Building Community: Finding Value in It

How I discovered the importance of community building

Until recently, I didn’t really buy into the importance of community building. That’s ironic because if you scroll through my past experience on Linkedin, you’ll see titles like New Media Intern, Social Media Intern and Community Manager. Clearly, most of my professional experience is in building online and offline communities. But it never felt like a legitimate, professional role to me.

Community managers are unpaid interns that post tweets and hand out things from behind tables, right? For a long time I wanted to build more in-demand, hard marketing skills like graphic design, web development and sales. My community building positions gave me great experiences, but I didn’t think the skills I’d gain were worth much.

The social impact job market was only validating these beliefs. Because impact organizations have tight budgets for positions outside of their core operations, they seem to want jack-of-all-trades marketing professionals. When applying for positions my senior year of college, I ran into the same barriers. I could write, but couldn’t code. I understood social media, but not search engine optimization. I could build email campaigns, but not promotional flyers.

Even after I was hired full-time as a coordinator at the Center for Social Value Creation (CSVC) - an amazing organization that valued my skills - I still questioned myself. For the first six months of work I connected students, alumni, faculty and professionals to CSVC programs by day, and tried to teach myself HTML, Javascript, Illustrator and InDesign by night. I loved what I was doing at work, but didn’t see a future in it.

That began to change after my first six months. I really began to understand the CSVC community and started noticing big missed opportunities. My team was building and managing amazing programs and my job, among other things, was to lead the marketing efforts for those programs so my team could focus on program development. But these program-focused marketing efforts lacked coordination and continuity. Each semester, we built up our community only to let it fall apart when the semester ended. Key allies were falling through the cracks. Our community was also siloed by program. Only a few rock stars engaged in multiple programs and gained the full value of what we offered.

If we were going to advance our mission of giving students the skills and experiences they needed to create a better world through business principles, we needed to:

  1. Keep students involved in our programs throughout their time in college
  2. Build and maintain long-term relationships with key thought leaders and donors (both current and prospective)
  3. Maintain relationships with CSVC alumni and re-engage them as speakers, partners, employers and donors. 
  4. Serve as a resource and thought leader in our broadly defined realm of social value creation, both on campus and across the nation.

Basically, we needed a strategy for intentionally building and maintaining our community.

When I shared these realizations with my team, I discovered that they were already thinking about these things. They understood the power of building community and, on a programmatic basis, did a fantastic job. But they lacked the capacity to expand and coordinate their community building efforts across all of CSVC’s programs and goals.

There it was. A real need for community building staring right at me. I decided to put my “hard skills” on the back burner and set up a meeting with my boss where I handed her my new proposed job description – Community Engagement Manager.

This new job description called for a lot of up-front foundational work developing a community building strategy and customer relationship management system, as well as a greater on-going commitment to community engagement both on and offline. These changes would take time and effort to implement, but I was confident they would advance the mission and goals of CSVC in the long run. My boss agreed to my proposed job description (woohoo!) with two conditions:

  1. No radical changes: She wanted a strategy that incorporated, enhanced and measured what we were already doing. I would use what I measured to build a case for any big changes. 
  2. Empower the entire team: She didn’t want me working on community building in isolation. She wanted a strategy that embedded community building into every team member’s role. That meant I needed to figure out how coordinate and track my teams efforts as well as my own.

That sounded easy enough, (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t) so I agreed and my role as the Center for Social Value Creation’s Community Engagement Manager was born.

That meeting was ten months ago and in upcoming posts I’m excited to share my biggest takeaways and lessons learned so far building a community engagement strategy. I hope to make this a continued series of posts as I continue on this community building adventure.

Please share your own community building trials, triumphs and lessons along the way with a comment or tweet!