There is a sense of greater connectedness and openness in the wider world. And that’s awesome.

I’m wondering, can we say the same about our organizations? Is there a sense of greater connectedness and openness in our nonprofits? In our community groups, coalitions and unions?

In many cases, yes – and bravo.

In other cases, not so much. Still, we must take heart. We are always bigger than our problems. And the old adage (is it from the 1970s?) remains as vital as ever: no matter what the problem is, community is the answer.

Despite our organizations’ flaws and foibles, frustrations and limits, nonprofits of all kinds continue to stubbornly build community and teach the world how to share, collaborate and grow – every day – by insisting on the connectedness among all people.

Clearly this sense of connectedness predates digital. But digital has come along and has turned full spectrum connection into a physical infrastructure (whether we like it or not).

The web of information sharing and networking is giving rise to significant cultural change, or at least its promise. There are many legitimate concerns with our brave new online world, for sure. But there is also a growing expectation of openness and transparency in the wider culture – an expectation that nonprofits can leverage, and fiercely, to achieve our goals and perhaps even transform our world.

People are demanding a more interactive conversation where all voices matter – in our politics, in our economy, and in our institutions. We’ve been demanding that for a long time. The difference digital brings is the provision of an infrastructure that powerfully facilitates connection, networking and discovery.

This infrastructure also asks people in our organizations to work together differently – in a more connected fashion, more flexible, more networked. More responsive, horizontal and empowered.

Many groups are responding to this cultural shift and demonstrating their ability to meet people halfway in how we work, how we communicate and how we roll.

Many are not.

THE CHALLENGE: ARE WE CREATING COMMUNITY INSIDE OUR ORGANIZATIONS?

Digital has exploded the ways we can “optimize” what all our different teams and departments can do. But using the tools is only part of it. The bigger part is working well together, and working as peers and colleagues to tell your organization’s story well together – and living that story from the inside-out.

When we live that story from the inside, we demonstrate our organization’s relevance to the building of real community as we do our work in the world.

In fact, nonprofits have a tremendous opportunity to become leaders in organizational renewal and development. We have the opportunity to become living laboratories where we balance working better together with exploring digital information and communication technologies from an empowered place.

This is a blessing – and a challenge to relearn how to work together, if only because digital tools give us new powerful ways to learn, work, share and mobilize. And – if only because many of our staff, members and volunteers are all over digital stuff!

Before we grab these tools like they’re our cyber-saviours, we first need to remember all those great lessons we learned in kindergarten about sharing and working in community. If our organizations are to “connect” with the outside world, then they’ll have to “connect” inside as well.

The challenge here is not technological. It’s social. It’s not about being “on” social media. It’s about being a social organization.

That means it’s about people – how we work together, how we communicate and collaborate. It’s about whether the organizational culture is, overall, supportive or not.

People who want to collaborate will find each other. But it would be a shame if organizational leaders failed to support and nurture these new digital and social opportunities. Anybody who has been involved in nonprofit organizations for any length of time knows that working well together is a necessary place to begin.

So, “social” digital means doing digital things together – training, exploring, innovating, experimenting. In community.

Community isn’t just a work-style, of course. It’s a culture. And the question is, does your organizational culture tend towards openness and collaboration, or does it tend towards silos, wasteful internal competition and lost opportunities?

THE SOLUTION: BUILD COMMUNITY

Building a sense of community and a connected culture helps you do many things. It builds morale, creates conditions for getting the best out of your people, and facilitates productivity and alignment. It helps you keep the energy moving and getting things done.

And it’s all easier than we might think. Mostly, if we want people to “build community,” we just need to get out of the way. Folks’ll figure it out for themselves.

Keys to create community

We build community by doing the usual human things, like gathering around shared purpose, or around food and wellbeing, or around shared interest, and around learning, among other things.

Key #1 – Purpose 

There’s a profound and wonderful saying attributed to a sacred Mayan text called the Popol Vuh: “We did not put our ideas together. We put our purposes together. And we agreed. Then we decided.”

I like this because it reminds us to ask “why” we’re doing something before we get all caught up in the how, what, when and where. It invites us to return to the heart of things when making important decisions. If we are purpose-based, then coming into alignment with each other is easier and the solutions will flow.

Aligning our purpose reminds us that finding a path forward is not about batting around competing ideas but uniting around what motivates us, around what the need is, and around what we can bring, individually and collectively.

Uniting around purpose asks us to act in good faith with one another. When we share common purpose, we act as allies in a shared effort and feel part of something larger than ourselves. Some call that feeling solidarity.

Key #2 – Food and well-being

Nothing brings people closer in a more natural and intimate way than food. Healthy, whole, local, organic, diverse, delicious. Do it.

Everybody’s gotta eat. So whether that’s a monthly potluck or a fullblown cafeteria of wholesome vittles, figure out what kind of food program your people want, and deliver. Involve them in meal planning and prep. Even better if you connect your organization’s food program to local growers and food producers. Extra bonus points if you establish your own community garden or hothouse.

You think I’m joking? I ain’t. We need to balance all this digital stuff out with some real life embodiment and what better way to do that than with food glorious food?

Of course “food” can be food – or it can be a metaphor for bringing people together around other shared basic human needs. You pick! Maybe it’s ways to strengthen well-being, like yoga or meditation or supporting embodiment practices like standing desks or “walking meetings.” Maybe it’s practical things like childcare for your people. Maybe it’s other kinds of support. Decide based on what you people say they need.

Key #3 – Interests

As we know, people form social groups based on their interests, in our organizations and in their private lives. Encourage this. Support this. And be comforted: We really don’t need elaborate strategies for this. People build community naturally, so let them go and let them grow.

These days, a lot of the interests people pursue are digital or online in nature. And this – this – this is your organization’s secret weapon. Fostering people’s digital skills around their passions and interests is the fastest and most powerful way to deepen your overall digital capacity. If you take away nothing else from this section – take this!

Hello “interest!” Hello “skills building!” I’d like you to meet “capacity.” Oh I just knew you all would get along, and benefit from hanging out!

Check this out: 

  • Your people are on all kinds of social media – many times a day. Organize ongoing strategy sessions on how to use various platforms to move your organization’s work forward.
  • Your people love to take photographs. Foster a photo club to tell your organization’s story with images.
  • Your people eat, sleep and drink video, and chances are that some of them make video. Empower them to organize skill-shares and foster your group’s video capacity.
  • There are poets and writers amongst you. They could teach everyone a thing or two about effective written communication. Let them!
  • And web designers. And web developers. And budding app makers. And so on…

Now doesn’t that all sound…interesting?

Supporting people’s interests is a great way to make them feel like they belong, like they can contribute and share what they’re passionate about. Chances are, they’re doing this kind of thing outside of your organization anyway. When we let people bring their gifts to the work, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like sharing and growing. It feels like making a contribution.

The digital winds are blowing. Shall we raise our sails?

Supporting your people’s interests is good not just for your staff, members or volunteers as individuals. It positions your organization as one that wants people to contribute actively to its work. And when, as Margaret Wheatley says, “people own what they create,” they are more deeply engaged in the work of the organization.

Wind. Win. Win.

Key #4 – Learning

Our organizations have a lot to teach the world, so it makes sense to start with our own people. This is where we move from supporting people’s interests in the organization to creating a vibrant learning culture as a major part of what we do.

And there is much to learn! The issues our groups work on. The skills we need to succeed. The theories that make our efforts relevant. The things we need to unlearn. The crazy pace of change. All of these and more make the stuff of rich educational material for your staff, members and volunteers.

We connect and build with our people when we develop participatory educational programs that anchor to people’s lived experience and their existing knowledge. Let your people bring their gifts and interests forward and foster their learning as best you can.

Think face-to-face learning and online or digital. Think of:

  • Lunch & learns
  • Training
  • Workshops
  • Retreats
  • Courses
  • Webinars
  • Podcasts
  • Using social media for learning, and so much more

Building a learning culture inside your organization makes us better teachers – not to mention smarter folk! The key is to be generous and to make learning a central part of your culture.

COMMUNITY IS THE ANSWER – AND THE BEST STRATEGY

Hopefully, some of these ideas have got you thinking about what would help build and sustain community inside your organization.

Community can’t be faked. We all know the difference between coming together in common purpose versus grafting new workplace strategies on top of disconnected and sometimes competing departments and teams. The good news is that community is easy: just let people be people. They’ll organize around the good, human things in life – so long as your organizational culture has functioning life support systems!

There’s another reason to build community. It reminds us to keep it human in our digital work as well.

Read next about how to keep it human in our digital strategies.