Sascha and I had a nice chat with Ankit Shah recently as he was visiting NYC. Ankit was telling us how he started Tea With Strangers not with the intention of hosting as many tea conversations as possible, but from a personal need. In fact, the project started in Ankit’s senior year at University of Pennsylvania, with an intention of meeting new people and having meaningful conversations. Only later Ankit created an organization around that same idea with a broader vision that would open up the possibility for other people to host “tea times”.
I see that pattern in so many strong experiences and communities: they didn’t start with a long-term plan, but just from a personal, often short-term need. It was the same when we started Sandbox. We had no plan to create a global community with chapters across the globe. We just wanted to surround ourselves with other young people who were creating things. And then, step by step, our individual dinners transformed into other people hosting dinners, into people running chapters, … We brought people together first, a plan and framework to hold it all together came later.
This observation is fascinating to me for two reasons:
1 — The importance of patience and slowness
In contrast to what described above, I see organizations trying to start communities, not out of a personal need, but out of strategic reasons. They have a strategic priority, and they believe a community will be a smart way to address that need. But these community projects often come with short-time expectations. Communities have by nature uncertain / fuzzy ROIs and need significant investment, so organizations are trying to speed things up and drive results in months, maybe a few years. Do more chapters sooner, build a bigger conference, get more people involved.
But that desire to grow and evolve quickly might go against some fundamental characteristics of communities: relationships take a long time to deepen, and a shared identity needs patient nurturing and a critical mass of trusted relationships to develop. My sense is that projects that start organically often don’t have that focus on growth and progress, and the corresponding patience helps these groups mature step by step, and maybe makes them more resilient and powerful in the long-term.
2— What’s the role of developing a community strategy?
This observation raises another question: What role does a strategic planning tool for communities — like the Community Canvas — play in the evolution of a community and what is the right moment to work with it? My hunch is that while the beautiful intention of a community ideally emerges organically, it is equally valuable to have tools at hand that allow us to 1) make things explicit and organize our thinking and 2) think long-term and big picture whenever we are ready to have that conversation. However, having a genuine personal need at the core will always trump communities that are just dreamed up conceptually.
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