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Why we stopped trying to engage passive community members — the 3 circles model.

So many community weavers struggle with trying to activate the passive parts of their community. That can be a frustrating and exhausting task. But is it the right challenge to focus on?

Part I — Three concentric circles

The three circles model, developed by my collaborator Michel Bachmann, has been central for understanding any community.

3 circles model developed by Michel Bachmann — as part of our learning journey with Erin Dixon and Sita Magnuson

Imagine three concentric circles.

  • At the core are your most active members, the community weavers, the stewards, maybe the co-founders, the people who take initiative and make things happen.
  • Around that, in the middle circle, are committed members. They want to be part of this group, they contribute and participate to their abilities, they make this group fun and purposeful.
  • And then there is the outer circle. These are the people who are mostly passive. They observe. If they show up to activities, they show up as consumers. But most of them never show up. Some of them were maybe once active in the past. Some of them you have never seen.

In most groups these three levels co-exist. And in most groups the passive members make up the biggest part.

I used to think that my role as community weaver was to turn the disengaged people in the outer circle into middle circle active co-creators.

I tried really hard, mostly by doing more: more events, more online engagement, more outreach. More. But that turned out to be an exhausting and often impossible task. Force doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in most parts of life, but especially not in non-hierarchical and volunteer-driven environments like communities. It takes a lot of energy to convince a passive person to be active and the results are often short-lived. I can’t push anyone into anything.

This relaxes and changes my role as community weaver.

The 3 circles model took a lot of pressure off my shoulders as a community weaver. It made me accept that passive members aren’t my fault, but rather a natural characteristic of most groups. And it also changed the focus of my work. Instead of pushing people to become more active, my work now becomes two-fold:

  • My work with the middle and inner circle is to support them, to coach them, to help them bring their gifts into the community. This creates a healthy and stable core from which the group can grow. And it removes tremendous pressure from my shoulders that this group is only successful if everyone is active. I work with who wants to show up.
  • My work with the outer circle is to keep them informed and to create light-touch invitations. I make sure the people in the outer circle feel that they are invited to step into the middle if they choose to do so.

Part II — The fluidity of member engagement: people will show up differently over time as their contexts change

By now I have been able to observe member behavior in Sandbox for almost 15 years. I have been part of other communities for 10+ years. And from that long-term perspective it becomes clear that most people’s activity levels fluctuate heavily over time.

For example, I have noticed members who were active for a couple of years. But after 2–3 years they became inactive. Their lives changed. They moved to a new place. They had kids. They started a demanding new job. Life happened. But then 5 years later, all of a sudden the community started to align with their interests again. So they decide to re-engage again. I have also observed the opposite in Sandbox, where people were somewhat passive for 6 years, then became active and now almost 10 years into their membership are volunteering to run a local chapter. This of course doesn’t apply to all members: some just never become active. And that’s ok.

People will show up when they want to.

In the past I was afraid of losing people. I fought hard to keep people engaged in the middle circle. But this longer-term perspective has helped me accept that people will show up when they actually want to. Me trying to convince them to be active won’t change much, instead their engagement heavily depends on context: A community has to fit in terms of interest, purpose, values, people and, most of all, timing. All I can do is to make sure that they feel invited when they are ready.

The outer circle still plays an important role

The periphery of the group still contributes to the whole, even though lightly. The wider community often represents a more diverse set of views and as such is crucial to make the Human Search Engine effect work. The bigger pool of people simply allows for better matches and I have found that people on the periphery are often happy to support and connect, as long as it fits their interests. They might show up more opportunistically than core members, but that can still be life-giving for collaborations, learning sessions and search inquiries.

This long-term cycle of individual engagement, disengagement and re-engagement only happens if the community still stays somewhat present in the passive members’ mind. Are they still receiving a regular newsletter? Do they still know where to connect if they choose to? Are they still invited to the global summit once a year?

Part III — Let members choose their level of engagement

One of the challenges of having the three circles co-exist is that it’s hard for me, as the community weaver, to figure out who is in which category and whom to focus on. As a result we waste energy trying to activate people who don’t want to be active.

And there is a flip side of that from the members’ side. I have observed that passive members sometimes feel guilty of not doing enough, not showing up enough. How can we make them participate in the community guilt free? By telling them that being a passive member isn’t a mistake, but one of the accepted choices.

To make this choice explicit, some communities have formalized the different circles (sometimes more than 3) into distinct roles. You choose a role that you commit to. Every role comes with a different set of expectations, different rights and commitments.

For example, the community Enspiral has several formalized circles: there are Enspiral Members, Contributors and Friends & Partners. There are written out expectations that come with each role. And, importantly, there is fluidity: people can change their levels of engagement as it aligns with their lives.

Clear expectations for Enspiral Members and Contributors on Joining, Leaving, Required and Expected

Here is another example from the collective Greater Than. They have 3 circles: Partners, Associates and Ecosystem, each with their own rights & responsibilities, and details on how to join and leave each role.

The different circles of engagement at GreaterThan

And another example from the community Building Belonging:

Screenshot from Building Belonging invitation to membership roles.

Key take-aways from the 3 circles model

  • “Unequal participation is natural” (thank you Nenad Maljkovic for putting words to it!)
  • People’s participation will continue to change over time, if we zoom out long enough.
  • As community weavers we focus on those who want to engage, not trying to persuade people to show up.
  • We can make these different levels of engagement explicit and let people choose the right role for themselves.

How does this resonate with you? Thanks for reading and please be invited to leave a comment.

Thank you to the people who shaped this: This was co-developed as part of the community learning journeys we have been guiding, thank you Michel Bachmann for creating the 3 circles model and co-shaping everything else, and thank you Erin Dixon and Sita Magnuson for guiding us with your perspectives. Also thank you Eva Behringer and Darius Polok for catalyzing this post.

Interested in getting regular community building insights in your inbox Every few weeks we send out a short email with 3–5 of my favorite insights, blog posts and articles about building meaningful communities. If you care about bringing people together, this might be for you. Sign up here.

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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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