8 ways to empower people to show up as active co-creators in your community

“Entitled to nothing, empowered to everything” Michel Bachmann — Design by Mansi Gupta

This is part 2 in a series about the power of co-creation in communities. Here is part 1: “There are two ways to show up in a community: as a consumer or as a co-creator”. A lot of ideas in these two posts have been inspired by conversations with my friend Michel Bachmann and he has coined the expression “entitled to nothing, empowered to everything”, which I love and think is the perfect way to summarize this approach.

Michel told me a story from his experience with Burning Man that has fundamentally shaped the way I think about community: apparently when you buy a ticket to Urban Burn Stockholm (part of the regional Burning Man events), the ticket reads on it: “YOU ARE ENTITLED TO NOTHING”.

From the event’s website: “Urban Burn Stockholm 2017 is the very bare bones version of a participatory festival, inspired by Burning Man. By buying a ticket, all you get is access to an empty room. If no one comes along and creates something, it will stay empty for the duration of the event. Everything, including security, ticketing, fire safety and even this document, is created by all of us. This is an experiment in creative freedom and participation, conceived, built, experienced and returned by nothing but its participants. Urban Burn is a non-profit event with no consumers, only co-creators. We start with 2000 sqm of empty open indoor space, we fill it with art, installations, love and awesomeness and then we empty it again. It’s magic, created by our communal effort and imagination.

Wow. What a way to set the tone for a culture of co-creation. Having someone show up to a community, not feeling entitled to anything and expecting to be a full co-creator and active participant makes a huge difference to the community’s culture, scale, the creativity and diversity of its experience and its overall resilience (here is why).

So what can we learn from this example and how can we empower people to show up as co-creators?

The Urban Burn in Stockholm is a great example how much it matters for a community to set expectations very, very clearly right from the start.

I would argue that we all have a choice: we can choose to show up as a passive consumers or as active co-creators. Usually we will make that choice based on how the community expects us to show up (or simply not show up at all, if we disagree with those principles).

Yet, how do we show up if it is unclear what is expected from us? For most people, our default is to show up in consumer mode. That is a much safer choice. If I don’t know what this is about, I first need to sniff it out and see if this environment will make me feel safe and if I fit in. Co-creation and participation is a risk: I might alienate people with my ideas and initiatives, I might break rules, I might embarrass myself. Seems smarter to start out by observing and seeing what’s happening.

That is why it is crucial to set clear expectations in the community from the very beginning:

  • The community can communicate publicly on their website that they stand for a value of co-creation and participation by every member. So new members know before joining what they are signing up for.
  • The application process (if there is one) can bring the principle of co-creation back and explicitly ask people to sign off on it: “Are you aware that our community is co-created by everyone and are you interested and willing to be an active co-creator with us all?”
  • Co-creation ideally is one of the community’s core principles or values and these are present and visible throughout the community experience.

It is often not obvious to members, especially to new ones, what practical and valuable ways there are to contribute to the community. At the same time, members are human beings that change over time: their interests change as they grow older, their willingness and bandwidth to contribute changes over time.

To address this challenge, a community can create different roles:

  • Roles for different depths of involvement, from low-touch to super intense, and people can pick what’s right for them at that time.
  • Roles for different stages of the membership journey. A classical example would be to offer older members to become mentors of younger members.

In most communities some form of in-person gathering is at the core of the membership experience. If you want your members to be active participants, choose event formats where people can actively participate. I continue to be surprised how many communities choose traditional one-way event formats with speakers, panels and a passive audience. You get what you design for.

Most event formats are not rocket science to organize. What if most events in your community would be organized by a member? Imagine the creativity and scale this could unlock.

To enable volunteer-run events, it is important to keep event formats simple and cheap. In order to connect in a meaningful way, you don’t need a fancy location and a beverage sponsor. All you need is someone’s home and everyone bringing food along. However, keeping events simple and low-budget doesn’t mean that they have to be boring. Quite the opposite: if everyone in your community is empowered to organize one, it is unavoidable that people will come up with some amazing new ideas.

One of the strongest signals of co-creation is how the community governs itself. Are decisions ultimately made by a few on the top or do we as a community genuinely make decisions together? For governance to work, a set of processes of inclusion and collective decision making must be in place and they need to be actively promoted.

Here are some key questions we have identified as part of the Community Canvas to structure the governance section of a community:

  • How are decisions made in the community?
  • What are the community’s decision-making bodies?
  • How is decision-making power distributed or concentrated within the community?
  • What gives the decision-makers their authority?
  • How are conflicts handled within the community?

While we want members to take responsibility and to actively drive ideas forward, many communities don’t actually treat their creators and leaders well. Leading a community means juggling many different opinions and often disappointing people who happen to differ and are quick to complain when they don’t like things.

I believe the key to address that is to create a culture and tradition of expressing gratitude for acts of leadership. Here are some (untried) ideas:

  • Once a month, publicly say thank you to leadership and list the things they have done and how much it means to everyone.
  • Celebrate successes and celebrate people who take initiatives.
  • Encourage members to actively support leadership by providing them with feedback, training, access to resources.
  • At events, make a point of thanking the organizers and overall leadership for their service to the community.
  • Create little incentives for leadership, such as that leaders don’t have to pay attendance fee for bigger events, but that the community covers for them instead.
  • Crowdfund and book your leaders a vacation once a year to say thank you for all their efforts.

It’s important to find balanced measures that show gratitude, but not necessarily boost a leader’s ego.

The holy grail of community co-creation looks something like this: instead of telling people exactly how to participate, you encourage anyone in the community to come up with their own ideas and you lay out very clear rules and processes on how the community decides what is ok and what is not. In short, you turn your community into a platform and encourage any member to use it (as long as they follow the collectively defined process).

This becomes especially interesting, when members want to create more than just one-off events or initiatives. At Sandbox we had people over the years suggest amazing ideas for the community: people wanted to start a community speakers bureau, an early stage investment fund crowdfunded among members, co-develop special software just for members, etc. We explored many of these ideas, but even though we loved most of them, we never fully committed to and supported any of them. Why? The most valuable asset of a community is the trust among members and the trust into the organization overall. Member-driven ideas that included the community’s brand, member’s money and member’s relationships had potentially really high rewards, but also really high risks for the overall trust. So we simply shied away from them.

However, there are ways to empower this behavior. Ideally, a community has clear processes and rules in place that cover:

  • How a community collectively decides on and empowers new initiatives brought forward by members.
  • How it allows the use of its brand.
  • How it deals with initiatives that involve money and potential profits and losses.

I have never personally built or been part of a community that has successfully created such a structure. However, I heard that Enspiral has done a really great job at codifying its rules and providing a platform for its members to explore new ventures. The Enspiral Handbook is amazingly transparent and detailed in its documentation of guidelines and processes. And they also developed powerful digital tools how a community can manage decisions (Loomio) and finances (Cobudget) together.

Theoretically, blockchain technology is ideal for this. A set of smart contracts can set the perimeters of what is allowed and automate the processes involved . However, most projects I have seen in this space are highly romanticized and do not always appreciate the complexity of group interactions (and if you have ever seen a functioning DAO in real life, tell me about it :-))

The flip side of celebrating pro-active members is to make sure that inactivity has some consequences. If you are a totally inactive member in a community and you still get full access to the group whenever opportunistically you want it, what’s the point of being active?

I think this can be addressed in two ways:

  • Clearly defining what minimum commitment is expected from each member.
  • Defining a process how people who do not live up to that commitment are handled in a gentle and human way.
  • Say goodbye to inactive members on a regular basis and keep the membership database up-to-speed.

Equally important to making clear what is expected from every participant, I believe it matters to be explicit what will be provided. For example, Burning Man provides a place to put up your tent, a place to poop and some basic safety. Without that, the festival experience would be a MESS. Who would come to Burning Man if you had to provide your own toilets?

I think the same thinking applies for many kinds of communities: what are the essentials that are necessary for a co-created experience to be able to function? I can think of some examples: member curation, data management, organizational administration, event templates, a communication platform for people to meet and talk, calendar management, coherent brand identity…

I’m sure there are many other ways to empower a culture of co-creation. What measures have you found to be effective? I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts!

— — — —

More community building resources

Check out the Community Canvas, the open-source tool we have created to support community builders across the globe and join our Community Builder Facebook group where we come together to share community relevant topics and learn from each other.

Every few weeks I send out a short email with 3–5 of my favorite insights, blog posts and articles about building meaningful communities. If you care about bringing people together, this might be for you. Sign up here.

Together Institute

Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help…

Together Institute

Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help people and organizations build more meaningful communities. Here is where we share what we learn and think about. https://www.together-institute.org/

Fabian Pfortmüller

Written by

Grüezi, Swiss community builder in NYC, author of @CommunityCanvas, co-founder Together Institute, fabian@together.is www.together.is

Together Institute

Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help people and organizations build more meaningful communities. Here is where we share what we learn and think about. https://www.together-institute.org/

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store