Beyond Transactional Engagement
I’ve been working as a community person for several years now.
Confession: I got a rough start in it when I served on the student board of my first graduate program (in music performance, but that’s a story for another day). The good news, perhaps, is that I recognized that A.) the whole idea of a student group is to build community and B.) I wasn’t doing a great job at it. The number one lesson I learned through the experience is: if you talk big game, you’d better get things done. Accountability is key.
My early mistakes — and the fact that, deep down, I really did care about the position — are what helped me understand what it takes to effectively work to build community. Fortunately I had the chance to make amends when I served in a variety of positions on student boards when I pursued my second master’s degree (this time in library science, another story for a second different day).
And now I work for a non-profit in the library world, trying to figure out how to bring people together around areas of common interest. After three years on the job, and even though my focus has changed to training and curriculum development, I have a few thoughts to share on what it means to build community.
First things first, it’s incredibly important to listen very, very carefully to what your community is saying. Find out what’s important to them, either through a good, solid environmental scan, through social media, or by way of some good old-fashioned website analytics. Learn all that you can about your people, and your future people, before uttering a word.
Knowing all that you can about your community will only help you design events, services, and outreach methods that will actually work to bridge your organization to whatever it is that your organization can justifiably provide to others.
And it should be about that, right? Community first. Outcomes will come later.
Hopefully all this listening will generate ideas for events or other content that will be a draw. And then you can get to work on building a lasting rapport.
Ask not what your community can do for you….
Think of building community like making deposits into a bank. Everything you do as part of a community “strategy” (a term that feels disingenuous, but I only mean your long-view plans for creating a group of people, and “strategy” is the quickest way to say it) can be compared to dropping pennies into a bank. Every interaction — each post on social media, every piece of long-form content, all of your events — should focus on one and only one thing:
How will this benefit you, a member of our community?
In other words: What can we offer you that will be of assistance to you in your life/career/world?
And: Are there any changes we can make that could make your experience with us even better?
So, after you’ve deposited this goodwill money into your community bank, you’ve got a bit of leeway should you need anything in return. A positive review, a share over social media, dropping an event into a listserv…
But beware: withdrawals are costly! Use them in a manner that reflects the nature of your relationship. Your closer colleagues — the community members with whom you have worked more extensively — may be in a better position to help spread the word should you need it.
Rhymes with C that starts with T that stands for Trust
People turning up for events and even making friendships through your organization are really the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The entire structure down below in the water is trust.
That’s truly everything.
Of course, building trust is a long term, painstaking endeavor. And it is true that one slip up can bring a relationship between a person and an organization to a dead halt.
This is a terrible fate for even if this effects just one community member.
If you’ve done well, people who have an opportunity to interact through events you throw or programs you run are talking together without you.
And that one tiny interaction — that single moment where you acted outside of the character you have built — is enough to bring up over coffee among your community members.
And this is defcon seven when these interactions take place on social media.
(In other words… Been there.)
Consistency is Key
Trust can’t happen in any relationship without a nice, even consistency in your interactions.
I mean this twofold. A.) Try to avoid demonstrating erratic behavior (obv) and B.) keep your tweets, newsletters, events, whatever nice and evenly spaced. And if it’ll be awhile between big things like events and newsletters, touch points along the way are a wonderful idea.
Even more importantly, respond to others — especially in an online environment — promptly.
All of this demonstrates to current and future community members that you are there for them.
And this is how trust is forged.
I loved my work as a community person. I hope to get back to some of that work in the future, but for now, it’s helpful for me to think about these things specifically in longterm curriculum planning, and in individual training sessions. So many of these lessons apply, which I suppose is the beauty of it. People matter, above all else. ❤