08.08.2017

What makes some communities thrive while others lose their shine?

A lot of it comes down to how people are welcomed or onboarded into your community.

Welcoming members to a community is both an art and a science, and today we look into both aspects.

In April 2016, Danny Spitzberg worked with a group of activists and academics in Madrid, Spain, to build software for community collaboration. This effort was part of P2Pvalue, a three-year research initiative on what makes peer production sustainable in commons-based communities.

As a sociologist for hire, his work was to explain why community groups try out the software but rarely come back. He visited dozens of community spaces, from meditation centers to pop-up events. But this only brought up more questions: Why are the most thriving community spaces led by volunteers? How do these spaces accomplish so much without many (if any) digital tools?

Welcoming new people is where these things often break down. When a volunteer asks, “How can I help?” the organizer might start a back-and-forth by asking, “Well, what are you interested in?” Or they might cut conversation short by directing them to a list of tasks. Behavior that’s too evasive or efficient makes it difficult for even the most enthusiastic volunteer to join. But without help, organizers end up doing everything themselves, which means even less time to get others involved.

The tool he created to help community spaces thrive is also incredibly useful for anyone building community who is looking to scale the welcoming process.

Welcome Graph by Danny Spitzberg

Three steps to improve a community welcoming experience by Danny Spitzberg

His research has revealed three Practices for Welcoming:

  1. Visiting and Getting Curious
    • Goal: Help people to experience the vision of the space
    • Practice: Allow people to get curious and explore instead of explaining things
  2. Trying and Seeing Connections
    • Goal: Help everyone imagine being part of the community
    • Practice: Create ways to connect opportunities instead of matching skills to tasks
  3. Joining and Making a Commitment
    • Goal: Grow participation in a healthy way and minimize growing pains
    • Practice: Make it easy for new people to commit and come back

Today, we share an interview with Danny in which he talks big-picture about why getting community right is so hard, and we also share his tool for building welcoming communities.

CJ: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to do what you do today.

Where I would really anchor a lot of my commitments is in the cooperative movement. I was helping to start a student-run cafe during my free time in graduate school. This was about ten years ago and that evolved into a cooperative. I found my way into working with food cooperatives nationwide and small student-run food trucks and a network of campus-based community colleges.

The spirit of a cooperative is very nuanced and very under-appreciated compared to mainstream business. They’ve been forced into the margin in very serious ways. They’re not in textbooks. You can’t take a business class in any school, a law class, or a public policy course about cooperatives at all. There are three or four places you can go to learn about them.

I spent several years after graduate school running with a handful of very brilliant women and men organizing this cooperative network. Then when we gave it what we could, we found stronger, smarter people to run it. One organizer I brought on now is one of the main directors. It’s a nonprofit. It’s the three women who run it, and they’ve a very worker-oriented group as opposed to your average nonprofit, which is hierarchical.

CJ: And it still exists?

DS: Yeah, I just got their annual letter and report. I donate, so I just got the letter from them just now with my chocolate, stickers, and a thank-you.

Cooperative development was a great way to look at how small instances of community come together in a specific place for a specific activity. Over the last three or four years since moving on from that, I’ve been going back to doing sociology-for-hire. Now I’m going back to doing a more advanced form of applied research that still has practical and client outcomes.

CJ: In corporate structures, we often see one or two community managers who are managing millions of people and their contributions. If you can welcome people in the right way and give them a strong first impression and give away power in those first moments of interaction, you can actually start to create something stronger than before.

What I was really enthralled by in your guide was this idea that when someone actually shows up to a community for the first time, that’s a critical moment in the experience. How can you create that thriving community from that very first moment?

DS: The benefits or the value proposition of a community needs to be decoupled and separated cleanly from welcoming – which is difficult.

Companies are very much responsible for being upfront and direct, saying simply, “This is what we have to offer.” Being able to separate and decouple, or at least to put on pause what they have to offer from welcoming people, is really vital because it opens space for people who are the hosts, the community managers, to be human, to be personal, and to be a little more complicated in that interaction. Where they live, for example, what they are doing besides just the role of community manager, what other interests they have and so on. For the people who are being welcomed, having the offer put on pause for them gives them space to share their context and what they’re all about and where they’re coming from.

The things that people will come back to you with, the thanks and the gratitude and the gifts of their time or their pleasant surprises will be impossible if the entire nature of how you started talking with them is “Hey, if you show up here, you get X, maybe Y. Thank you so much.”

It closes off all those possibilities way more than is appropriate for a community space.

Thriving vs. Surviving

Map of how welcoming practices affect a community by Danny Spitzberg

CJ: That’s something most businesses cannot wrap their heads around at all. It’s usually this transactional relationship. I think what this guide really puts out is that it can’t just be this transactional relationship; everyone is contributing, especially in a community space. It’s true of any deep community: everyone has to feel like they’re adding something substantial to the group.

DS: What I think businesses can eventually get their head around is that people will participate. There will be user-generated content. There will be all these things that might match up with some of your metrics or business objectives generally. You have to suspend your disbelief that those things won’t happen and just trust people radically.

Businesses may also not be able to wrap their head around being a community because some communities are not businesses. There is a danger in businesses thinking that all communities can be businesses.

CJ: I think that’s a really important point to make, that there are limitations in what brand communities can accomplish. They shouldn’t be giving these false promises that we can create an entire volunteer-led community, while on the back of that they’re profiting and there’s stuff happening behind the scenes that a lot of the community members might not know about. Also that investing in people in this way, it does require a suspended disbelief.

DS: I have a friend who works with credit unions. She works with a think tank that helps credit unions serve their members better. Credit unions are like financial cooperatives. She got asked by one group to help them figure out a community platform. They just wanted a platform because they know it’s 2017 or something!

People in our position, you and I and my friend, it’s all we can do to try to hold space and ask some fundamental questions about where’s this coming from and what are you hoping to see differently about what you’re already doing, if anything.

There’s a lovely report that came out called “Solidarity as a Business Model”, which is about multi-stakeholder cooperatives. Like a food hub that has the farms and some of the restaurants and some chefs all involved in running this food hub.

It’s like, what kind of members are we talking about? Are they fans or brand ambassadors or some other marketing construct we think of, or are they investors, both emotionally and financially, in the company? Do they have ownership and control of the company? If the platform is constructed for that kind of role, then your whole company is a different thing, and possibly way less tension and conflict and nightmare trying to straddle these worlds. They’re naturally integrated.

CJ: From your perspective right now, do you see that becoming a growing trend that this happening more. You mentioned earlier that this has historically been in the margins.

DS: There are a handful of small examples that are genuinely bringing together the role of ownership and control in meaningful ways.

There’s one in British Columbia called Stocksy, for example. This is a stock photo company that has about 900 photographers who are all owners of the platform. They all get a dividend. They all voice their opinions online. Because it’s an online platform, they can all get treated with that care and duty as your five or six investors or venture capitalists might. These 900 members all get access to the business analysis, they make decisions together, and it works.

Their photography is very well curated. They have really high standards and a particular aesthetic. Like I said, it’s a trend in a very niche set of groups that go under the banner of so-called platform cooperatives.

CJ: I think the thing that has resonated with me the most from this is that in a strong community, everyone can contribute. Everyone can have a job to do. As a facilitator of that space, it’s your job to be patient, listen to people, pull out their strengths, and then give them that work to do. That actually paradoxically makes them more engaged.

DS: That’s right. I think the three steps of visiting, trying, and joining, each one of them has a paradox that is the opposite of our default thinking.

Even when people ask you, “Hey, so what’s going on here?” You can say, “I’ll tell you what’s going on and I’ll do so in a way that’s plain and matter-of-fact, trusting that you’re a creative human being and can find something you want to explore further.” That’s where you’ll engage.

There are surprises from suspending disbelief in each of those steps that give people their chance to engage.

CJ: I think one thing that it calls back to is this idea of the commitment curve, which is a framework that is from change management. Sharing that there is a clear path upward for engagement actually can build engagement over time, but not everyone is going to move up that path. That’s okay, too.

In the cooperative world, membership is people who have ownership and control in the enterprise. I would argue that there are a lot of communities where people show up and, as we talked at the beginning, do a lot of labor that doesn’t get thanked and worse, gets other people taking credit for it. I think there’s a one-two punch in making the case for investing in community. One, if you can have a lot more people coordinating and contributing to this, it’d be beautiful, be very participatory and very productive. Two, a very simple way to go about experimenting with that is to reorient some of the ways you welcome people. This built on a lot of things we’ve already talked about.

I think for CMX to really be able to make the case for people who invest heavily in building stronger communities, it’s so much more than just getting more customers. It’s possibly taking your business and making it a different kind of thing. It’s not just a degree better or hitting metrics higher. You could fundamentally transform the way your business exists in the world.

Grab Danny’s Tools and Recipes for Welcoming Members

  • You can get “Welcoming Everyone” as a full PDF guide here. It’s written mainly for physical community spaces, but can be applied to online communities, too.
  • You can also get a PDF worksheet, “How to Make a Community Space More Welcoming in a Day” here.
  • To learn more – and get everything emailed to you – visit http://bit.ly/welcome_everyone.
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Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.