Gathering Community

Why do we confuse gatherings and community so often? How are they different and what should we consider if we want to turn a gathering into a community?

Fabian Pfortmüller
Jan 11 · 4 min read
Photo by Jakob Dalbjörn

There have been numerous times when I was sitting in the audience of some sort of gathering when the host in the closing would stand on stage and announce to the audience something along the lines of: “This was amazing. I feel so connected. This is not just an event, you are now part of the [gathering] community”. And I would look around, see people - most of whom total strangers I would never see again - and I would think to myself: definitely not a community.

Gatherings and communities are two different things: A gathering is a moment in time where a group of people comes together. If the gathering is well designed, everyone feels a lot of emotions at the end of it. As participants we might feel energized, connected and we might even see the bigger potential of this group. But then we go home to our everyday lives and we slowly come down from our energetic high. The special collective moment fades into the background. Until next year we decide to attend the gathering again.

  • We join a community, but we attend a gathering. A community is usually a deeper and often more demanding and complicated commitment. We commit to engage not just once, but over an extended period of time. We commit to values and principles. We commit to a bigger vision.
  • A gathering has a beginning and an end, and often we count in days. A community experience ideally does also have beginnings and ends, but we count in months, years or decades.
  • Most of us go to gatherings as “attendees”. We are there as consumers. We are there to experience something special: to listen to speakers, learn something new, eat some special food, meet people that might be interesting for us. Someone else organizes the gathering for us. In a healthy community the lines between organizers and attendee are much more fluid: I’m a member, not just an attendee. The organizer, ideally, is a fellow member. I’m invited to co-create. When I look around me at a community gathering, I have a sense of “us”.
  • Gatherings don’t have to reflect my identity. I can attend a gathering whose values don’t reflect mine. Being part of a community where my and the community’s values don’t match is hard to sustain.

The illusion of many event organizers is that hosting a beautifully designed gathering with true emotions of connectivity will automatically create a community. But a gathering is only one part of a community journey. Here is what I recommend event organizers who have ambitions to turn their recurring gathering into an ongoing community:

  • Communicate that intention clearly already before the gathering. Draw up a vision that goes beyond the gathering. What is this community about? It’s hard to shift gathering attendees with their consumer mindsets into co-creating members, unless the expectation was set from the very outset that this gathering was about co-creating and kickstarting a community. Then a gathering can be a powerful boost of energy to get the community started.
  • Have a plan for what will happen in the community for the first 6–12 months after the initial gathering: What will the rhythm be? What will be key formats and practices? How do you engage members as co-creators and what roles can you give them? Be super clear at the gathering about what will happen next. Send a follow-up email inviting to the next activity within 1 week after the gathering.
  • Dedicate part of the gathering (and not just the last 10 minutes) to co-create parts of the community. Use the gathering as platform to identify who among the members is excited to contribute actively and bring them into conversation and relationship with each other. The sessions could be about co-defining purpose, values, formats, roles etc
  • Do not make every gathering attendee an automatic community member. Design a moment of choice, where people can decide after the gathering, if they want to be part of this community or not. Their choice of attending the gathering should not be confused to mean that they want to commit to the community.

Most gatherings do not need to be communities. They fulfill a beautiful and specific role. The purpose of the gathering is strong enough to get us together, but it might not be distinct and valuable enough for us to make time for it on an ongoing basis. Do I want these people, these conversations, this topic to be an ongoing part of my life? Will I prioritize this over other communities I’m part of? Do I care about this group enough to take an active role in shaping it?

For many attendees the answer will be no. But for some, the answer might be yes. A gathering of 500 could be the starting point for a thriving community of 20. And both of these can co-exist going forward: a small inner-circle that is committed to be in deep, ongoing relationship, and a wide outer circle that convenes once a year.

How does this resonate with your own experience? What has helped gatherings to create community? I’d love to learn from you, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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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/