Building a community takes time. But once your members are truly connected with your purpose and each other, their interpersonal bonds can last a very long time. When building early connections among community members, it’s important to keep a few guiding principles in mind.
You attract who you are
Most communities mirror their founders. The first Impact Hub in Berlin was founded by a group of coaches and facilitators. Their vision was to create a diverse community of entrepreneurs, creatives and others dedicated to building a radically better world. In the end, however, the community’s membership was mostly coaches. It fell apart because the community did not reflect the original vision and because coaches attract coaches, not entrepreneurs.
One of the most important parts of building a community is creating a core group of people who truly reflect the desired identity. This group must be formed in the beginning. They are the DNA for what is to come. Be selective when inviting your first members to join.
Tip: Choose your core team wisely. Its diversity will multiply within your community as it grows.
Tip: Be selective when choosing your first members. They will serve as the role models who attract your future members.
Virtual communities are all about people
People join communities because they identify with that community’s vision and values. That said, members typically stay because of the people (other members). Sadly, many great communities fail because they did not recruit the right members. According to Michel Bachmann, most initiatives that set out to create a Teal-inspired collective have been unsuccessful. Many begin with a strong vision for changing the world and an attractive invitation for anyone to join. But then, they then get stuck in endless discussions. Ultimately, members leave and the community dissolves.
Having a grand vision for your community creates grand expectations. When members’ experiences don’t live up to their expectations (or the community does not deliver what it offered), they feel resentment, cynicism, and mistrust. Ultimately, it’s the people who keep a community together.
Tip: Focus on recruiting and retaining good-fit members in your virtual community. Make sure your members reflect your purpose and values.
Enspiral is a community that does this very well. Based in New Zealand, this community and has created a new kind of collective that allows a diverse set of professionals and companies to do meaningful work together and create shared value. A key practice that binds the community together is the annual retreat. During the retreat, every member is invited to participate and deepen their relationship with others, ensuring that human connections are maintained as the community grows.
The ‘who’ defines the potential to deliver on this ambition.
|Focus on the ‘why’||Focus on the ‘who’|
|The ‘why’ sets the ambition.||The ‘who’ defines the potential to deliver on this ambition.|
|The ‘why’ is a good story.||The ‘who’ is the lived-experience.|
|The ‘why’ is an open invitation.||The ‘who’ sets a healthy boundary.|
Michel Bachmann, Facilitator & Community Advisor
Open or closed?
Before you establish selection criteria, you need to decide if your virtual community will be open or closed.
Anyone can join without registration. They can participate by sharing content, participating online, and they can use content without any commitment. Having an open community can make it easier for the outside world to connect to your community’s activities. This is especially true for communities who organise events or want to share a message. But there are drawbacks to having an open virtual community. Having a lot of members can make connecting more difficult and lead to less activity in the community.
Closed communities intentionally limit their communication with the outside world. Resources are not open-source and entry barriers such as registration or a specific job title help community builders to pre-select appropriate members. Closed communities tend to feel more exclusive which can make it easier for members to build relationships because they have something in common.
In this model, a certain part of the community is invite-only and closed, and a certain part is open to anyone.
Many communities struggle to decide if they will be open or closed. Most want to be inclusive but also wish to set boundaries to maintain member connections and protect their activities. In other words, there is often tension between diversity and coherence. Defining the ‘who’ of your community can help mitigate this tension because it communicates to potential members, who the community is for, and the criteria to join. For example, the League of Intrapreneurs only accepts people who are driving change from within powerful institutions. Further, it does not tolerate people who act against their core values.
For community builders, the open versus closed dilemma can be resolved by defining clear criteria for the ‘who’. This allows the community to create permeable boundaries for membership. Whatever type you choose, always be transparent in communicating your community’s inclusion and exclusion criteria and apply them consistently.
Open Community: Extinction Rebellion
Defining who can join your community and the member selection process makes it easier for new members to join. Clearly defined member selection rules clarify for community and non-members, who the community serves and how. These boundaries are helpful for the people within the group because they cultivate a common understanding and a sense of togetherness. When all members of the community understand the selection criteria and process, it helps to build their trust and affirm shared values.
→ Invitation/nomination: People are invited to join the community, either centrally or decentrally.
→ Application: Potential members have to apply to become members, and are evaluated by a committee. The committee might be internal or external to the organization, people from dedicated staff, or organized in a decentralised way.
→ Referral: People have to be referred by current members (or a subset of members) to apply.
→ Geographic restrictions or time restrictions: Applications/new members are only accepted from specific places and/or during specific time windows.
1) No selection criteria but boundaries
Extinction Rebellion is a movement-based community building that requires a large crowd to function. In their case, setting selection criteria might not benefit their cause however, setting some boundaries within their open community helps them be an effective activist community.
From the Extinction Rebellion UK Website:
“Join us. We need you – whoever you are, however much time you have – to help build a powerful movement. Our vision of change involves mass participation. Together we’re unstoppable.”
Extinction Rebellion asks members to follow these steps before they sign up:
- Watch a talk summarising why the community exists (online or link to an event calendar).
- Learn about Extinction Rebellion (downloads of a starter pack, rebellion agreement and link to starter events).
By asking people to learn about their purpose, Extinction Rebellion sets boundaries and ensures that good-fit members join the community.
2) Application with clear selection criteria
Ariadne Network gathers together European philanthropists in the human rights sphere. They have a very clear target group. Their selection criteria are explained on their website: Participation in Ariadne is open to grant-makers and donors who are based in Europe and invest a minimum of €20,000 annually to support social change and human rights globally.
3) Selection via invitation
The BMW Foundation created a community of responsible leaders. To join, you have to be invited to an in-person event or program. This is a clear selection criteria that ensures all members have been identified as a responsible leader in some way.
After you decide on an open or a closed community and have created selection criteria and boundaries, there are a few more questions to consider.
What is your target KPI for the number of members?
Your community’s purpose and goals will determine if you are more concerned with quantity or quality. For communities associated with a movement, you will need as many members as possible. For exclusive networks, memberships should be targeted and limited.
How will you attract new members?
Identify organisations or influential people who align with your purpose and can help you reach potential members. Advertise your virtual community to potential members through local groups and conferences who share your values and goals. Before you advertise, establish clear member personas and think strategically about where to focus your efforts.
What do members need to know before registering?
Make sure potential members can easily access the minimum amount of information they will need before joining your community. Is that information easily accessible on the registration page? Are they required to view and/or sign any required documents?
What is the member registration process?
In both open and closed communities, the registration process is an opportunity to learn more about members including why they joined and what they want. You can also include a required checkbox during the registration process to ensure people read key documents. Decide on the minimum required amount of information and implement it consistently. Note: For open communities raising awareness, a ’push to join’ button is sufficient.
Who selects members?
In a closed virtual community, think about who will be responsible for selecting members. If the selection criteria are clear and simple, the community builder can review applications and select members independently. In the early stages of your community, this selection process can help you get to know your members. Later, assemble a group of community members to carry out new member selection. This is useful in more complex selection scenarios and helps facilitate co-ownership within the community.
The downside of creating boundaries
Setting boundaries can also expose the ugly side of communities. We need an outside in order to define the inside. We need the “other” to feel the “us”. And as a consequence, we feel less connected to the outside group. This has been observed in social psychology in what is known as the in-group bias which suggests that we treat in-groups better than out-groups. As a result, in-group community members treat each other better than the out-group. This shows up, for example, in how generously members share their resources, how much risk they take in their interactions with each other, and how willing they are to listen to each other. (shared by Fabian Pfortmüller, Community Canva)
What can we do about it?
As community builders, we are often the ones who help shape boundaries.
- Remember, most of the in-group/out-group distinctions are arbitrary. As community builders, we are the ones creating the barriers and we have to learn to be careful and intentional.
- Remember how painful it is to feel or be excluded. Cultivate empathy that goes beyond the boundaries of the group.
- Design paths for out-group members to be part of your community.
Plugging-in new members
New members bring new ideas, perspectives, and discussions that richen virtual communities. Making sure new members feel welcome is especially important. New members should feel wanted and find it easy to connect to the activities, sub-groups, and conversations happening in your community. During the on-boarding (orientation) process, offer new members an opportunity to connect with others and see how much they share in common. Encourage others to welcome them openly and help them to move up the engagement curve faster.
In smaller communities
- Welcome new members “by hand” by connecting them to others who have similar interests.
- Schedule a one-on-one introduction call to introduce the community and the platform.
- Take time to get to know your members, their skills, and their needs.
- Plug the new member into relevant working groups based on their interests.
- Highlighting the top three things the community has to offer and how to make the most out of these.
- If possible, help new members make their first connections within the community.
In larger communities
- Create welcome posts with questions like, what is your job? What makes this an awesome job? What do you offer to the community? What do you hope to gain? What challenges have you faced recently? Tag new members to answer the questions.
- Create opportunities for new members to introduce themselves during community calls or on in a specific place on your platform; or create a sub-community for newbies.
- Buddy (pair) new members with existing members to help them navigate the first few months in the community and build bonds.
- Offer professional video walkthroughs on websites and provide guidance for new members.
- Create newbie corners with relevant posts that help new members get to know the community.
No matter which method you choose, welcoming new members is a crucial process. Structure your approach to create a high-quality experience. Check out this PowerPoint by Singularity University about on-boarding new members. These elements are covered in their on-boarding chapter which we highly recommend as a guide for your community onboarding:
Setting expectations: Being an active member
Defining the role members will play in the community helps them know what is expected from them. Expectations provide context-specific guidance on implicit and explicit codes of conduct and behaviour. This is a key step towards activating members and empowers them to take ownership of their role.
Clear expectations and detailed requirements of commitment allow potential members to realistically evaluate if they can join the community.
Once members join, you can do to make it easier for them to navigate the process of defining and finding their place within the community and to understand and live its values.
Guiding documents, and calls to discuss them, and opportunities to practice the community’s values are crucial. There are a few basic documents and guidelines that are necessary for impact communities.
Vision and Mission
A short version of the purpose, the vision, and the mission in a format that members can use when they talk about the community. These should be presented in a visually appealing manner.
Guidelines and member agreements
Guidelines are the rules that guide communication and behavior in your community and on your platform. For new members, guidelines help them understand what kind of behaviour is wanted and what is not accepted. In times of tension or conflict, use your guidelines to help resolve the issue. In some communities, members must commit to following the guidelines when they register.
Here is an example of guidelines set for CommunityApp of Impact Hub:
We don’t set rules or restrictions. We want to follow our values, base the Community App on trust, collaboration, and courage. That’s why we have guidelines and recommendations instead of restrictions, permissions, and privileges.
Be respectful and open. We are a community of people respectful of different nationalities, genders, races, religions, and social backgrounds.
Give more than you take.
Don’t be afraid of proactivity and taking the first step. One of the great advantages of being part of a global network is having limitless opportunities to get in touch with peers from all over the world. Spamming is not cool at all.
Publish interesting, original, and relevant content.
Strive for collaboration. Ask for help when you need it. Share feedback when there is something that can be done better.
A published declaration of intentions, motives, or views regarding the challenges facing a community. Used in communities focused on political change, catastrophe or positive events to communicate your position. Your manifestos should be co-created by the community (or at least some members) and shared internally for feedback before being published to the outside world.
Here are a few examples for inspiration:
- MUNPlanets manifesto
- Unreasonable Group’s manifesto communicates its mission, theory of change, and the values that guide their lives.
- The Leap Manifesto is a call for energy democracy and policy reform in Canada to safeguard our future.
In the same way that it is important to properly onboard new members, communities must also provide high-quality exit interviews and exit processes. Remember, members leave communities for many reasons.
Member exits provide an important opportunity to:
- Understand an exit and learn what can be improved in your community.
- Harvest the knowledge from the exiting member.
- Leave the exiting member with a good impression i.e., keep in touch, receive updates, would be available for support?
It can be a good thing when inactive members exit the community. This is often the case when a member is not fulfilling their role or meeting expectations. It is ineffective to have inactive members. In fact, if attempts to reactivate a member have failed, it may be time to part ways.
Provide members with an established and formal exit process, and acknowledge their contributions to your community. It is up to you to make it official and keep your membership database up-to-date.
Make space and opportunities for connectivity
When setting up your community, you will be focused on attracting new members. But this is also the time to begin creating value for the first-joiners. Ask new members to share their wisdom, their projects, and their ideas.
Support members in building relationships with each other by showing them what they have in common or highlighting the strengths found within their differences. According to Levinger’s’ relationship model, a key step toward building trust is to cultivate meaningful interactions and vulnerability. In the community engagement model by CMX, trust is the second step that leads to participation. There are two places you can build trust: online and offline.
“Trust is the foundation of everything. Trusting someone is a big step and we need to feel safe to do so. Trust is earned, not given, and the ideal community provides a safe environment to slowly, step by step, develop that trust.”Fabian Pfortmüller, Community Canva
You must find ways for smaller groups to feel connected around discussion questions or one-on-one conversations. Avoid larger calls and basic questions about members’ jobs or backgrounds. Be intentional about who you bring together and when. Get to know your members so you can group them in meaningful ways.
CMX believes an individual only becomes a member of a community when four things happen:
- The community aligns with their identity.
- They trust that the community will bring them value.
- They know how to participate.
- There is a reward (intrinsic or extrinsic) for their participation.
Another way to build trust and connection is to hold in-person meetings. Are there cities where multiple members could connect to each other in an informal setting. Do not confuse in-person meetings with events to attract new members. If your members have not yet bonded or built trust, they are ready to recruit new members and might be annoyed by being asked to do so at this stage.
Prepare topics and questions for in-person gatherings. Position multiple, natural connectors in a group and help people talk about what truly matters to them, what got them to who they are, what keeps them motivated, and the like. Further, talking about topics outside of work like hobbies, vacations, books, politics can create a feeling of belonging and trust.
Small and fun actions to help build trust and connectivity:
- Creating a common way to identify each other such as a symbol or a sticker on a laptop to help people recognise fellow members.
- Build a membership directory where everyone can get to know their peers, connect, and find interesting connections/spotlight.
- Encourage member jargon such as short forms or words specific to the community and make sure that you use that language or introduce it. For example, give your members a name.
Once trust is in place, it’s time to focus on the engagement curve to participation. This means beginning to take an active role in the community. Playing an active role can mean various things. Depending on members’ level of extrinsic or intrinsic motivation, different rewards for participation might work. Some people just like to be seen and appreciated, others like to get titles or medals. Others like to get concrete benefits such as unique access or financial discounts.