Are you building a community or a club?

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Core purpose

I've never been much for clubs. When I was young, I made a lousy cub scout. I wasn't a real "joiner" in high school or college either (just enough to get by) and I still don't get actively involved in many professional associations today.

But I'm a sucker for a noble mission. I find myself getting drawn into all sorts of things these days. Good causes, interesting projects, even big ideas like the reinvention of management all share my extra attention, brainpower, and resources.

I love to contribute to things I believe in.

So why don't I care much for clubs or associations? They are typically groups of people who have come together to support a common purpose. Right?

I believe many of these groups have fallen into the trap of losing touch with the core purpose that brought the initial group of people together in the first place.

They have lost their raison d'etre.

In the beginning, most clubs start off as communities. In fact, the definition of a club is "an association of two or more people united by a common interest or goal." Which is pretty similar to this definition of a community: a "self-organized network of people with common agenda, cause, or interest, who collaborate by sharing ideas, information, and other resources."

So what goes wrong? How and why do clubs and associations lose their sense of purpose?

First, let's take a quick look at how a community might grow in an ideal setting. Watch the short animation below before you read on:

A community starts with a core purpose, which draws people together. Some people hold that purpose very closely, while others participate at a distance.

The key is that every member of the community is in orbit around the purpose, whether at the distance of Mercury or the distance of Pluto. They are not in orbit around other community members or community leadership.

People can move in and out of close orbit over time, but there are no walls saying you are either part of the community or not part of it. You can participate to the level of your interest and never worry about getting kicked out. Every contribution helps.

Great communities have people in active, close orbits around the purpose, but also have people in the outer orbits. Great communities are inclusive, recognizing that these folks in the outer orbits are often connectors, well positioned to build relationships with other communities they might also orbit.

Now watch this next animation. It starts the same way, but you'll quickly see where community starts turning into a club.

About a third of the way through, you'll notice that someone get the bright idea to put a wall of membership around the community. Meaning, you are either formally in the community or you are not.

Membership can come in different forms. It could mean mandatory payments or dues. It could mean an application process. Or an initiation. Or hazing. Whatever.

But once the wall of membership is built, the casual participants are shut out. It is no longer easy to lurk on the fringe of the community. Commit or commit not, there is no middle ground.

In my experience, it is when this wall of membership gets constructed that another interesting effect starts to occur:

The event of joining an organization often becomes more important than the purpose of the organization itself.

In some of these club-communities the actual purpose is to get into the club. Once you are in, there is no further purpose beyond simply reveling in your membership with other members. Ah, membership does indeed have its privileges.

In other club-communities, the purpose still exists, but as the animation shows, it becomes less and less important over time as things like control, power, and politics begin to take over.

Eventually, the purpose of the organization becomes simply to perpetuate its own existence. Often, members find themselves orbiting other members—the ones in leadership positions—rather than orbiting a core purpose at all.

These sort of stagnant organizations hold little interest for me.

Now maybe you like clubs more than I do. Maybe you are an extrovert who likes the great parties, luncheons, conferences, etc. and doesn't need to be contributing to a higher cause. If this is you, let me assure you that I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with clubs. They can be a lot of fun. Or so I hear.

But if the real goal is to achieve a core purpose, to make change happen, will a club environment get you there?

A better structure might be to design the community to be as open and inclusive as possible, giving people the opportunity to contribute and benefit at whatever level they see fit. A strong center of gravity around a deeply-held, clearly-expressed core purpose will hold people's attention, keep them in orbit.

Remember the old open source adage: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."

Your active, passionate participants will attract more participants, and with enough people contributing, perhaps your community will grow big enough to eventually either achieve its core purpose or at least make significant progress in the right direction.


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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


Following your logic (which I like!!), smart club leaders should think of club as a cause, which makes me think of things I'm passionate about and my involvement with them. If I'm passionate about a cause, I volunteer. So--at their best--clubs should act like causes and treat their members like volunteers. Right now, formal clubs find their "volunteers" at the board member/leadership level. Everyone else is just participating or showing up.

i think you are right, and some of the best clubs probably do treat their members as volunteers, actively working to more deeply engage them in fulfilling the mission/purpose.

Part of the responsibility falls on the members of course... they probably should ask themselves whether they are contributing because they believe in the purpose of the organization or if they are just there for a line on their resume and the free snacks:)

Being involved in a computer club, I find this observation very interesting.

As Laura H. mentions, our "volunteers" are mostly at the board or special interest group level and most everybody else is just participants.

So that begs the question, if Clubs are Communities that put a wall around them (membership), how does one remove the wall while maintaining the order and funding? Or is it one-way?

It seems to me that the open source movement has got this one pretty well figured out... they might have some ideas that could help you figure it out for the computer club too...

For example: you don't have to pay to be part of the Fedora community (, but it keeps on ticking. At least from where I sit, it looks like their secret is 1) corporate backing/sponsorship from Red Hat and other companies 2) contributors who volunteer hosting resources for mirrors, etc 3) contributors who have convinced their companies to fund some of their project work 4) folks who contribute their own time and resource because they believe in the project

here's the Fedora "contribute" page:

Of course not every small club is going to be able to do this on the scale that Fedora has, but it doesn't hurt to ask the question anyway...might help generate some innovative ideas.

I'm sure folks could give us some other good examples of open source projects that sustain themselves through ways other than membership...

Once read a guy who defined the limit notion as a space to live, as a space to be habitated, not as a wall, but as a piece of land where people can live, not as a member, neither as a foreigner. This definition of the frontier or limit as "limes" could bring some light. In a practical case, I have no idea, the FOSS community I belongs has no membership, is not a club, and any one can come and participate, may we could make the distinction between volunteers and participants, but without a hierarchy structure has no sense, we just have the benevolent dictator and every one else.
BTW: sweet reflections. because informal groups (i.e., communities) often have a hard time getting members to do the hard work that making a difference in any area provides. Not because they're not interested, exactly, but because people are busy and often figure someone else will do it. By having people "buy in" or in some way feel obligations toward the club, they essentially secure more involvement and loyalty.

IOW, when the Rotary Club does a neighborhood litter clean-up, there's usually quite a crowd. When we send out an email on our community email list to organize one, we get a lot of "Thanks for doing this!" and "What a great idea!"... and about three people who show up on Saturday morning ready to bag up beer cans. :)

This reminds me of one of my biggest lessons as a producer of content. My first film was in competition at Sundance at the close of the 90's...the first film I worked on in 92 brought me their for the first time. Redford started to shine a spotlight on what became a new economy for the entertainment industry "indie film"... but the organization he created that helped birth this new economy...soon became a closed market with the Sundance Institute becoming like a gatekeeper that was not incredibly different than any clique ...and instead of supporting an entire community of indie film...they became the "thumbs up and thumbs down" gatekeepers... soon an industry that could have been wide in it's breadth was asphyxiated by the exclusivity of a community run by self-reinforcing gate keepers. Go look at the numbers of how many films in the last 15 years were in competition at the festival whose filmmakers didn't go through the Sundance lab, have a celebrity, was friends with the fabulous Institute employees themselves.
An initiative whose goal was to raise INDEPENDENT filmmakers became self coiled and instead raised only independent filmmakers who were dependent on the Sundance film festival to give them a thumbs up or down.

There is a better way to develop a market that is wide and shallowly supportive of many... inclusive and creates a wider market dependent on competition and not the selectivity of initially well intentioned organizations whose scale has grown to reinforce their need to be important for its own sake rather than the purpose it was created for.

As we go further into convergence on the web ...we see this same mistaken community structure taking the same path. An organization or community that said something cool in the beginning becomes self important and scaled... weighted down by it's own size and influence and in so doing blocks a larger economy from growing ...and as we saw with indie film... sustaining itself into stagnation.

It was the reason I left NBC and all that behind... the best thing for our economy right now is that the channels, tools and content that stir retail and industry that the web should become ...can not become restricted pipes...via anti-net neutrality, corporate behemoths or self-important industry gatekeepers.

sorry for the rant...very important to me.

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