Together Institute
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Together Institute

Community leadership: How transparency & vulnerability are super-powers, but scary to act upon.

Photo by Bibi Pace

Like so many groups, we struggled at Sandbox with finding a sustainable revenue model and our financial situation was often shaky. Among the co-founders we constantly talked about it and experimented with different options. Yet we kept these struggles from our members. Our instinct was: let’s not freak out the community. Let’s figure this out behind closed doors, otherwise members will loose faith in us and disengage.

In retrospect that was not only a mistake, but also a missed opportunity. I have come to learn that if we want community members to have a sense of co-ownership, we have to treat them like co-owners. This means that we have to share the good and the ugly with them. If we paint a constantly rosy picture, we are fostering an artificial sense of dependency and enabling a consumer mindset.

The power of asking for help

It also means that we — as community leaders — have to be ok to ask for help. I have experienced several times by now how organizational challenges actually activate the group in a healthy way. The group develops a collective sense of empathy and gratitude for leadership. And it also unlocks creativity and generosity: members realize that their help is needed and they step in to contribute, they make introductions, they bring in new ideas. My guess is that some members thrive on contributing to organizational issues, it makes them feel useful.

Hard for me, even harder for orgs

While vulnerability is quite in fashion these days, I find putting it into practice is hard and requires much inner work. And I sense that a commitment to transparency and vulnerability is even harder for people that are building communities for established organizations. On paper they all want co-ownership and co-creation. But being vulnerable and asking for help means losing control. And losing control goes against many organizational cultures which focus on managing risks.

What’s the right balance?

As with all relational things, the healthy approach lies in the balance, not in the extreme. I have learned that shared conversations about a community’s strategy, finances and obstacles are best held within a sub-group of members who get excited to talk about these type of challenges. Most members would rather be community than talk about the community. I have also learned that these kind of conversations need to be time-bound, otherwise they can go on forever, with no clear outcome, exhausting leadership and members alike.

How does this resonate with you?

What experiences have you made when it comes to transparency and vulnerability in community? I’d love to read your thoughts, thank you for sharing them.

Thank you

Thank you to my collaborators: Michel Bachmann, Erin Dixon, Sita Magnusson, Lana Jelenjev, Nettra Pan.

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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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