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Guilt & community engagement

Why do so many community members feel guilty about not showing up enough? And how do we design a guilt-free environment?

Art “Too Much Not Enough” by Virginia Chamlee

I have been part of a group called Building Belonging since its nascent days. I so care about the community’s intention. It’s made up of amazing people whom I’d love to learn from and be in deeper relationship with. And I’m a big fan of its initial steward, Brian Stout (whose writing is amazing). Yet I haven’t really engaged in the group. I keep meaning to, but I have just been too busy. I’m involved with several groups and somehow this one keeps falling off my priority list. I rarely ever make it to gatherings. When I react to their emails, it’s often weeks or months later. When I think about my involvement with that group I feel guilty.

I feel guilty, because I made a choice to be part of this group that I’m not honoring. I feel guilty, because I have an expectation towards myself to show up as an active contributor. I feel guilty, because I really care about the organizers and don’t want to let them down.

It turns out that I’m not alone

I come across guilt as a strong feeling in many communities. I meet community members who apologize profusely after not having shown up at gatherings in years. They feel their participation doesn’t live up to their own standards or the implicit or explicit expectations of the community. I also meet community organizers who used to have the bandwidth and now are ready to step down, but feel guilty doing so. They feel a sense of responsibility for the group that they can no longer carry.

Can we design communities with less guilt?

This emotional stress is neither healthy nor necessary, and most likely counterproductive (because it’s a subtle use of force?). So how do we create guilt-free communities? We have to signal to members that being a passive member is a totally acceptable choice. One way to do that is by offering different levels of engagement, from the very hands-on steward roles to the low-commitment “friends of the community” on the periphery.

Building Belonging did just that. After an early period of the community with unclear and organically emerging roles, the group has defined different membership levels:

Screenshot from Building Belonging invitation to membership roles.

I think the “Member, on Sabbatical” is a brilliant idea. It acknowledges the fluidity of people’s lives. There is another role, not listed above, called “friend” which is for people who choose to step out of the community.

From guilt to conscious choice

By having explicit roles that require less effort we turn being passive from a personal deficiency into a conscious choice. That relaxes the system. And it makes the lives of community leaders easier too: we know more clearly whom to focus our energy on.

How have you experienced guilt in community?

I’d love to hear how this resonates with your own experience, thank you for sharing your comments.

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Thank you

A special thank you to Michel Bachmann who helped clarify this thinking around guilt and to the members of the Community Weavers Guild that have repeatedly brought my awareness to guilt and how to design around it.

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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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