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What It's Like To Design Intentional Community: A Conversation with Milly Tamati

December 6, 2022
May 19, 2023

If you are on the community manager side of Twitter, chances are good that you've seen this graphic about intentional community design.It's from Milly Tamati, Founder of Generalist World. She says: 9/10 communities will fail, why? Because there's no intentional community design baked into the vision.I was intrigued by Milly's words and wanted to know more. So I reached out to her to find out what this intentional community design was all about. I ended up having an exciting conversation with her, which will change how you think about community building.

Intentional Community Design Flowchart by Milly Tamati

What Is Intentional Community Design, Exactly?

There is no denying that the word community has become a buzzword in recent years. And many brands, too, have started to use the concept of community for their own purposes.Sure, it sounds easy enough: you have an idea, sign up on the platform where your community lives, and voila! You have a community.But as Milly pointed out, this is a dangerous way of thinking: "Building a community isn't all that different from starting a business—you need to think it through. You can't just spin one up and expect people to show up out of nowhere; it takes time and effort to build something meaningful and long-lasting."

"Think of it this way: You wouldn't start a business in 5 minutes, and you shouldn't start a community in 5 minutes either."

That's where Milly's approach to intentional community design comes in. Typically, as a beginner, you intend to dive into reading advice about how to start a community—putting people in one place, for example—without understanding that the intentions are key to making sure the community has a strong foundation.

"I like to think of community building in incremental steps. You have a hypothesis; you test it out, and you tweak it. This guards you from having a community that fizzes out two weeks later.," she says. "That's why your community should be thought out as deeply, thoughtfully, and intentionally as you would do starting a business."

Seven Steps To Designing An Intentional Community

Step 1: Determine Your Why and How

"Your community should feel like this: If the members of the Generalist World were featured in a blindfold test, where they had to identify our community solely by their conversations and interactions with its members,—they'd know which one is Generalist World immediately."

We all want to feel like we belong, which is why Milly emphasizes the importance of standing for something and being so clear about it that your community members are confident in what they're getting from you—and thus willing to engage with you.She also shares a tweet she recently saw, which reads, "Most startups fail because no one actually cares," and adds, "The same thing goes for communities."

Most startups fail because no one cares

The first step toward creating an intentional community, then, is determining its Why:

"Why should people care? What's missing in their lives that your community will fulfill? What do you stand for? If you can't answer these questions, everything else is redundant."

I see "this must be compelling" under the first question, which Milly explains it's not just a nice-to-have—it's essential!Why? Well, for people to be willing contributors, there has to be something compelling that brings them together—and it's a big thing you're asking. That's why you have to make sure it's compelling enough, so they turn back again and again.When you've articulated your "why," it's time to figure out how you're going to achieve them—and that's where the "Your How" section comes in. To do this, try answering the following questions:

  • How do people gather? (Forums, chat, IRL, workshops)
  • How do you facilitate conversations, interactions & engagements?
  • How do you set the tone/encourage quality engagement?

After finding the answers to these questions, it will be easier to create a community that people love and want to return to time after time. If you don't have these two steps in place, members may not get what they are looking for and leave your community.

Step 2: Build a Tech Stack and Automation Processes

Once you're confident that your community has the potential to bring people together in a meaningful, enjoyable way—that's when you can start thinking about how it will operate technically. And what kind of tech stack you'll need to get it off the ground.

"My advice would be to not to shy away from asking for a discount when you are just starting out, and the funds are tight: whenever you can ask for one. There is no shame in it!"

There are lots of resources out there for this part of the process, so take advantage of them! You can ask around, do your own research, use trial-and-error—anything that works for you. The most important thing is that you find something that suits your and the needs of your community!

Step 3: Keep Your Support Plan in Mind

"Great community is an art and science."

It’s not spoken enough about how hard it is to run a community. It really can be the job that never sleeps, especially when you operate on a global scale. Once one task is finished, you can be sure they’ll be another just around the corner. That's why for Milly, this step is just as important as the first two.

"It's important to realize from early on that if you are not in a good space, neither will your community be. You have to look after yourself. I understand that it might be tempting—especially when doing everything on your own—but disciplining yourself is essential."

Milly's practice of being transparent with her community has inspired me. For example, sometimes, when she feels down, tired, or like she needs to take a break, Milly updates her Slack status to let people know that she needs time for herself and will answer questions later on in the day or tomorrow. The more open you are about something like this—the better your members understand it and respect your space!

CMGR Mental Health Awareness

Some of the simple tips she recommends include: eating well, sleeping enough, exercising—and, most importantly, taking time for yourself every day.The second thing she suggests is to find your community of people who are interested in building communities: "I started joining slack communities like CMX and as for me, it's important to know there is a place where I can go because they get my ups and downs."To make the most of your time in similar spaces, Milly recommends you spend time cultivating three types of connections:

  1. Learn from those ahead of you
  2. Support & amplify those around you
  3. Uplift those who are behind you

Step 4: Establish DEI & Code of Conduct

This often happens as an afterthought—especially if you're doing it for the first time. However, these two things are some of the most important aspects of starting a community because they create and maintain a safe space where everyone can thrive.When asked how she designed her code of conduct for her community, Milly says: "When I don't know something, I simply ask for help. You’re never going to know everything as a community builder, so you’ll get really crafty at finding the right people who can help guide you." She found DEI experts in the community and asked them to jump on her call and brainstorm ideas together—this was especially important because her community contains members from more than 60 countries.

"I am happy by the fact that members feel comfortable including such information in their introductions, and each time they acknowledge a diversity factor—whether it be neurodiversity or anything else—I see this as excellent because it means our space is open, safe and our members feel comfortable."

She also says that creating a code of conduct is an opportunity for members to co-create it with each other. You don't have to do it all yourself!When it comes time to put together your code of conduct, Milly suggests doing it in an accessible way so that anyone can read it before and after applying and again when they're welcomed into the community. She also recommends making sure everybody has easy access to reporting breaches or violations of its rules and making it anonymous optionally.

Step 5: Think of Your Outcomes

What kind of community do you want to create?How about a place where you can find the job of your dreams? Or maybe you're looking for a place where people come together to learn new skills. Perhaps it's a space where you can share your expertise with others and make real connections in your industry.This step is all about asking yourself what you want your community to be, how you want it to evolve and grow, and the type of results that will come from being a part of it.Your answer might be something like engagement. That's great! But engagement isn't the whole story—it's just one piece of a bigger picture. You also have to consider real-world outcomes that will come from being a part of this community.

"I have set a goal for my community to see how many self-identified as generalists after joining, and I've measured it by the number of people who tell me they changed their CVs or gained confidence. This way, I could see my results start right in Slack and then carry out into the real world."

So before you start thinking about what you want from your community, take a step back and think about their perspective.It's important to ensure that your community outcomes are mutually beneficial. Don't just set a goal and expect it to happen—think about what's in it for the members, as well as yourself. If the community doesn't get real-world outcomes from the choices you make, then those choices won't come true for you either.

Step 6: Set Your Community Rituals

One of the best ways to design an intentional community is by setting up rituals to bring your community members together in both virtual and physical spaces.What are rituals? A ritual is something that has evolved over time and has been repeated many times, with compelling reasons why people gather together to take part."One of our community's rituals is speed networking, which enables community members to meet a bunch of like-minded folks, in a short period of time. As one of our members said, “I had no idea there were so many people like me out there!” ," Milly said. "I believe that peer-peer learning and coaching are being disrupted by this type of incentive. Now, most workshops are run by our community—and a strong community signals people's willingness to share just because they want others in the group to benefit from their experience."We can argue that community rituals are powerful because they create a sense of belonging, which is essential in communities. The stronger the sense of belonging, the better the community will feel about itself, making it more likely that people will stay as active members.

Step 7: Find Your Undertone

Undertone is the subtle current that flows through your community. The feel, the vibe. Setting and sticking to a consistent one from the beginning means that it feels familiar to folks. In the words of Generalist World members, coming back feels like "home."

"Join a bunch of communities first; go and see if you feel that undertone. If so, what words would you use to describe them?

However, if you aren't entirely sure of the personality or tone of your community right away, it's okay to explore and do some research. Milly suggests that to fully discover this information interacting with some of the members of your community will help. If in doubt, stick to what comes naturally. If you naturally write formally, run with that. If you naturally lean toward GIFs and memes, let that be so.This is especially true if you have a strong voice, which will make your community-building efforts much easier. If there's something specific that sets your community apart from others, now is the time to start bringing it into play more prominently.And lastly, Milly reminds me that the strongest communities that we know of have powerful leaders at the helm: “Think of what the most thriving communities have in common, and you'll find that they're all led by a strong, passionate leader.”

"I believe that a good community builder is a generalist—someone with such wide-ranging skills and talents. No two days are alike because they always spin new and different plates."

We hope you enjoyed Milly's interview. If you want to reach out, she's available on Twitter and LinkedIn!Also, check out the website for the community she founded!

December 6, 2022
May 19, 2023

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