My current job title includes the term “Community Builder” and I get asked nearly every day just what that means: how do you build community? where is the community you want to build? how can I be a community builder online? Tips, secrets, ideas?!  I want to take a break from all the hard work building community (does that get a wink?) to share some of what I believe is the core of successful community building (on or offline).

“Community building” is about a lot of things.  Some people define it as organizing, especially around specific events, campaigns, legislation, or fundraising.  Others see it as specifically applying to online community spaces, like a social networking site.  I believe that community exists everywhere, really.  That the Internet is a huge community of people looking to connect with others like them to form smaller, more specific communities.  Those of us in positions to support those connections and collaborations are some of the luckiest people in the global network, acting as the email or Twitter post or blog reference that helps individuals make networked jumps to where they really want to be.

Gardening vs Landscaping
So, what’s the secret to successful community building? You guessed it: be a great gardener and avoid the temptation to landscape.  Here’s what that means:

  • A gardener only takes out the weeds; a landscaper takes out everything that isn’t part of the design.  Think about the number of beautiful plants or trees that have sprung up in parks, your yard, or even out in nature that weren’t “intended” to be there but quickly grew to be a valuable part of the ecosystem.
  • A gardener isn’t afraid to mix things around; a landscaper plans and plots and plants.  Sometimes you can’t know ahead of time just which plants will respond well or want more sun or shade so you need to be flexible.
  • When a storm hits, a gardener can remain open to planting anew and rejuvenating others; a landscaper may just order more of the same.  Sometimes it takes a storm to realize which plants just weren’t going to make it or which were able to stick it out.
  • When in doubt, a gardener will try more plants or kinds of plants and see which take root; a landscaper may default to less.  What about the plants you had never used before to know about and how they took root, flowered, and bolted up right before your eyes?

Clearly, this is all very metaphorical here with the back yard options.  It is, though, meant to paint a picture:

The Gardener creates an ecosystem open to change, available to new groups, and full of fresh opportunities to emerge naturally.  The approach is focused on organic collaboration and growth for the entire community.  The gardener is simply there to help, cultivate, and clear the weeds if/when they poke up.

The Landscaper creates an ecosystem that matches a preconceived design or pattern.  The approach is focused on executing a preconceived environment, regardless of how natural or organic it may be for the larger area.  The landscaper is there to ensure that everything stays just as planned.

Your Community
How can you apply these ideas to your community building? The first question I always ask myself when considering a new tool or functionality online, a new project or campaign, or even new partnerships or members is: “Is this something the Community wants or something I want?”  It doesn’t matter what I want, really.  It matters what the Community wants.  And how do you know if or what they are interested in? ASK!  Be sure to always provide opportunities for your community members or those who come across your work to share their ideas about what they would like to see, how they’d like to connect with each other and how they would like to work with you.  And when considering anything new, ask for feedback and share your ideas and plans ahead of time.  You may be surprised, but your Community often has even better ideas than you!

What do you think? Do you have other ideas about successful community building? Have a great example or case study you want to share?  Looking forward to more!


imageAmy Sample Ward’s passion for nonprofit technology has lead her to involvement with NTEN, NetSquared, and a host of other organizations. She shares many of her thoughts on nonprofit technology news and evolutions on her blog.