Five questions to ask about membership

Why do people say they belong to a community?

Future Community (that’s this newsletter) is about how people build the future together. Subscribe here. What are some fundamental books and essays on community? I’d love to hear your suggestions. I’ve been reading and revisiting them, looking for common lessons on how groups and communities thrive. More importantly, we’re looking at how a sense of belonging deepens and spreads across networks.

Think for a minute about why people join, stick with or leave a community. What takes us from curious to membership to a deeper sense of belonging and commitment?

I’ve been going to the same yoga studio five or six days a week for ten years. My calendar says I last took a class there on Sunday, March 8th, 2020. I went for the classes, sure, but it was a community – familiar faces, friendly people, and a regular set of events and expectations.

As COVID settled in, the studio closed for a couple months before reopening. Going back didn’t feel safe (which may or may not be the case but I have plenty of reasons to minimize COVID exposure). They offered access to recorded classes. They were ok but there's something a little depressing (or comical, if you like) about strangers running through yoga poses in a sterile room in a nameless building in a nameless city. A workout, sure, but certainly no sense of community.

Then I heard that someone who used to teach at the local studio would be streaming live classes over zoom. I actually know several who are doing this. What I got were familiar if sometimes rough around the edges sessions. There was some banter and conversation. Other people in the zoom window. There’s some sense of connection and community.

Why community?

In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, Priya Parker notes that we tend to focus on the mechanics of gathering. The when and where. The agenda. The food and drink. Who says what and when.

But the heart of a successful gathering (and a community is, in some sense, an ongoing cascade of gatherings) is knowing why you're really gathering. Why do people come to your gathering? Why do they come back? If it's a book club it's probably not just about the book. If it's a yoga class (and, yes, a recorded yoga class is as much a gathering as a live class) it's about more than the sequence of poses.

The question of why a community exists (or why you should put in the work of joining, starting or sticking with one) comes up in every book on community.

Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh and Kai Elmer Sotto run People and Company. In 2019 they published the wonderful Get Together: How to Build a Community With Your People. They push community leaders to answer the why are we coming together question. Ways of looking at the question, they write, include:

  • What do people need more of?

  • What change do we desire?

  • What problem can we solve together?

The why is something to be done, learned, found, explored together. It's not process (meet at 9, check in, report back, etc.). It's people.

In The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging, Charles Vogl defines community as: A group of people who share a mutual concern for one another's welfare. That doesn't tell you that figuring out the why of your community is essential. But it tells me that the why of a successful community is almost always (in Vogl's exerperience and observation) going to involve others, not just ourselves.

You're engaging with, learning from and working with others in most any successful community group, organization or brand. The progress or success of others is connected to yours. That could be complicated and long term (AA, Weight Watchers, a union or advocacy group) or simple (a book or running club that shares companionship, conversation, or ways to stay in shape every couple weeks).

Membership is about others, not a process

Most of the communities described above (and mentioned in these books as examples of communities with a clear why) are membership groups. They use the concepts and language of membership. You give something to join, the community gives to you, and you belong.

But membership groups, like all communities, need to define and continually revisit their "why." Especially in the context of togetherness. With whom are we doing this? What are we doing together? And, of course, why?

Too many membership organizations lose the why and focus on the mechanics. The process. They may have a sharp marketing or advocacy campaign. Perhaps good approach to Facebook ad targeting. But we've all ended up in relationships or jobs that flamed out. They seemed like a match but soon it was all about showing up and checking the boxes. We forget why we're there and who we're there for. That happens to members, too.

So, thinking about the why (and not the what or when or how) of membership in a community sparks a few questions:

  1. Why do people really join your community? (and have you asked any of them this question?)

  2. Why are people coming back?

  3. Why does a member tell someone else about the community?

  4. Why does a member value and support other members?

  5. Why does the community (and your organization) need and want members?

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Things we’re reading as adults move into the White House

How we pulled apart and how we can 'come together' again. Polling and research from the RSA shows a greater interest in public collaboration, working together and community building than one sees in the media, on social networks. Anthony Painter also reflects on how community engagement is referred to in The Upswing, a recent book by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett.

Senator Ben Sasse wanders can't help but "both sides" an argument with a few cherry picked tweets. But his QAnon is Destroying the GOP from Within essay in The Atlantic focuses on how the pervasive lack of meaning within growing complexity and inequality. And, unlike political campaigns that just seek to turn search for belonging into a vote, QAnon, Trump and today's GOP has operationalized confusion and search for meaning as organized hostility towards (waves hands) pretty much everything.

Trolling for Truth on Social Media. Joan Donovan, Scientific American.
For anyone who still cares deeply about the truth and people’s access to it, fighting back involves dispatching with the ideology that technological platforms are democracy in action. They have shifted from connecting people to people to connecting people to information, tilting power toward those groups that have the most resources. They are also fundamentally businesses that have scaled without a plan for mitigating the harmful effects they have on society.

The Story is a Forest: How to Talk About Climate Change
..the largest challenge climate communicators face today: How can we motivate people using words they connect with while also challenging the status quo — that is, the extractivism, competition and consumerism driving climate change?

52 things I learned in 2020. Tom Whitwell, Fluxx Studio

Forget “Building Back Better” — Technology Needs to Be Built Differently. Bianca Wylie explores the connection between weak government tech skills and research capacity and the control tech companies (gig companies like Uber and DoorDash, for instance) have over broader labor policy.

Decades of outsourcing technology policy work (and its attendant risks) to consulting firms is a hard habit to break. This outsourcing has also left operational capacity of the state severely depleted.

How Trees Made Us Human by Daniel Immerwahr is a fascinating look at how wood, or rather the once endless forests of America, shaped American expansion, cities and narrative of individualism and possibility.


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