What Defines Community?

As Emmy and Naomi’s Conversations About Community series continue, we now come to the necessary moment of defining the word community, and answer the question “what is community?”

Emmy’s Thoughts:

Here’s something that you will not find in any dictionary definitions or academic pieces which attempt to define community. It is something that you only discover once you have been involved in starting or growing a community.

True communities start from a place of vulnerability.

They begin with an acknowledgement that “something” is missing. They begin with a lack but they are created when someone decides to resolve that lack. What that “something” is will be different for every community. But there is no doubt that the creation of community comes from one person’s ability to demonstrate vulnerability to others.

In my case, it was loneliness. Both as an expat in Paris and a new mother in Amsterdam I felt alone. It was my willingness to acknowledge this both internally and openly and to seek out others who felt the same lack which was the catalyst for both of the largest communities I have been the architect of.

Which is why, when Naomi and I started to look into the existing definitions of community, I was surprised that none of them mentioned the catalyst, the motivator which drives people to create community.

Current and Past Definitions of Community

The definitions we discovered talked of belonging, purpose, common interests, and trust but not of the underlying reason why people crave these values. Humans are not creatures which are suited to isolation, we find protection both physical and mental in the proximity of others. We are tribal. We seek out others, not necessarily those who are identical to us, but those who help us address our vulnerabilities. Because where we feel strong, we are less likely to need the support of others.

Community begins with vulnerability. But vulnerability alone does not define community. When we analysed the definitions in our collection this is what we discovered from the language they used:

That community should be defined as a group is no surprise. I think that we can all agree that it would be impossible to be a community of one person alone. The prevalence of Common Interests as a value in the definitions is an interesting one though. If we are talking about people gathering together, whether online or off, do we consider them a community or is it simply homophily, birds of a feather flocking together?

Common Interests

When I think about the communities I belong to, I know that they fulfill a purpose in my life but I do not necessarily share common interests with every member in there. For example, in Amsterdam Mamas we share a common experience of parenthood, we share (for the most part) physical proximity as the majority of members live in or around the city but I am certain that we do not all share the same interests. If common interest defines community then we, Amsterdam Mamas, cannot be a community, and yet we demonstrably are. I would therefore challenge the assumption that community requires common interest, although it can possess it, and suggest instead that there needs to be some unifying interest or experience which draws a disparate group of individuals together.


After our physiological and safety needs are met, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places “belonging” as our next greatest requirement. Belonging was the value which occurred most in the definitions we collected for analysis and is arguably, in my opinion, the most important for healthy community growth. If community members do not feel that they belong, they will not participate. Without participation a new community cannot grow and an established community will disintegrate. Belonging is a universal human experience, one which is found across all people and all cultures. We all understand what it means to feel belonging and we also know what the absence of belonging feels like, the feeling that you have been left on the outside.

Belonging creates a sensation of connection and acceptance which is critical for healthy community growth. Yet all too often in today’s community management I see belonging being created in a negative rather than a positive way. Let me explain. There are two ways to create belonging, one is through inclusion, the other through exclusion. Creating inclusive belonging requires us to look at what unites us with other people, while exclusive belonging encourages us to look for divisions and differences and to judge people based upon our perception of their otherness.

Trust and Caring

If all communities begin with vulnerability then the need for trust amongst community members is a given, an absolute essential ingredient of community. Without trust it would be impossible for members to acknowledge (subconsciously or otherwise) the vulnerability which drew them together. Without trust the community would feel unsafe, and an unsafe community is a community doomed to fail.

So what defines community? For me it is the willingness amongst its individual members to draw together in support of each other’s vulnerabilities, to create trust and belonging where none previously existed and to continue to offer that opportunity of belonging to others. It requires a willingness from all members and from the founder to foster an environment which supports and encourages its members. Which allows them to participate and take accountability for the growth of the community. It requires purpose, one that unites the members and incites them to do more while protecting the vulnerability which drew them together. Community speaks to the most basic of human needs and as we seek to redefine what community means in this rapidly evolving age, we must remember that the reason we continue to build community, the reason we continue to seek out others has always been the same, we all need to feel that we belong.

Naomi’s Thoughts:

Defining what community is, for me, equal parts dissecting what it IS and also what it is NOT. From the research Emmy and I did around various definitions of community that currently exist, I was most interested in the somewhat mediocre attention to Purpose and Interaction.

My first foray into the human need for community came to be as a young child, living in an extremely small and rural location, in the middle of Nebraska. We were one of the early adopters of homeschooling (before it was legal to do so) and the combination of our remote residence and not being in a traditional school setting meant that my mother needed to seek out community with intention. As Emmy pointed out above, our amazing community of homeschooling families did not share many common interests, as the term community is often used. We came from varied religious backgrounds, family sizes, races and political affiliations. One thing we all did share however, was the unifying interest of exploring non-traditional education for the youngest among us. The other important thing we all shared was a linked purpose. We came together as families who all needed to feel supported in their attempts to educate children, and who had value and experience to share with one another. We also came together to share resources as well as to actually be a resource to each other. Mr. Walker taught other people’s children French, while Mrs. Sweazy used her knowledge to teach art lessons to the group. My own mother organized fairs and collective learning opportunities and the giving back and giving to each other continued to perpetuate inside our community. We had an incredible linked and powerful purpose.


Purpose is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. We can often identify the intent or purpose behind an action, or terminology used, or even body language, simply by using our intuition. We signal our intentions and often project our purpose based on our needs, desires and aspirations. When individuals intercept the signal of another human being, and there is alignment of purpose, a beautiful community can begin. Community does not require thousands of members, as it can be found, held and experienced with just a few. Community also does not require locality to be at the forefront of its mission, although it can certainly be a component of gathering its members based on nearness to each other geographically.

My experience of building community continued as our family moved overseas to India and Singapore and then returned back to the United States, now having gone through the dreaded repatriation, we were no longer expats. I suffered a completely debilitating bout of depression and felt — to my core — that I no longer belonged to any one place, I didn’t have community at my fingertips any longer. I signaled, others resonated with my cry for community, and the I Am A Triangle movement was born. What I have come to realize over the past many years of nurturing and fostering this community is that the Trust and Caring, the Purpose, and yes, the Belonging exist because of the Purpose behind the community. It was not built for business, it was not created for profit. It was an accidental (if you wish to call it that) creation of what I knew that I personally needed in my life. When I wrote my blog post about how much I resonated with the triangle metaphor, I had zero idea it would result in hundreds of raised hands and “oh yes, me as well!” emails landing in my inbox. The community was created for mutual support, encouragement and to offer a soft landing for others who felt the same as me.

Profit as the motivation?

When I look at business owners and companies (small and large alike) who are claiming to create community, I always first look at their intention. Their purpose. Is it to impact the lives of their clients, make their day-to-day existence better, richer? Is it to provide value, to delight them and create a space they can’t imagine life without? Or is it to further their own interests, earn more money, sell more product? Sadly, our reality today is that most hints of community are tainted with someone’s cash flow numbers as the primary reason for the creation of said community. Often what looks on the surface to be an opportunity to belong, to have trust and caring and to interact with others, is simply another gateway for sales offerings and new product releases. You do not have to spend much time around entrepreneurs or business owners before the topic of marketing to customers by “Creating Community” comes up in the discussion. Focus is often placed on “what can I as a business owner get out of my customers” instead of “what value can I deliver to my customers.” Purpose — from this vantage point — can indeed be identified from a marketing standpoint as income generation, however it many times only serves the founder or company.

Does this mean that true communities cannot generate income, or that the builders of valuable communities should not be compensated for their time and energy they invest in the community? Absolutely not. What it does mean — in my book — is that those who bring human beings together solely for the purpose and intent of creating a broader platform for selling have it all wrong. A community is the very thread that brings us together to advocate on behalf of each other. It allows us to bring comfort to one another, and offer support — sometimes when we don’t know yet that we need it. Inside the sense of belonging that community brings, follows a set of resources, balance, and strength to do brave things in this world. When a community is created with profits and sales at the forefront, it can actually do more harm than good, for the members.

A modern and new definition for community

Emmy and I believe that community is defined this way:

“A community is a self-sustaining group of individuals who share a concern for each other, will take action to actively support each other, and take the knowledge and encouragement they’ve received from their community out into the world”

We believe that while a community is obviously defined as a group, there must be attention paid to the sustainability of the group. Founder fatigue is a reality for many, and the platform or gathering place chosen for the community should lend itself well to the engagement and contribution from all members. We feel that “a concern for each other” is more important than shared or common interests. It’s also important that we include action in our definition as we feel strongly that a community must have some elements of purpose for one another’s benefit (instead of solely for the benefit of the founder or company behind the community). We also chose to include the wording around the knowledge and encouragement because of the impact a community can have on the world, when its members tell others and spread the belonging they’ve discovered, and share the moments they’ve had inside the community with others who also need to experience the same.

What’s next?

We believe that a new definition of community is vital and necessary as we look to the future. More and more of us are seeking to find belonging, and desperately wish to discover communities where trust and caring is at the forefront, and where impact can be made, encouraged and seeded. We are on a mission to further this conversation on redefining communities.

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,

“What communities have you been impacted, impressed or encouraged by?”

Let us know your thoughts in the discussion below.

We would also be very interested in hearing about any examples of communities and founders that are focused on leadership, impact, and value. Please consider giving us some claps as that allows 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.