Of the community, not above the community

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A community building a barn


Since I've recently been on one of my Tom Sawyer rants again about the lack of humility I see in many community efforts, I thought I'd share a story that might help you visualize the role your organization could play in the communities it belongs to.

A few months ago, two of my business partners, David Burney and Matt Muñoz, were sitting in a meeting with a client of ours (The Redwoods Group, a very cool B Corporation), discussing the unique relationship that organization has with its customers, employees, and other communities. The conversation turned to the ideas of service and humility, which are so often ignored by big organizations attempting to engage with communities.

All of the sudden, Kevin Trapani, CEO of The Redwoods Group, encapsulated the entire conversation in a few short words:

"We should be of it, not above it," he said.


So many organizations, intentionally or not, approach things as if they are above a community. Sometimes this means taking the Tom Sawyer approach of using community strategies to get others to paint your fence for free. Sometimes this means creating a new community with your organization at the center rather than joining an existing community effort. Sometimes it simply means a lack of humility or selflessness shines through in the organization's community interactions.

Here's a simple test you can use to see whether your organization is of a community or above a community:

  1. Do you view it as "your" community?
  2. Is your strategy designed around what you want the community to create for you?
  3. Are individuals within your organization afraid to engage directly with community members because of fears they do not represent the "official" view of the organization?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, your organization is probably operating above the community.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting there is anything inherently wrong with being above a community—in fact, many big or popular organizations can and do get away with it. The world is full of brand-centered communities made up of people who choose to associate themselves with that brand.

I'm simply suggesting that a little humility can often go a long way in community interactions. If you are looking for a more humble approach to community engagement, consider:

Being selfless: Spend more time figuring out what you can do for the community and less time thinking about what it can do for you. Think about the assets (funding, time, work, brainpower, brand power, relationships, publicity) your organization could bring that might help the community effort. If you are smart, you'll figure out ways you can use these assets to help the community and your organization both at the same time.

Being present: Encourage your people to personally interact with other community members and participate directly in efforts that further the community's goals. Give your people the tools (and permission) to be responsive, active, and involved without fear. Let multiple people represent the organization (and themselves individually) within the community rather than having one "official" voice that seems distant and slow to react.

Think about all of the communities to which your organization belongs. These communities may include customers, employees, partners, users, developers, investors, or even just the people who live in your town, region, or country.

How could you bring more of an of the community rather than an above the community approach to each of them?

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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)tidelift.com

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