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Building Community in a Network Environment

LLC recently funded two Community Seed Fund projects that are designed to explore and assess different learning approaches about how to cultivate and support learning communities. While each of these two learning communities is organized for different purposes, they both use principles that are rooted in a deep understanding of how networks function. Berkana connects local learning centers through trans-local gatherings they call, “the art of learning centering” so they can learn from one another how to create viable and sustainable communities in often unstable conditions. Impact Brokers uses a community network approach to sustainably and economically build the capacity of the nonprofit sector in the Boston area by bringing together funders, consultants, and nonprofit leaders to form a learning and exchange community.

Both Berkana and Impact Brokers, as well as others who cultivate and facilitate community-building, may find the advice of long-time community development professional and Executive Director of Lawrence CommunityWorks, Bill Traynor useful to consider. Bill recently wrote an article, Building Community in Place with valuable advice about how to build community in a network environment. According to Traynor, successful community building is fundamentally about shaping how people meet, build relationships of value with one another, participate in civic life and pursue individual and group goals. The challenge for community building practitioners is to design a strategy that is value-driven and self-generating, where control and decision-making are dispersed, and where only the infrastructure that is needed to create effective connectivity is put in place.

Traynor identifies the following principles for successful community-building using a network approach.

  • Have fun first. Community building does not start in meetings, it starts with eating and talking and creating opportunities for people to build relationships.
  • Rely on value to attract members. People participate because they get value out of the connections they have with others.
  • De-emphasize positional leadership. Groups form in informal, provisional and flexible ways and leaders often change.
  • Keep networks open and accessible to new people. People come and go so it is important to use facilitation techniques that enable the community to hold on to institutional memory while welcoming new voices.
  • Identify and support network weavers. Since the value of networks depends on connections, there is no more valuable role than helping others to form and find those connections.
  • Build a network environment that is information rich. Networks are most valuable when members have access to good, timely information, and see themselves as “transmission nodes”
  • Create environments that foster peer-to-peer connections. Build in informal time at meetings, design spaces that encourage intimacy and comfortability, and encourage people to have door-step level connections.
  • Offer many choices about how to be engaged. Having many small, short-term activities that resonate with members that they can choose to get involved with increases participation.
  • Listen to the network. Find out what people in the network think is valuable, what they are doing with their time and energy.
  • Track network activity. Keep track of what people in the network are doing in order to “wield aggregrate power” or leverage the collective impact of small actions.

By following these principles, Traynor believes that groups will earn engagement from a busy and discriminating public, sustain engagement, and build power constituencies. What is your experience with using a network approach to community-building? What are you learning about how to foster and support leadership in a network environment? Stay tuned for learning opportunities from the Community Seed Fund projects!