How We Define Community: A Collection

As we continue the discussion and conversation around community, we realize that in order to redefine community, we must begin by exploring the myriad of definitions which already exist. This will allow us to form a baseline from which we can collectively discuss how the term has evolved and what, if any, further evolution is needed.

As you will see, defining community is not as simple as one might initially think . In this piece, we have drawn together various definitions from a multitude of experienced sources. All of these definitions are ones which have resonated with us and encouraged us to look further into the concept of community. We begin with

Merriam-Webster (condensed):

1. a unified body of individuals, such as
 a : the people with common interests living in a particular area
 b :an interacting population of various kinds of individuals in a common location

c :a group of people with a common characteristic or interest

d :a group linked by a common policy
e :a body of persons having a common history, or social, economic and political interests

2. joint ownership or participation

a :common character or likeness

b :social activity and fellowship
c :a social state or condition

Nilofer Merchant

Nilofer Merchant the author of The Power of Onlyness has this to say about community:

“It is a logically constructed and grouped collection of people WITH a shared purpose and formation of trust.” She further states that a community is “where we feel less alone, and okay to be who we actually are.”

Charles Vogl

The author of The Art of Belonging, says that a community is:

“a group of people who share mutual concern for one another’s welfare. To put it more simply, community members believe other members care about them.”

Suzanne Goldsmith

The author of A City Year shares that in her experience:

“Communities are not built of friends, or of groups with similar styles and tastes, or even of people who like and understand each other. They are built of people who feel they are part of something that is bigger than themselves: a shared goal or enterprise, like righting a wrong, or building a road, or raising children, or living honorably, or worshipping a god. To build community requires only the ability to see value in others, to look at them and see a potential partner in one’s enterprise.”

Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller the developer of the Community Canvas, has reworked the term community to mean:

“A group of people that care about each other and feel they belong together.”

Kurt Vonnegut

In a 1974 Commencement Address, Vonnegut told his audience of eager young minds that:

“ . . the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

Brene Brown

The vulnerability researcher and author of Braving the Wilderness shares that:

“Social media is great for developing community, but for true belonging, real connection and real empathy require meeting real people in a real space in real time.”

Peter Block

In Community: The Structure of Belonging the author suggests that:

“Community offers the promise of belonging and calls for us to acknowledge our interdependence. To belong is to act as an investor, owner, and creator of this place. To be welcome, even if we are strangers. As if we came to the right place and are affirmed for that choice.”

David Chavis & Robert McMillan

In their 1986 paper, Psychological Sense of Community, the psychologists proposed this one sentence definition:

“Sense of community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together”

Now that we have explored the definitions of others we find ourselves asking what, if anything, needs to be changed in them as the notion of community evolves. Our collection of definitions includes entries that span at least the last 40 years. If we are to truly redefine community, we will need to both borrow from the past and embrace the future. Join us in our next Conversation on Community as we attempt to do just that.


Keep the conversation going…

We want our Conversations on Community to be part of a broader conversation with you, our readers as we redefine what community means both online and offline. We would like to ask you,

“How would you explain “community” to someone in a casual conversation?”

Let us know your thoughts in the discussion below.

We would also be very interested in hearing about any definitions you feel we may have missed in this collection. If you have a quote to share, please link to it below. And don’t forget that claps allow us to bring the conversation to more readers, expanding the discussion.


Are you a community builder or an architect of community? We’d love to hear from you and learn how you build, grow and encourage your community to thrive. In 2018 we will be inviting a small number of impact-makers to join us as we redefine community and help create change in our societies. To find out more and join the conversation, please join our mailing list.

Meet Emmy and Naomi

Emmy McCarthy and Naomi Hattaway often like to joke that they are one brain split over two continents. After “meeting” on a podcast about community building they quickly realised that not enough people who actually steward thriving communities were talking about how they build and grow communities. They also realised how much they had to say about that.

Emmy and Naomi believe that every individual is capable of making an impact on society but they often lack the support and information on how to do so.

Through #RedefiningCommunities Emmy and Naomi hope to open up the conversation on the communities we are building, gather together the people creating impact through action and provide a space for learning and growing together.

Find out more about Emmy and Naomi.