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Community Building is (Not) a Tool

Community building is rife with fascinating — and sometimes frustrating — paradoxes. Keeping one's mouth shut is often the best way to move a conversation forward. Planning is necessary and useless. We arrive at a place of vibrant being only through years of doing.

One key paradox of community building is that it is an amazingly powerful tool for encouraging emergence in community — and yet it cannot be treated as a tool if it is to succeed. Or, in slightly other language: the effectiveness of community building as a means is directly related to the ability of the community builder to treat it as an end. Let me give an example and postulate why this might be the case.

  Like nurturing a garden over years, community building takes patience and careful tending.

For simplicity's sake one can divide community builders into two groups: those who do it out of a passion for the activity itself and those who are convinced that it is a useful tool for achieving other goals.

The first group always treats the activities of community building as ends unto themselves. It says, of course outcomes are important, but even more important are the values we live in our every activity. Community building is the way to live the values of compassion, openness, diversity, and grace.

The second group, on the other hand, uses community building as a tool, a means to other ends. It sees community building as a tool: as a form of marketing, a way to improve productivity, to resolve some long-standing issue, to polish the reputation of an organization, and so on. For this group, the values embodied by community building are subordinate to its utility.

But why is the intention of the community builder so important to the success of their work?

Surely there are many reasons, but two stand out. First of all, community building takes a long time. It is not a simple plan that can be executed in a few months and — voilà — there's your healthy, vibrant community. Like nurturing a garden over years, community building takes patience and careful tending. Therefore, the impatient are likely to give up before real results can be seen.

  We can only build genuine relationships if our interest in genuine.

But another reason might be just as important. Community building rests on one fundamental skill: the ability to build genuine relationships between people, and people are extremely good at ferreting out people's underlying intentions. Thus, community building qua means fails precisely because those with whom one attempts to build such genuine relationships notice — consciously or not — that the intention is not pure.

In other words, we can only build genuine relationships if our interest in genuine. When we use others as means to an ends, they notice.

The reverse of this paradox, however, is much more optimistic: get your intentions right and you can't go wrong. Efforts in community building will succeed, no matter how bungling the community builder may be, as long as the intention is pure because others can similarly pick up on the good will that stands behind them. Of course there are important skills and practices that support the development of a vibrant community. But the actual heart of the matter is in relationships, in fostering authenticity, in increasing connectedness and for this there is a single, magic elixir: genuine care and interest for those around you.

There are two conclusions to draw from this. One, if you're doing community building out of passion for the activity itself — then keep up the good work and rest assured that your intentions will more than make up for any lack of skill. But, if on the other hand, you're doing community building as a means to other ends, you will only reach that end by surrendering it to the advantage of the means themselves.

This blog is reposted with permission of the author, Ben Smith.

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Benjamin Smith is an applied anthropologist devoted to figuring out just what community building is. He believes that communities have everything they need to create their own desired future, but that some basic structure for moving to that way of being might be helpful.

Ben is interested in tools, but not for their own sake. The entire course of human history is about our species figuring out new cultural practices, new technologies, new forms of organization and then using them to achieve entirely different results.

His explorations in community building over the last years have included experiments in traditional media, organizing a learning circle, writing a book about the community-building cycle, and generally looking for fellow travellers who want to chart this new territory. Both his background in anthropology and philosophy as well as his time living abroad in Russia, Egypt, and Germany have contributed to the broad perspective and global points of comparison he brings to the work.

Ben lives with his wife and two young daughters in Berlin, Germany where he also plays old-timey music, tends a vegetable garden, builds acoustic guitars, and enjoys a nice beer every now and then.

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