Together Institute
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Gratitude: the most powerful & overlooked energy source in community

Artwork by Jonathan Calugi for Holstee

A few years ago, in my role as IIR for the Kauffman Foundation, I went to Cincinnati, Ohio, to experience the graduation ceremony of MORTAR. MORTAR is an accelerator and community for historically marginalized entrepreneurs in different cities across the US. I’m a huge fan of MORTAR and there is much to note how intentionally the experience was designed: the graduation didn’t happen in some sterile conference venue, but in a local church, participants were encouraged to bring their own family and community who witnessed the graduating entrepreneurs as they told the stories of their progress and success. What stood out to me the most then, and is still with me to this day, is one sentence that I kept hearing in every interaction I observed. Somehow all conversations ended with: “I appreciate you”. MORTAR staff was saying it, participants were saying it, community members were saying it. To me that sense of gratitude felt genuine and deeply motivating. MORTAR had created a culture of expressed appreciation.

Over the past decade, I have again and again returned to the question of energy source. What drives people in communities to do things? What motivates them to not just show up once, but take on leadership positions and spend crazy hours on organizing events, dealing with stressful conflicts, sorting through applications and paperwork, cleaning the dishes after a gathering? In the professional world, work is rewarded with money, but in most volunteer-driven communities that’s out of the picture. Funds are tight or non-existent.

I found that gratitude is the simplest and yet most powerful source of reward in a community.

Saying “thank you” not only allows people to feel appreciated for their work, but — maybe even more importantly — to feel seen. So many community weavers burn out because they just keep chugging along and nobody acknowledges how much they are doing. A simple thank you shows them that we see them and that their work matters.

Community weaver Gary Sheng says it beautifully here:

So why isn’t it common practice?

The importance of gratitude is so obvious that it’s almost not worthwhile writing about. Most people would agree that it’s crucial to say thank you to people who do volunteer work. Yet, in reality, I have found that expressing gratitude is so often forgotten. People’s service is taken for granted. Somehow in the busy-ness and chaos of community, we forget to thank the people who are making things happen for all of us. Maybe we forget, because good community leadership is less loud and visibly in your face than traditional leadership, serving from behind the scenes, not trying to attract attention to yourself, but uplifting the voices of others. Maybe it is, because we live in a consumerized, transactional paradigm where we are used to paying for services, and we confuse someone’s act of service as just another transaction?

A culture of gratitude

My point is: gratitude is obviously powerful, but it won’t happen unless it becomes deeply embedded in a group’s culture. Here are some ideas on how to center gratitude:

  • Rolemodeling: What if community leaders actively and regularly show gratitude to others?
  • Rituals: What if every gathering starts or ends with saying thank you to the people who made it happen?
  • Core value: What if gratitude is one of the group’s explicit principles?
  • Celebration: What if every time someone steps out of a leadership role, there is a gratitude celebration for that person?

A beautiful example of a gratitude ritual

The wise Nettra Pan, the current co-chairwoman at Sandbox, has co-developed a gratitude ritual at Sandbox which I love. It invites members who have been in the community for a while to recount their Sandbox membership story, highlighting the moments and people that made the journey special, and receiving gratitude from people in the audience in return. From Nettra: “We piloted a ritual that would invite members to share what the community has meant to them and shed some light on what it means to grow within this community. We initially called it the Gratitude Ceremony. The idea was to flag to members how much we wanted to hear their story, and to make room for it in the overall Sandbox Journey; to intentionally celebrate and express gratitude. Members would host it in the hub they felt most connected to and we hosted beautiful ones at retreats over candlelit dinners. They rarely left a dry eye”.

As a participant I found it so uplifting and energizing to hear how people’s membership journey developed, often unseen by leadership. It creates so much positive energy and it energizes younger members by showing what a path through the community can look like.

Nettra also shared some learnings with me: “The format is powerful, but we had to experiment with new formats over the pandemic. We hosted a virtual gratitude gathering every month for one year. This was incredibly moving, despite the virtual dimension, but was labor intensive for the the hosting crew, who had to gather stories and photos from Sandbox friends preceding the monthly event. To explore how to scale this we’re launching a new format this year, inviting more co-hosts and trying to apply the Pareto principle, focusing on audio only, and calling it Sandbox Stories”.

I’d love to hear what you think — how does this resonate? What other ways have you found to create a culture of appreciation? Thank you for sharing your thoughts in the comments.

Thank you

Thank you Nettra Pan for sharing her perspectives on the Gratitude Ceremony. And a thank you to my other collaborators: Michel Bachmann, Erin Dixon, Sita Magnusson, Lana Jelenjev who have shaped my understanding of the role of gratitude. I appreciate you!

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller

2.7K Followers

Grüezi, Swiss community weaver in Amsterdam, co-founder Together Institute, co-author Community Canvas, fabian@together-institute.org | together-institute.org