Together Institute
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Together Institute

Co-creation is crucial. But most communities still fall and rise with the leadership of a few.

And how that natural flow can be a relief.

Do the ups and downs not just apply to individuals, but to whole groups within the community?

For many years I was actively involved with my local Sandbox chapter in New York. Under the leadership of the extraordinary community weaver Niamh Hughes our small team of organizers (ambassadors in the Sandbox lingo) put on events, connected people, brought new members in. The local group was thriving and the friendships that formed during those years came to define me and my life in many ways. Yet I used to worry about what would happen to the local group once we stepped down. My concern was partially informed by my engagement with Sandbox on a global level: I saw how local groups after periods of really strong activity went into periods of dormancy. And locally in New York I saw how hard it was to find other volunteer organizers who were committed to put as much into the group as we had been.

The natural cycle of groups

Over the years that worry played out. The chapter went from being very active, to semi-active, to almost dead. Yet fascinatingly the cycle didn’t stop there. After a while the group picked up steam again and went from semi-active, to extremely active (and then onwards to less active and so on). The same thing happened at local chapters across the globe: they cycled through different levels of activity. With some, the cycles were slow and they were dormant for five or ten years. With others, the cycles were rapid and they would come back in six to twelve months.

Similarly how individual members go through ups and downs in their engagement, if you zoom out ten, twenty years, the same applies to whole groups within the community: chapters, hubs, cities, regions, interest groups, maybe even the community at large. They cycle through times of strong activity and times of inactivity.

I had three reactions to this.

First, I felt a deep sense of relief.

I have felt such a pressure as a community weaver to keep all chapters up and active at all times. What if that’s not necessary and we can just allow the groups to go through their natural cycles?

Second, it gave me new-found appreciation for how much communities depend on the leadership of a few.

We talk a lot about the importance of co-creation these days, and a strong culture of co-creation is absolutely crucial for a thriving community. Yet co-creation has its limit, especially in volunteer-lead groups. Most awesome things in our groups are still organized by a handful of organizers who put in a disproportional amount of work. It’s often a few motivated volunteers who put on amazing events, who drive new initiatives forward, who breathe life and love into the group.

And the reality is that once these people move on, get tired, or in many cases burn out, it won’t be easy to replace them. The group will become less active. We can ease the peaks and valleys by pro-actively recruiting new organizers, by creating good handover processes, by creating and documenting roles. That certainly helps. But commitments and motivations come in many different shapes and forms. Only once the next highly motivated organizer feels ready to step in, that group will start to thrive again in similar ways.

My third reaction was sadness. Parts of me wished this wasn’t true.

I so believe in co-creation and I’m no fan of the cult-like focus on leaders in the corporate world. Yet I sense there is a limit on how much an average active member can contribute. We have busy lives. We are part of several different groups. We split our attention among different initiatives. Someone who is willing to put in several hours a week will likely do more work than many co-creating members combined. You might have heard of the 1–9–90 rule, which emerged in the early days of Web 2.0. According to this rule of thumb, 1% of users on social media sites create content, 9% interact with the content (for example by commenting, liking, sharing), 90% consume content. Maybe a similar proportion applies to leadership in real communities?

We need both: leadership and co-creation

My sense is that for communities to thrive we need both leadership and co-creation. We need a culture of co-creation to unlock the infinite potential of our groups. And we need to accept and appreciate the value of the people who choose to step into a bigger role. They are doing more than just co-creating, they are truly in service to us all.

The implications

For me this notion of a natural cycle of ebbs and flows, and the importance of individual leadership brings up some bigger questions that I want to explore in future writing:

  • What are the minimal key activities that need to be sustained in a dormant phase so that the group doesn’t die and can come back to life in the future?
  • How can we take good care of our community leaders (even in highly co-created environments)?
  • What’s the role of money to help ease the ebbs and flows?

What do you think?

As you can tell I’m still wrestling with this idea and I’d be so grateful to hear your honest reflections on this. How does this resonate with you? Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts.

Thank you

A lot of this thinking around the importance and appreciation of leadership clarified in close partnership with Michel Bachmann, as we were developing the community learning journeys. Thank you Michel!

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Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help people and organizations weave thriving communities. Here is where we share what we learn and think about.

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller

Grüezi, Swiss community builder in Amsterdam, author of @CommunityCanvas, co-founder Together Institute, |

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