be and are happy there.

In my last post I looked at rituals and their role in community creation and preservation. In particular, they create opportunities for engagement helping people to connect for all kinds of reasons, from looking at working together to meeting your future partner. But is that all there is, creating an event, or is there more to creating your community than that?

Going to a show

Many, many years ago at university I was active in student societies. You might be familiar with the scene that happens – used to happen – at the start of a new year. An open day for all the societies to set out their stalls, a chance to engage with potential new members and get them to come along.

The objective is to promote yourself, to get members in. Having a membership is the most important thing for a student society because membership brings in revenue and lets you put on activities. The larger your membership the more things you can do for them.

But is it just about numbers? After all, students also have the chance to go to events, and hundreds of them go along to the various club nights. Does that make them members or are they customers? After all, they go along, pay their money, listen to someone playing and maybe have a dance. They are there with a host of others and they may be fans and have interests in common with everyone else there. But is there a difference?

I think there is. When you go to a show you are a fan, part of a group of people who all like the same thing, the act, the band, the feel of the place, but you’re on the outside, looking in. Watching a performance is a little like going to the zoo. You’re there, separated by glass, bars or moats from the action. The scene is in front of you and you may be thoroughly enjoying yourself, but you’re very definitely separate from the action. You’re an onlooker.

Being part of something

One particular society I was part of could handle a very large number of people and I think that was because of one thing. We had a committed group of volunteers. Other groups that did a similar thing usually had one leader, supported by one other person. But, in general, that one person was the center of attention. The participants came to learn from that person and he or she could only handle a certain number of people and sessions. So, people came and learned but the event didn’t scale and there was always a sense of the “teacher” and the “students”.

But why did we have volunteers? Thinking back, it was because the group of volunteers went through a training session together, a sort of boot camp, that got them to work closely together and form bonds of friendship and professionalism. There’s a sort of magic that happens when you involve people, when you go beyond just letting them see what is going on and have them experience it for themselves. When you turn them from passive observers to active participants you create the conditions for volunteers to come forward.

I participated in a couple of online sessions yesterday which brought this difference into focus. The first session was a performance, expertly facilitated, video introductions and then discussions between experts. You had participation, with questions from the viewers and it all went very well. Most people, I suspect, watched it. Perhaps thought about it a little and then went on with the next thing they were doing.

The next session, later in the day, had a different structure. It started the same way, with a guest lecture but then it moved into an activity, where all the participants were split into groups and we went off to work on a task together. Before the task I was listening, but also a little distracted with other things that I was doing. Once we had the task, though, and there were a couple of other people and we got through the introductions and started to work on something together, it felt like something changed. I was much more involved, engaged and interested. And I finished the session feeling like it had gone well, I had really enjoyed it.

And the thing that made the difference between the two sessions was how the second session helped us to really get involved, by setting a task we worked on with others. That’s different from asking you to put in questions that are answered by an expert. The act of working together, of learning together, is a very powerful tool to get people to engage and really get into what you’re trying to do.

Harnessing the power of volunteers

The most powerful thing you can do if you want to build a community is to get intentional about growing your volunteer base. When people do things because they want to rather than because they are paid to do it you create a powerful, unstoppable force. But you need a way of doing this that helps you build a community rather than a power struggle. Creating a program people have to go through before they can contribute is a good idea, it helps them go through a shared experience with others that sets them apart, as a group, from everyone else. That is, I think, the single purpose of a military boot camp. It’s an induction process that is designed to take a group of people who don’t know each other and forge them, in a few weeks, into a cohesive unit that can then be trained in specialist skills over time.

The thing with involving others, however, is that you are put into a position where you may have to give up control of your project, and you may be very attached to it and not want to do that. And that’s okay, it’s possible to keep control and stay a certain size. Or you have to figure out how you can keep control of certain things while still enabling the growth of the community as a whole. This is hard to do and there will be splits and schisms and falling outs and groups will break up and go their separate ways.

I think the groups I was part of first started to see a split developing over attitudes to money. There was money coming into the societies and people wanted a bigger share of it rather than keeping it for the future community. That was a problem, and it led to differences of opinion and a falling out. The thing that ended the community, however, was losing the space where we operated. That was the end, but after a decade of involvement it was good to be able to walk away.

I think it’s worth looking in a little more detail on why communities split or fail or go their separate ways. Are there any factors that could help predict the failure of an organization?

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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