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“You never know when you need relationships, but when you do, you need them fast”

Communities as an investment for emergent collaborations in the future.

Photo source: Sastrawan Ginting / Antara Foto / Reuters via The Atlantic

I am seeing many collaborations in and across communities pop up that are helping Ukrainians impacted by the horrific war in Ukraine. People who usually don’t work together are collaborating. Some teams formed within a few days. Some of the people had never met before. And yet they are getting things done. This speaks to the power of community.

And this is also a great moment to appreciate that in order for these collaborations to pop up now, seemingly spontaneously, people and organisations had to invest years, sometimes decades, into these groups. Many of these groups had no clear cut success metrics to show for. Yet they still invested time, energy, care and money into weaving the relational web, trusting that this would provide an emergent infrastructure for when the circumstances called for it. This is beautifully illustrated by a story from 2010.

The story of TEDx Volcano

Head of TED Chris Anderson tweeted

The Skoll Forum 2010, one of the leading global gatherings on social entrepreneurship, had just concluded in Oxford, UK, when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted and forced all air travel to a halt. Together with many other Skoll participants, Nathaniel Whittemore was stranded in London and decided to put together an impromptu gathering. Within 48 hours he organised “TEDxVolcano”, an elaborate event with an impressive list of speakers and attendees. Nathaniel wasn’t from London, nor was he a conference organiser. Yet he was able to turn an idea quickly into action, even in an unfamiliar context. How?

I remember Nathaniel saying something along the lines of: You never know when you need relationships, but when you do, you need them fast.

Nathaniel had invested years into being a member of different communities. The leaders of these communities had invested years into bringing these groups together. Now Nathaniel needed to count on the relationships he had built and the infrastructure of these groups. And he needed it fast.

Three things worthwhile paying attention to

1 — Collaborations are impossible to predict and might happen in a tangential field of impact

Nobody could have predicted that Nathaniel would need relationships to organise an event around an Icelandic volcano, neither Nathaniel nor the communities. And, none of the communities involved existed to support these kinds of activities. They were all more broadly focused on enabling social change. This collaboration didn’t happen because it fit strategy or purpose, it happened because urgent circumstances called for it.

2 — Collaborations across strong and weak ties

Nathaniel collaborated with some people he knew well, but also with many people he hardly knew at all. These “weak ties’’ were willing to help at short notice, because they were part of the same communities. The shared identity of the groups created a “proxy trust” that made weak ties actionable and trustworthy.

3 — Collaborations across different communities

Nathaniel didn’t just focus on one community. He dipped into different groups and pulled together collaborators from Skoll, TED, Sandbox, ImpactHub and maybe others into a concrete project. What mattered at that point wasn’t loyalty to a particular group, but rather who was willing to show up.

Many of the collaborations in support of Ukraine have similar qualities: people are collaborating with whoever is the right person and willing to help, both strong and weak ties, and people are collaborating opportunistically across communities. And obviously no community has predicted that their “infrastructure” would be vital to help with the consequences of a Russian invasion into Ukraine.

Weaving communities is often an investment for an unknown time in the future (aka emergence)

This example for me is a reminder how when we build, lead or participate in communities, we’re investing in the future. That investment can have short-term returns: we learn, we feel connected, we feel a sense of purpose, we feel we belong. But when it comes to collaboration, we have no idea when we’ll need the relationships in the group to make things happen. It might be tomorrow. It might be 10 years from now.

This matters, because many social impact organisations who build or fund communities often see collaborations as the primary desired outcome. They understand that complex issues (such as climate change, homelessness, racism etc) can not be solved by any person or organisation alone. Therefore they invest in community.

But I have found that decision makers in purpose-driven organisations don’t always appreciate the nature of collaborations in an environment of complexity. Complexity is by definition unpredictable and constantly evolving. As a result, collaborations can not be forced or planned. While we can’t invest directly into collaborations, we can patiently invest into the conditions that enable collaborations when they are needed: trust, care, attention, belonging, understanding.

Because once we need the relationships, we need them fast.

What do you think? Do you have stories of how collaborations came up in an emergent way? What created the conditions for that to happen? I’d love to read your comments and reactions, thank you for sharing them.

Related thoughts

Thank you

Thank you to Nathaniel Whittemore for sharing his insights.

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller


Grüezi, Swiss community weaver in Amsterdam, co-founder Together Institute, co-author Community Canvas, |