1 year, 10 lessons.
What we learned as fourth-generation Thousand Network San Francisco Ambassadors
If you run a Google search for “building community”, you’ll get 1.67 billion results. Why does community matter now, and in the future to come? For one, digital technologies and decentralized organizing systems have given rise to peer-to-peer networks, collaborative production, and open-source knowledge transfer. We are structuring ourselves as communities around these new modes of work and life.
Historically we have defined our communities by ethnic origin, geographic proximity, and even familial ties. These associations are innate, they flow through our braided veins. The village or neighborhood or city we were born in, the school we went to, the extended family we were raised by. The structures have evolved slightly over time as demographics have shifted, but we haven’t really questioned the fundamentals because the definitions worked for the most part, and served our needs and expectations; until now that is.
Today people are looking for new ways of connecting with one another and belonging. We see this in the rise of the “gig economy” disrupting the future of work, increasing numbers of self-proclaimed digital or global nomads, and access to gargantuan amounts of data about the people in our networks. We’re looking for a sense of community beyond the bounds of our hometowns or our college alma maters. The next iteration of community finds itself defined by practice, by purpose or by interest.
Strong and sustainable communities should have have three anchors: (1) place (digital or physical), (2) values, and (3) community builders / managers / ambassadors.
When we became the community ambassadors of Thousand Network (formerly known as Sandbox), we had our place — San Francisco — and were in the midst of defining the community’s identity and values as we transitioned from being “Sandbox” to “Thousand Network.” If you’re curious about the process of recreating an existing community of 1000 global members, we documented it here.
The San Francisco hub is one of 40 global cities that collectively make up Thousand.
As the interim transition committee worked to define the global community’s values, we sought to establish a local vision for the San Francisco hub:
First, we decided not to position ourselves as “the leaders.” Instead, we co-design with our local #squad — working to elevate the ideas, activities, and creative brainpower of our SF community. This approach resonates with us as individuals, but also aligns with the entrepreneurial and collaborative ethos of SF.
Second, we effectively banned the question “What do you do?” from the community. Thousand Network is not about enhancing your Linkedin profile.
Instead we’re trying to help each other figure out “What kind of person do I want to be?”
After more than a year of serving as the co-ambassadors of Thousand Network in San Francisco, we are sharing our top 10 lessons learned. Many thanks to our community of curious, audacious, authentic human beings (or whom we now refer to as, family):
- Trust your co-ambassador. You’re basically in a long-term (albeit, open) relationship with your co-ambassador. Most days we were the first person we would message in the morning, and the last person we would send an email to that night. Running a community on top of working full-time jobs to keep the lights on will turn you into a multi-tasking maven; but show you that a healthy partnership, whether with a co-ambassador, co-founder, or significant other, is built on trust, honesty, mutual respect, and open lines of communication. Moreover, strong and supportive leadership reverberates outward to the whole community (which is really the most important part).
- Make the community’s purpose clear. In San Francisco, you have a number of communities and networks to choose from, so it was paramount to define what Thousand Network is — a family of global nomads across five continents invested in each other’s growth and creative potential — and what we aren’t. We’re not a professional development network, a networking group, or out to change the world; while these elements do characterize aspects of our community interactions, they don’t define us exclusively. We’re the community for people who seek to connect authentically — to be fellow citizens, friends, humans.
- Community values are the North Star. Authenticity, openness, trust, vulnerability: these human values are the common thread among our 1000+ members across the globe. We prioritize values alignment above professional achievements and references because Thousand is a values-based community, and that defines the interactions among members and the programming we do for members. We often get asked how you can really curate for values. Some of it is instinct, knowing your community dynamic well enough to detect fit, and then listening and observing. We call it “community speed-dating” — you can usually tell after a first event if there’s a mutual vibe. And it’s all the small things, the actions that flow naturally. We live in a city where knowing how to talk the talk is basically a requirement, so we have bullshit radar on high.
- It’s okay to have a core and a peripheral. In any community you can pretty quickly identify active and inactive members. As ambassadors we hold ourselves responsible for knowing the pulse of the community — who needs time off, who’s launching a company, who is moving on to another stage of life. It’s a natural phenomenon in the life cycle of a community: as these members move to the periphery, we recruit a new class that tends to be our most active core.
- Design with the community. As ambassadors we are collaborative designers of experiences for the community. We crowdsource ideas from the community, we take the creative potential and build the infrastructure around it. The ambassador is an enabler of the community’s potential. To do this well we have to understand the unique dynamics of the San Francisco community: we’re the type to live and die by our color-coded Google calendar lists. We’re “busy” but always intrigued by novelty so we’ll say yes to gatherings in new places with new people. We need to be forced away from our computers, our phones, and by that we mean physically taken to a Wifi dead zone. We’re in grand old California so take us outside — Big Sur, Bar SZ Ranch, ocean bonfires. An impressive number of us play instruments and have eccentric creative talents so give us a stage to share. We make potlucks really difficult with our expectation that yes, gluten-free, sugar-free, meat-free will always be menu options. We hate startup jargon so don’t ask us what we do, just tell us an honest story or offer us free housing — no one in SF ever says “no” to that!
6. Offline is not dead. Most of our community’s correspondence happens on a closed FB group. There’s some coordination via Whatsapp groups, email for updates, and many, many group chats. But these digital social platforms merely serve to make the offline experiences possible, so people know when and where to meet, and offline experiences can be instantly accessible across the community ecosystem. Offline is where our community is strongest, where the initial meet-ups turn into 6-hour dinners, where trust is built by being and seeing and creating in a physical space.
7. Know your local watering holes. Bringing people together is hard, even if you know your community’s preferences and know it’s something the members value. In San Francisco it’s notoriously difficult to find venues for groups larger than 10 people, so we opt for large open spaces like Southern Pacific Brewery when we do drinks, Alamo Square Park or Dolores Park when we want to chill, donated office space when we need projectors and AV, and more often than not, the houses of our members. Even in this 7 mile x 7 mile city, some places are just too far to convince many people to take a Lyft or Uber out to, beautiful spaces as they are. (sorry Golden Gate Park and Outer Sunset!) We have really active members in the South and East Bay areas, but it’s hard to convince our largely SF-based members to journey out there. In a city where everyone’s calendars are squeezed, we’re always thinking about how to reduce the friction for attending a community event.
8. Balance curation with openness. Thousand Network is a closed community — we have a rigorous, multi-step application for membership because we deeply value trust and safety among community members. This curation ensures a baseline of trust that enables strangers to share the unglamorous aspects of their lives over beers on a Thursday night. But the last thing we want to do is become an insular elite echo chamber — 50–65% of our programming a month is open events — so anyone can join in. Communities thrive when they don’t just exist for themselves.
9. Satisfaction is subjective. The most wonderful thing about running a community in SF is how diverse our group is. The most challenging thing about running a community in SF? How diverse our group is. When we first set out to plan events that brought people together in our group, we realized that meeting the needs of all the distinct personas in the community was virtually impossible. Over time our strategy has shifted to fostering a sense of collective ownership and planning a diverse range of events that members can choose between. Community ambassadors aren’t going to make everyone happy all of the time (as much as we wish we could), and that’s ok.
10. Give. We like to say altruism is our currency in Thousand. If you give, you will receive — it’s a beautiful self-regulating dynamic of a healthy community. Our community is what it is today because people open their homes, share meals, and say yes to a coffee chat or professional introduction. We give because we trust the karma of the community, and more broadly, the universe. As ambassadors we design and setup the infrastructure for experiences that facilitate this reciprocal dynamic. In a healthy community, the ambassadors actually have very little “enforcing” to do — the community will regulate and sustain itself.
As we prepare to hand the keys over to the next generation of ambassadors, we are grateful to have been given the opportunity to contribute to the evolution of our San Francisco community…
Radha + Karen
Special thanks to Erin Frey, Michelle Lim, and Melissa Richer for sharing their insights with us as past SF community ambassadors, and the entire San Francisco Thousand Network community for being the ultimate #squad.
Thousand Network is a community of young people who live on the edge. We cook up molecular gastronomy, perform pop sonatas, build social empires, and craft radical policy. Scattered across 40 cities on 5 continents, we are bound by our curiosity and creativity. The world is our lab, and we were born to discover what’s possible. Altruism is our currency, and we prosper by aiding each other’s growth. Collectively we can do more with our time on (and off) this planet.
Originally published at medium.com.