Last week, I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague in the UK. We talked about the impact of Covid-19, building communities in a hybrid world, and maintaining healthy organisations.

I’m often asked how to build a movement, and how to bring people together on a similar mission. How we’ve grown our AwakenHub community to over 3000 members organically, in less than three years.

Starting anything from scratch is incredibly difficult. Success is not a given and building a community is one of the hardest things that you can do. So, here are some things I have learned about building communities in non-profits, tech, education, and the arts. I hope it helps as you set about making this world a better place for all of us.

1. Know the Problem

What problem are you trying to solve, improve on, or make a change? In order to pursue your mission effectively, you need to know your community, its problems, needs, pain points, and gaps in provision. What are the gaps in the market? And why has this situation come about in the first place? Do you know how many people experience this problem and all the things they have tried before or are yet to try to help themselves?

Critically, why are you in the best position to make the change? What are you bringing to this problem that will make a genuine difference and will give your community what they need?

2. Know Your Community

It is not enough to empathize with your community’s problems. You need to fully understand your community’s needs. Unfortunately, as humans, we all have our biases. Often, we think we know our audience when we really don’t. We need to go out and talk to them.

Ask honest and open questions and listen carefully, diligently, and respectfully to what may emerge. Sometimes, the lessons from these conversations are things we least expect. Therefore, the problem as we see it and our audiences’ problem is absolutely not what we thought in the first place. 

What we do to help and make that change might be very different from what we expected at the outset. Thoroughly know your audience, their pain points, and how they prefer you to work with them.

Always remember this is a place of privilege. Do not abuse it.

3. Understand the Barriers Your Community Faces

Access and inclusion are not equal in this world in so many ways and for so many reasons. If you’re starting a community, a social enterprise, or a business. You may well have faced these problems yourself from a personal, family, or community point of view. 

Once again, having a really nuanced understanding as to what your community needs are and the barriers they face, will help you to ask the right questions and figure out the support your organization can give in a way that’s respectful, timely, and transformative. 

4. Do Your Research

Some sectors are underserved. This is not the case for everyone, however, do your research. Are there other organizations, agencies, government, or education programs that are working in this area? And if so, what do they do? What do you know about them? What support do they give? Are there any gaps there in the overall provision? If you can see where the gaps are, with the help of your community, you can provide added value and service that is missing currently.

In order for you to give a holistic service, you need to do a very in-depth competitor analysis. Do your community members pay for the services? Are they free? Are they funded by the government or NGOs? Are they self-funded? Or does the community pay a fee or a contribution to access the services provided? 

This will give you an idea of whether you need to fundraise to help you carry out your mission and vision or whether your services can be paid for by the community, or other agencies. This is incredibly important when it comes to your business model.

5. Go Outside Your Network

In the very beginning, we leverage our own networks to start anything new. We ask friends, we ask family, we ask ex-colleagues and that word gets out about this new activity we are passionate about. But all too soon your network becomes jaded, you’ve reached the end of the line. As much as possible and as hard as it is sometimes, go outside your own network from the very beginning.

Make every effort to meet new people who are beyond your circle, outside your expertise, and build that community. Connect with allies, advocates, mentors, and community because this will give you greater insight into issues you might not have sight of or need assistance with. The health of your community depends on going way beyond your network. Make this a priority from day one. 

6. Set Expectations of Your Community From the Outset

Setting the boundaries early and providing guidance about how people should interact with each other, enables the community to understand the parameters, feel safe, and have trust in the process from the outset. 

Make sure you mirror the values and behaviors you have set for your community. This is incredibly important because you are the founder. You set the tone around here. And remember people watch and take note of how you behave as a founder and a founding team. They take their cue from you and mirror your behavior. Always be mindful that you are in a position of power and influence, respect it, and never take it for granted.

7. Create a Safe Space for Dialogue

Just because you send out the invite does not mean people will come. It’s up to you to create and curate the atmosphere, set the tone, listen effectively, and curate the conversation. Make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and included and that no one person hogs the limelight.

When I worked with third-level students at a previous job, I would use the analogy of checking the oxygen in the room. When you’re at a meeting, where one party speaks too much, there isn’t enough oxygen left for the other party. In a similar vein, make sure that there’s enough oxygen for each participant to have their say. Ensure their contribution is respected, considered worthy, and valued. 

If you start with these values, trust will grow at each gathering. Remind new members they are very welcome. Encourage older members to care for the new and to extend the same courtesy that was once given to them. Kindness is everything here. Make sure that this virtuous circle continues and nurtures it.

8. Manage Any Conflicts and Communication Problems Early

In any community, conflicts and communication problems will emerge, it’s quite natural. If this happens, take the conversation offline as soon as you can. Ask open questions and listen to feedback. Most people are really genuine in their efforts to collaborate and to be part of something that is bigger than themselves. If an issue arises, and you meet that person halfway, generally they’re really happy to work together to resolve the problem. 

Resolve the issue as soon as you can and then like everything else in life, learn from this situation and move on. 

9. Your Community Is Not for Everyone

You can’t be all things to all people and you will lose members along the way. Some folk may not join in the first place, and that’s okay. This is a journey, your organization and each member are on a journey. Sometimes, schedules, values, and priorities are not aligned. Always leave the door open because people may join or rejoin at a later stage. 

10. Add Value

Every community and organization depends on knowledge transfer, the open sharing of experience, dialogue, advice, and support. Stay aligned with your goals, values, mission, and vision. Think about the value you want to deliver and how you can do that differently to everybody else. Constantly add value.

11. Collaborate 

No man is an island and no organization is an island either. So collaborate with other agency experts and individuals. It is really important because it underpins the health of your organization. 

Interact with people whose perspectives and needs are very different from yours to gain understanding. This is where you need others to help you. We also need to check our bias to ensure the approach is targeted to your community’s needs and not what you perceive them to be. 

This is difficult work. Ask for help and feedback. Always have the mindset to learn, and do your own research here, because nobody owes you their time to teach you about their experience.

Always be sensitive, be kind, and take these relationships slowly and build trust.

12. Build Trust From the Very Beginning

Everything you do in business and in life is about trust. Do as you say, keep your promises, and show up on time. Listen diligently and give honest feedback. Be kind and also be kind to yourself, this is a learning process.

13. Know When to Add More Resources 

In time, your organization will grow beyond what you can manage on your own. At that point, it is time to bring in others to help you with your mission and vision. Think clearly about what you want to achieve, and what skills and expertise are needed to help your community thrive. 

Write a very considered job description. Again, go outside your network to help recruit. Think about their working day and their working environment. Whether the work can be fully remote, hybrid, or in the office. What type of working day would suit your community best? If there’s a lot of evening and weekend work, that is something you should take into consideration. Also, don’t forget to share this opportunity back with your community because the ideal person may be a member of your community. 

14. Measure, Iterate, and Improve

Make sure you follow the data. Keep records, measure, look at the impact, and learn from your insights. Ask for feedback. Survey often and let people know how your hard work is moving the dial. Most importantly of all, enjoy the process. If you have tips and advice on building communities or would like to add your experiences, make sure you put your comments below.

By Mary Carty