Close your eyes and imagine your organization’s “community.” Is it a mist of good feeling? A fellowship of uncertainty? Does it have a human face?
Communities are people. They are not abstractions. They are not rhetoric. They are human beings.
You can’t talk personally with each of the people in your community of interest to understand their individual wants and needs. You may have hundreds, thousands, millions of bodies and dreams and desires walking through your doors. So you have to think about people in clusters. Communities.
A community is a group of people who share something in common. You can define a community by the shared attributes of the people in it and/or by the strength of the connections among them. You need a bunch of people who are alike in some way, who feel some sense of belonging or interpersonal connection.
If you want to be able to generalize about individuals within a group, their shared attributes are most important to understand. To involve or mobilize individuals within the group, the strength of the connections is most important. Communities may be huge and diffuse, or niche and tightly connected. The key is to be specific about whom you seek.
So how do you get to a tighter definition of “community?”
One easy place to start is to make a list of the people to whom you are already relevant. Who loves you? Who’s connected to you? Who are your existing insiders?
Retired blue-collar men who love to tinker with cars. Skateboarding teenagers using your plaza as a park. Moms with toddlers from the housing complex across the street. Artsy college students with weird haircuts. Capoeira dancers with their drums.
Start listing relevant communities, and you’ll notice that the shared attributes that bind them are varied. Sometimes, a community is defined by place—where people live, work, or play. Sometimes, a community is defined by identity—which may be externally assigned (like race) or internally defined (like religion). Sometimes by affinity—something people like to do and do together. Sometimes by affiliation—people you know, experiences you’ve shared, values you hold in common.
These shared attributes are not distinct. A community of people who go to trivia night at a neighborhood bar could identify by place (the bar), identity (nerds), affinity (trivia), or affiliation (old friends).
How much does the strength of connections among members matter to the definition of community? A strong community engenders fellowship among members, advances specific social norms, and has identifiable leaders. Weak communities are more diffuse, with members who may not even be aware of each other. These differences are useful when considering how and who to reach out to when trying to get involved with a new community. You’re more likely to find a transgender community if there is an organized meet-up or support group or LGBT community center, marketed in some visible way, likely coordinated by a leader or set of leaders. But the community exists whether it is strong or weak.
If you want to be more relevant to a community you already engage, what do you already know about the people within it? Do you know how connected people feel to each other? Are there identifiable leaders or representatives you can talk with about their shared issues, goals, and dreams?
Starting with the people you already have is a good gut check on the question of how well and clearly you can define a community. Your insiders are not monolithic. They probably can’t be defined exclusively by broad demographic terms like “Gen X.” More likely, they are defined by ideas like “adults who like to be creative with their children,” or “adventurous urban professionals seeking community in a fast-paced world.”
Communities outside your organization are equally complex. They aren’t all 1s, 2s, or 3s. When we talk about outsiders—people we don’t yet engage—there’s a tendency to collapse down to the most simplistic shared attributes with little regard for the intricacies alongside them. We tend jump immediately to demographics. We want to reach teens, or young adults, or the Asian-American community.
These are painfully broad descriptors. Do you want to reach young adults who are unemployed, frustrated, and struggling to get out of their parents’ basements? The jetsetters building high-powered global careers? The ones who are trying to balance love and life and art and work in a brand-new city on their own?
Just as you treat your insiders as complex people in overlapping communities, think of your outsiders the same way. Try to find the outsiders who have some credible link to what you offer—people who almost come as opposed to those who will never come. “Almost comes” are inclined towards your content but can’t see your door. They are foreign, but they share some values with your insiders. A passion for nature. A curiosity about history. A desire to belong. They are outsiders who can become insiders if you can build doors that speak to them.