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Together Institute

Community principle: Weaving from the inside out

Healthy communities need a center of gravity with dense and trusted relationships. Otherwise they are hollow and unsustainable.

Photo by Mockup Graphics, hand-scribbled illustration by the author ;-)

On a hike this summer I walked through a beautiful old-growth forest with giant trees. At some point I came across a tree that had fallen on the trail and had been cut into smaller pieces. The tree’s stump was revealed and someone had marked the tree lines with a marker: 50 years, 100 years, 150 years, and on it went. Right next to the fallen tree were young saplings trying to grow into the opening in the forest canopy. They were barely a few centimeters thick. I marveled how such a thin, fragile being could grow over hundreds of years into a massive tree.

Obviously the tree had grown from the inside out. It seems like a simple and obvious design principle of nature: you start with a little and then gently you add to it and patiently you keep increasing in incremental steps.

What struck me was that, when we “build” communities, we somehow often forget this.

I come across many groups, especially bigger ones, that seem hollow on the inside. They don’t start with a few people that are tightly knit together. As a result there is no “core”. In many of these groups everyone is just slightly connected. In the language of the 3 circles model, everyone is part of the outer, looser circle. To me these groups feel airy and ungrounded.

I — Communities need a healthy core

Photo by Martin Rancourt

Just like a tree, a healthy community needs a core.

  • A healthy core is made up of relationships strong enough and dense enough that there is trust and commitment. That creates stability.
  • The core is the center of activity. It is where the heat is generated that then radiates out. If you’re new to this group, you’ll get a sense of how active the group is by observing activities that originate in the core.
  • The core is also a center of gravity for the group’s culture and identity. It is where values, behaviors, principles and practices are role-modeled. How do we know how to behave in this group? We look to the people at the core and we start copying their behavior. In groups without core there is nobody to learn from.

If there is no center of activity at the core, you have to create that heat and stability artificially by providing it to the community (vs the community generating it itself). In groups without core this often manifests in community managers trying to activate a large group all at once. This isn’t sustainable, as the group only exists as long as you pour energy into it. There is no internal source of energy.

Here are signs of groups that seem to lack an organic core

  • Leadership and community weaving is provided to the group from the outside, for example by an organization that started the group and that is paying for the effort. There are few or no community leaders from within. The group is highly dependent on the efforts and the resources poured into it from the outside.
  • The group feels very large and there are no fractal structures (local sub-groups, home groups, interest-based groups) where I can find a real sense of relationality.
  • The group is mostly defined by a [yearly] gathering, but despite language that this is a community, nothing much happens between gatherings. At the gatherings, most attendees aren’t recurring.
  • There is mostly transactional, consumer behavior.

Here are some examples of groups I have seen that feel like they are woven from the outside in

  • A community that starts by adding 200+ people into an online group.
  • An organization that is all about providing community, but where the staff hardly knows each other.
  • A gathering of 500 people that is “turned into” a community of 500 people.
  • A global community with 1000+ members that only operates digitally.

II — How do we weave from the inside out?

Photo by Kevin Bergen

To build a healthy core we need to weave from the inside out, which means that we start with the smallest, closest group of people and connect them to each other until there is a sense of healthy relationships and activity among them. If then the group desires to grow, we gently increase the spiral and we start including more people, step by step.

To weave from the inside out means, for example:

  • You care for and connect your organizers / ambassadors / stewards before you care for everyone else.
  • You start with your team before you start with members.
  • In a global community: you start local before or at the same time as adding the global dimension.
  • In a large group: you offer members to become part of more intimate, home-groups.

There are significant implications and limitations with weaving from the inside out:

  • Size: weaving from the inside out assumes starting small. I think healthy communities start with 5, 10, 20 people, not with 200. When we skip this step, we have a group with connections, but not relationships.
  • Speed: weaving from the inside out is slow and needs patience. The community grows at the speed of trust, which is powerful but slooow.
  • Continuous care for the core: weaving from the inside out creates a stable core that the community can rely on. That core isn’t static, though, so if we collectively don’t care for the core, it will disintegrate again.
  • Density: Trusted relationships aren’t enough to make a core. I’m part of a change-maker community with real trusted relationships. However, there isn’t a density of relationships: there isn’t a (or several) core group where a lot of people know a lot of the other people in that group. At the gatherings I always meet some amazing people, but it’s always different people. Without a density of connections, these just stay individual trusted relationships. No collective identity and collective commitment forms.

How does this resonate?

How does this idea of weaving from the inside out align with your own experience? Where have you found it to be true and where not? Thank you for contributing your thoughts in the comments.

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Thank you

A special thank you to Michel Bachmann who co-developed our community learning journey and has shaped much of this thinking. His approach around Start With Who takes this idea and makes it applicable.

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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. https://www.together-institute.org/

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller

Grüezi, Swiss community builder in Amsterdam, author of @CommunityCanvas, co-founder Together Institute, fabian@together-institute.org | together-institute.org

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