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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?