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Breaking It Down: Anatomy of a Community

November 16, 2011

Community is one of those words constantly used yet rarely defined. In some ways that’s good, it allows the idea of community to serve the needs of the people in it without being limited by its definition. But there are times when a common understanding of the word is helpful, if not necessary.

Let me give an example. A few weeks ago I was in a meeting with two foundations, a group of non-profits and a few corporations. Collectively we were discussing the need for “community” tools, namely an online platform, to increase collaboration. After nearly a half hour one participant said, “I have to ask, what do we mean by community?” The meeting literally stopped. Everyone began looking at each other and then after an awkward sixty-second pause, the question was glossed over by the group agreeing, “We all know what we mean.” But did we?

It’s not surprising that any group would grapple with this question. Just looking at the Wikipedia entry for community tells us that there were over 94 discrete definitions of community by the mid-1950s alone. At Context Partners we define community as a group of people interacting around a common purpose. It’s a pretty simple definition.

What I believe was being asked in that meeting is “what makes a successful community?” I love the explanation of a successful community articulated by Bo Burlingham in his book, Small Giants, about uniquely successful small businesses.
My synthesis of Burlingham’s three key principles are:

1. Integrity: members are who they say the are
2. Professionalism: members do what they say they do
3. Connection: members connect to create a emotional bond based on a common purpose

When we talk about community we can’t help but move from the definition directly to its anatomy. And with the focus on integrity, professionalism and connection we force a real discussion about what makes a great community and our roles in its success.

So, the question for each of us is: are we applying those three principles in our work and our communities? And if not, what steps will we take to get started?

Breaking It Down: Anatomy of a Community

Charlie Brown

CEO & Founder

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