How Communities Power Change

The following is a Guest Post written by NY’17 StartingBloc Fellow Alicia Bonner Ness. Alicia is the author of the forthcoming book Purpose Power: How Mission-Driven Leaders Engage for Change and the instigator of the Purpose Power Town Hall Tour.

How Communities Power Change

I always knew Seth Godin was a genius, but the first time I heard him speak live, he floored me with the simplicity of his clarity: “People like us do things like this,” he said.

Seth was speaking to a group of 100 social impact changemakers, people entering the StartingBloc community by way of a five-day leadership institute. Through StartingBloc, I came to experience firsthand the five pillars of community, the qualities that draw people together. I learned how community has the power to catalyze action, and inspire each of us to engage for change.

The first pillar of community is obvious: people. Before you can think about doing anything, you will have to figure out who exactly you want to join you and then motivate those people to show up.

The four other pillars of community are less obvious, but just as important in creating cohesion: purpose, practice, place, and progress. By understanding these elements at the foundation of community, you can power positive change.

Pillar 1: Codify your purpose

Effective communities codify their purpose, empowering members to play a role in strengthening and expanding the community’s reach. Individual members must be able to influence the group, just as the group influences the lives of its members, according to David McMillan and David Chavis’ research on community.

StartingBloc is a fellowship of more than 3,000 members worldwide. Its members are motivated by the opportunity to leave the world better than they found it, through socially-conscious, social impact. A shared desire for a better future is the purpose that unites and motivates fellows and encourages them to connect with others.

The organization Indivisible also illustrates how purpose mobilizes communities toward action. By fighting for increased civic engagement, Indivisible members share a common cause, and heed the called to organize for change.

Pillar 2: Practice what you preach

When groups are driven by purpose, they must create ways for their members to feel fulfilled through their sustained engagement and involvement. After attending the StartingBloc Institute, members foster community through the practice of #asks and #gives. On social platforms, like Facebook and WhatsApp, fellows participate in structured generosity. An #ask is a clear articulation of what someone needed at that moment in time. It’s almost always followed by a #give, how a member wanted to offer up what they had at the same time that they were asking for support.

Effectively fostering community favors rules of engagement that empower members to help one another in service to the greater good. This is clear in the practice of acro-yoga, where practitioners take to grassy parks and practice yoga poses balanced on each other’s hands and feet. While not a professional group or industry, this organic practice calls on its members to give extraordinary exertion through acrobatics, and to receive exceptional rejuvenation through Thai massage. Acro-yoga requires trust and mutual support, which leaves members feeling satisfied, and eager to return again and again to literally lift one another up.

Pillar 3: Find your place

In order to institutionalize community, people have to know where and when they show up for each other. Place allows members to find and support one another. A place can be in-person or digital, but it is essential that those who feel called to a cause can easily know the time and place whereby they will find those who share their beliefs.

StartingBloc fellows come together at quarterly five-day, in-person institutes. After and in between, they find each other via a Facebook group, keeping them connected in their #asks and #gives across continents. Other communities connect through sites like Reddit, building organic organizations through their common interests and a shared platform. A clearly defined place both heightens a community’s sense of belonging and enhances how members show up for one another.

Pillar 4: Point towards progress

The last and perhaps most important pillar of community is the hardest to achieve. When people, purpose, practice, and place combine in equal measure, participants begin to achieve momentum. In so doing, they begin to see progress towards their purpose, which further enhances commitment and engagement, triggering a virtuous cycle. As mentioned before, StartingBloc fellows work together to create a life-sustaining civilization — this goal is big, but also feels attainable in small ways. When a fellow had almost all of his life’s possessions stolen from his car, the community came together to raise money to help. Fellows often help one another find jobs, and hire each other for consulting work. They show up at one another’s events, and support each other’s crowdfunding campaigns. Knowing you have 3,000 other people standing behind you helps you believe in your own corner of the world, something bigger might be possible. And together, these actions move the community, and our world, towards a more cohesive and collaborative future.

To make tomorrow look different from today, we can’t work alone and in silos.

Changing America’s future from one of despair to one of hope will require more than incremental changes in strategy or investment. Our communities must stop doing what we’ve always done to stop getting what we’ve always gotten. To make tomorrow look different from today, we can’t work alone and in silos. We can advance our common cause only if we are willing to reach out and build sustainable communities, together.

Alicia Bonner Ness is a NY’17 StartingBloc Fellow, the author of Purpose Power and the catalyst for the 2019 Purpose Power Town Hall Tour, which will foster dialogue and engagement in 15 American cities across the United States. To learn how you can ignite the flame of common purpose and power change, visit