3 Traits That Prove You're an Exceptional Community Builder

Mara Zepeda
September 16, 2014
May 3, 2024

At the head of every great community is a leader who motivates and organizes people. They may inspire collective action or wrangle enthusiasts around a passion or purpose.

At Switchboard, a platform for communities, we have watched as three dozen thriving communities got off the ground this last year, from higher education communities to communities serving farmers and women cyclists.

While these communities may appear radically different on the outside, we have noticed that they all have something in common: their leaders share common traits that attract members and make their community successful.

And we're not alone in seeing this trend. Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder of Creative Mornings, speaks of the lecture series' hosts as having heart, being resourceful, and "getting shit done." Those qualities are in turn modeled by the community members.

In this article, we're going to explore each of these traits, how you can identify them, and how you can improve upon them.

Great Communities Need Great Leaders

Consistently, we've seen that for a community to be successful, it needs a stop-at-nothing community builder.  This charismatic organizer raises her hand to say, “There’s work to be done. I’m a trusted member of this community. I’ll lead the way!” and the community follows her lead.

The best leaders are almost invisible, doing their work so seamlessly that no one notices they're doing the heavy lifting. As Lao Tzu says, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

You’re probably familiar with the personality traits of great community builders: they are empathetic, perceptive, and committed to the growth of their members. But how do these qualities manifest in the real world? Do you have what it takes to be an exceptional community leader? If you're hiring a community professional, what is the visible evidence that someone possesses these traits?

Here are the three unique characteristics we have found in great community leaders:

1. They have existing distribution channels and a track-record of related success

The difference between “I want to build a community of poodle enthusiasts” and “I’ve built a community of poodle enthusiasts that I’d like to organize” is the difference between failure and success. In the first instance, someone imagines a community and sees Switchboard, or any platform, as the tool that will magically build it for them.

Platforms don’t build community; people do.

When someone requests a Switchboard, we look at the efforts they’ve already made to leverage existing tools. Have they used Meetup, Google, LinkedIn, or Facebook groups? Do they have a loyal Twitter following? Are they actively engaged with their community already? We often describe these people as “human Switchboards.” They are dedicated networkers who thrive helping people succeed.

Party for PDX (Portland) Startups Switchboard
Party for PDX (Portland) Startups Switchboard

Rick Turoczy is the founder of the Portland Startups Switchboard. Between blogging about the Portland tech scene and co-founding a local incubator, tech conference, and online magazine, he’s the perfect person to get this community off the ground. Indeed, in just a few months, there are over 700 members in his daily active community.

It comes down to this: what distribution methods has the organizer already developed? If he hasn’t taken the time or effort to learn any, then the challenge of simultaneously building a following and building upon a platform will be almost insurmountable. Nothing conveys community-building competency more than being able to say, “I have built a community. Let me show you.”

What can you do to improve your skills in this area?

  • Build up an audience in your area of interest online. Research influencers and people already working in this space and connect with them.
  • Partner with an existing community builder to leverage an existing network.
  • Take responsibility! Volunteer at or take on a leadership role in an organization that promotes the type of community you want to build.

How can you identify if someone has these skills?

  • They demonstrate success building a community from scratch.
  • They’ve forged partnerships that strengthen an existing community.
  • They can articulate how content across different platforms leads to different types of engagement.
  • They offer real world examples and outcomes to substantiate claims beyond just the number of likes or retweets content received.

2. They're great offline organizers

There’s something to be said for community organizers who also know how to pound the pavement and hustle offline: distributing business cards, meeting prospective members, and throwing events and parties. This talent is overlooked and underestimated but a reliable indicator of that organizer’s ability to evangelize in the real world. It takes pluck, courage, and fearlessness.

Sending Switchboard Valentine's Cards
Sending Switchboard Valentine's Cards

This is how the Switchboard for Reed College got off the ground: we spent a weekend handing out 1,000 business cards on campus with the website’s URL. We gave users flowers on Valentine’s day. We sent early supporters holiday cards and we held office hours in the library lobby to spread the word to current students. All of these personal touches meant users had a tactile or emotional memory tied to the site.

Elly Blue, the founder of a Switchboard that connects women cyclists, is a fantastic example of someone whose skills mesh the digital with the analog. In addition to maintaining an active online presence, she travels the country hosting a series of events, sells merchandise, authors books and zines on bikeconomics, made Switchboard business cards to distribute, and co-organized an ice cream social for her Switchboard users.

We see that the leaders at ProductHunt plan brunches for their community, Buffer hosts satellite meetups, Crowdtilt sent 1,000 thank you notes, and there are countless other examples of community builders pounding the pavement if you look outside the startup world to the grassroots movement.

What can you do to improve your skills in this area?

  • Challenge yourself to engage with your community offline. One easy way is to take advantage of a holiday. Send community members an unexpected Valentine or New Year’s Card.
  • Gather your online community offline. Host a party or meetup. Even better: co-host the event with a community member. Even if only a handful of people show up, they’ll invariably feel more connected to the community and to each other. At Switchboard, for example, our community manager Aria is touring the country meeting up with users in person.
  • Seek out an organization recognized for in-person community building and apprentice yourself. For example, in Philadelphia, the Mural Arts Project brings communities together to create public art. In Portland, it’s the City Repair Project. This Creative Mornings talk by their director, Mark Lakeman, is a great place to start. The leaders of these organizations have incredible experience building grassroots communities and these lessons translate to any community, online or off.

How can you identify if someone has these skills?

  • Bring them into a social situation and see how they behave. Are they a good listener? Do they ask open-ended questions? Do they create opportunities to strengthen relationships with new people by following up and continuing the conversation?
  • It sounds silly, but ask when the last time was that they sent thank you note or postcard.
  • Community building starts at home. Do they entertain or throw dinner parties? Have they coordinated trips for friends or family?

3. They get in the trenches to help the community

The best organizers don’t do it for the fame, glory, or power. They do it because they are, in their hearts, servant leaders. They put the needs of their community first. This means getting down into the trenches and personally offering to meet users’ needs when they can.

Camas Davis’s Meat Collective Switchboard is a place where local farmers and consumers can buy and sell sustainably raised meat and share butchery resources. A while back, Lola, a woman new to the art of butchery, asked for advice on cutting ribs into pieces. Camas offered to let Lola borrow her hacksaw and invited her to stop by for an in-person tutorial.

Camas Davis chimes in on a community post on her Meat Collective Switchboard
Camas Davis chimes in on a community post on her Meat Collective Switchboard

The best community organizers chime in on posts. They’ll thank the poster, point them to a resource they might not know about, or offer to help out. They put in the legwork and model behavior.

Camas’ activity exemplifies this type of stewardship. And, as you can see from the comment thread, her community appreciates it. Like a dinner party host, she keeps the conversation going and steps in to, metaphorically, top off the wine.

What can you do to improve your skills in this area?

  • Instead of focusing on quantitative metrics such as “likes” or retweets, ask yourself a simple question: “Was this community member’s need met? If not, how can I help meet their need?” One of our Switchboard communities analyzed the number of questions and comments posted on a Facebook group. He realized that more often than not, these posts weren’t being responded to. As a result, community members felt unsupported. That motivated him to start a Switchboard and create a dedicated space for meeting their needs.
  • Articulate the vision for the best case interaction for each community member. Imagine they were to leave a Yelp style review of their community. What would they say?
  • Interview community members. Take them out to coffee and ask them how they’d strengthen the network. What can be done to make it top-of-mind?

How can you identify if someone has these skills?

  • Nothing illustrates this quality more than anecdotal stories. Ask for specific examples of how they’ve helped people in large and small ways, from helping friends move to connecting peers with networking opportunities.
  • Examine how they engage with their existing social media channels, beyond just sharing content. Do they frequently reply to requests from their community and proactively make suggestions and connect members that might not know one another?
  • Ask to speak with someone in the community who benefitted from their help. What was their approach? How was their follow-up?

Bonus Tip for Aspiring Community Leaders...

Consider building a portfolio that documents your efforts and your community’s successes. An ideal portfolio is both quantitative (“I went from a community of 0 to 700 in three months) and, more importantly, qualitative (“Here are ten stories of how this community’s members connected and helped one another”).

The portfolio should convey creativity (“And so then I organized this crazy thing.”) and adaptability (“The first thing I tried didn’t work, so I did this instead.”). For example, before Switchboard, we tried a Storify page to meet our alumni community’s needs. The system failed, but we could articulate why and learned a lot in the process.

There's Always Room to Learn New Skills

Even if you've been building community for 10+ years, you inevitably still have room to grow. What new initiative or gathering can you try with your community? How can you push the envelope? In what new ways can you experiment and learn?

Mara Zepeda
September 16, 2014
May 3, 2024

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