My go-to collection of ideas & frameworks that drive my community work.
I’ve spent most of the last 10 years building communities.
From building coworking and coliving communities across multiple continents, to organizing online conferences and hackathons that attracted thousands of people, I managed to get more right than I got wrong...
...but I often felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants. I had no overarching theory or framework within which to understand my experience.
That all changed in 2017, when I stepped back from the day-to-day leadership of my last community-based company, Hacker Paradise.
For the first time in my career, I had time to slow down and reflect on my experiences. A month into my sabbatical, I came across a book that completely changed the way I think about creating connection and belonging: The Purpose-Driven Church, by Rick Warren.
In the book, he describes how he built a 20,000-person mega-church from scratch in Orange County, California. As someone who was raised secular, I’d never been exposed to the church-planting world, yet I found the concepts and frameworks directly applicable to my experience leading secular communities.
I realized that community-building doesn’t have to rely on gut instinct -- it’s a learnable, teachable skill-set, and religious leaders and activists have been honing these skills for millennia.
From there, I started reading everything I could on community design and the psychology of religion and mass movements. I interviewed countless other community practitioners, and began experimenting with putting these ideas into practice in my own organizations.
In this mega-post, I’ll share the key concepts and frameworks that I’ve found most useful. These are the ideas I come back to over and over again when designing communities and gatherings for a deep sense of connection, meaning, and belonging.
Moreover, not only have I found the ideas in this toolkit useful when building community for others, but also in cultivating deeper relationships and meaning in my personal life.
I hope you find these ideas fruitful as well.
We’ll be following up on many of these ideas with future posts that will provide in-depth explorations of each topic.
For now, I present to you -- The Little Black Book of Community.
#1 - The Unbundling of Religion
We live in an increasingly secular, urban, and isolated world.
25% of Americans and 40+% of millennials are religiously unaffiliated. 80% of Americans live in urban areas. 70% are on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Against this backdrop, people are yearning for something to fill an unnamed void -- a void that former generations met through organized religion.
The landmark research on this topic was done by Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile at Harvard Divinity School, where they explored how organizations like Crossfit, SoulCycle, and Creative Mornings are giving people some of the same connection, meaning, and belonging that previous generations experienced at church every Sunday, a phenomenon that some academics have described as the “unbundling of religion.”
Skillful community-builders are aware of this and think intentionally about what it means to help their members find meaning and deep connection within their groups.
In my own experience running a travel community for digital nomads, it’s the difference between describing ourselves as merely a “community for people who can work and travel” vs. tapping into the idea of “pilgrimage,” tapping into what it means to punctuate a life with travel and tying our modern-day travels to the stories of travelers throughout the ages who have left home, yearning for adventure.
When leading a community, or any kind of organization, you will probably find that your members are looking for something more in their lives: deeper connections, a sense of values, and help understanding the world and their place in it.
#2 - Transactional vs. Worldview-Oriented Communities
Some communities provide deeper meaning and belonging, while others are purely transactional.
Many professional communities fall into the latter category. If you asked members why they participated in a happy hour or other networking event, chances are they’d mention job prospects or other opportunities for self-advancement.
In these communities, members probably don’t feel a strong sense of identification with the broader organization. These communities mainly serve as a clearinghouse for certain kinds of transactional relationships, and the value of the community to their members doesn’t go far beyond that.
On the flip-side, there are what I call worldview-oriented communities. These communities take a stand on some of life’s big questions, sharing their own stories, symbols, and rituals that ascribe meaning to their members’ experiences.
One way to think about the difference between transactional and worldview-oriented communities is to check whether they meet 3 fundamental psychological needs:
- The need for connection and belonging
- The need for a framework to make sense of uncertainty and make decisions in an uncertain world
- The need for meaning-making and dealing with death anxiety
If an organization just brings people together but doesn’t offer a broader ethical framework or help their members connect their story to the broader human story, chances are those are transactional communities.
If an organization has an opinionated view on what it means to live a meaningful life, and particularly if that opinion helps their members deal with suffering and death anxiety in a more meaningful way, chances are they’re a worldview-oriented community.
To gain a sense of a secular, worldview-oriented community, check out this Harvard Divinity School interview with Crossfit founder Greg Glassman on the topic of Crossfit as Church, which even includes an exploration of Crossfit’s own meaning-making around death and mortality.
Some concepts and frameworks are broadly applicable to all communities, and some apply more specifically to worldview-oriented communities and organizations.
The first half of this post will go through general community-design principles, and the second half of the piece will address ideas and frameworks that narrow the focus to worldview-oriented communities.
#3 - Phases of Community Maturity
Richard Millington, in his book Buzzing Communities, outlines the 4 phases of community maturity, particularly with regards to online communities:
- Inception - 50-100% of growth & activity driven by community manager
- Establishment - 50-90% of growth & activity driven by members
- Maturity - 90+% of growth & activity driven by members
- Mitosis - plateau-ing of growth & activity, splitting of larger community into smaller sub-communities
One important insight from this framework is the idea that growth tactics vary according to a community’s stage of development.
In the inception stage, community-builders should be individually inviting outsiders to join the community, initiating many of the discussions, individually prompting members to participate in discussions, and building 1-to-1 relationship with members.
Once the community has hit critical mass and 50+% of activity in the community is initiated independently of the community-builder, leaders can then focus on encouraging referral growth, undergoing promotional growth tactics (PR, blogging, etc.), scaling up community processes, and working on activities that build a sense of community among members.
If you’re trying to grow a community, you must know where you are in its life-cycle (based on % of activity initiated by members) so that you apply the appropriate approach.
If you have not yet reached the threshold of 50+% of the activity initiated by members, you still need to be seeding content, sending personal invitations, and creating invitations to discussion!
#4 - Rick Warren’s 5 Cs -- Circles of Commitment
One of the biggest challenges I experienced in my early years of running Hacker Paradise was deciding how much of a commitment to ask for from participants.
We had some people who were super engaged in what we were doing and wanted to be as active in the community as possible. At the same time, we had people who were much less interested in participating in group activities.
In the early years, it felt as if we could either design trips for the lowest common denominator (the least committed person), or we could require a higher commitment and potentially lose people who weren’t ready for it.
Then I read The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren and came across his framework for how to design communities around different levels of commitment.
Rick talks about the 5 concentric circles of commitment around which he designed Saddleback Church, his 20,000 mega-church in Orange County, California:
- Community -- the broader community of people of which Saddleback is a part, particularly people who have come to Saddleback once or twice.
- Crowd -- the people who come to Saddleback regularly, but have not yet committed to becoming members.
- Congregation -- the people who have taken a formal membership commitment.
- Committed -- people who volunteer and take on a ministry in the church.
- Core -- the people who help organize the volunteers and other ministers within the church.
One interesting idea from the book is that Saddleback’s Sunday services aren't meant for Church members — they’re meant to be services to which an existing member could bring a non-believing friend. Sermons focus on practical ways to interpret the Bible for modern life, and music is hip and modern.
It’s only once a person becomes a formal member of the church, when they enter the Congregation stage, that they’re required to join a weekly small group, come to the Wednesday evening services meant for members, and tithe a percentage of their income to the church.
What’s more, to transition between each stage of commitment from Crowd —> Core, Saddleback requires you take a class and participate in a formal commitment ceremony, where you learn about the next level of commitments and why they’re important, and then explicitly commit to following them.
You can and should find ways to create events and experiences for members at each level of commitment.
Meet people where they are, but also have higher commitment levels that they can step into.
#5 - Charles Vogl’s 7 Principles for Belonging
One of the first books I recommend to folks on the topic of community-building is Charles Vogl’s Art of Community.
Drawing from his studies at Yale Divinity School, his book outlines 7 ways that secular communities can create a sense of belonging, inspired by traditional religious institutions.
His 7 Principles are:
- Boundaries -- having a clear delineation of who is and isn’t a member of the community.
- Initiations -- an explicit process for marking when someone becomes an official member of the community.
- Stories -- shared stories about what the community values and its history.
- Rituals -- shared group activities that help members bond, make meaning, and express the unique values of the community.
- Symbols -- images, phrases, songs, or other items that have shared metaphorical meaning within the community.
- Temple -- a gathering place for the community, whether online or offline, where members know they can go to find each other.
- Inner rings -- ways to grow and progress within community based on one’s knowledge, experience, or commitment.
We’ll be releasing future posts to dive deeper into each of these ideas, and I highly recommend checking out the full book, which makes a great complement to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church.
You can create a stronger sense of belonging and engagement in your community by intentionally designing your boundaries, initiations, stories, rituals, symbols, temples, and inner rings.
#6 - Ideal Gathering Sizes -- Priya Parker & Robin Dunbar
Many people are familiar with Dunbar’s number -- the idea that humans can manage only around 150 relationships at any given time. This number was theorized by Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist from Oxford, who saw that tribes tended to break down once their numbers got above 150.
Priya Parker extends this in her book, The Art of Gathering, and talks about other archetypal “tipping points” which change the way a facilitator should approach their gathering. She noted these as:
- 4-6 people
- 12-15 people
- 25-30 people
- 100-150 people
Robin Dunbar has written about similar thresholds in follow-up research relating to the ways social networks operate, noting that most people have:
- 1-2 special friends
- 5 intimate friends
- 10 “best” friends
- 50 good friends
- 150 acquaintances
- 500 very loose ties
Each of these group sizes leads to different approaches for creating intimacy and belonging.
For example, with 4-6 people, it’s easy to make sure everyone participates in a group conversation. This is much more difficult when facilitating groups of 50-150 people, and one needs to get creative to find ways that allow for active rather than passive engagement during a gathering. More on this below when we discuss liberating structures.
Be aware of your overall group sizes when designing gatherings; when managing a community, think about what gathering sizes you currently hit and what sizes you might be missing.
#7 - Scaling Community through Small Groups -- Rick Warren
In a 2005 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell described Rick Warren’s mega-church as a “cellular church.”
What did he mean by that? Well, most of the members of Warren’s congregation, Saddleback Church, meet weekly in 6-12 person Bible studies.
It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle in a 20,000-person mega-church, which is why Warren has placed such a strong emphasis on funneling people into small, tight-knit groups. This gives people the experience of a smaller, intimate community within the larger community.
He considers small groups to be the “cells” of the church’s body, and the Saddleback team puts a lot of effort into maintaining small group health. In one of his sermons on the importance of small groups, he sums up his philosophy: “If the cells are healthy, then the church is healthy.”
Burning Man is another great example of this -- tens of thousands of people flock to Black Rock City for Burning Man every year, and while all of the participants agree to a certain set of core principles, one’s main sense of community and connection comes from one’s camp, which again provides a mini-community within the broader community.
Most community-builders I know think it’s hard to scale community, believing that once a community gets above a certain size, you inevitably lose the intimacy that was there at the beginning.
This is only partially true. While it may become more difficult to cultivate intimacy as a community grows, you can still have intimate community at scale. You just have to be more intentional about funneling people into small group experiences where they can experience the intimate relationships early members of the community developed by default.
- Rick Warren on the importance of Small Groups (video ~1 hour long)
#8 - Evaporative Cooling
This is one of the most powerful ideas in this list, and once you learn it, you will likely find it sheds light on a number of your past experiences in community, both good and bad.
Evaporative cooling is the idea that there is an average quality bar for members of a community, and over time, the average quality of a group tends to trend downwards.
In a professional community, quality might mean work experience, connections, or potential. In a workout community (like Crossfit), quality might relate to one’s commitment to fitness and the morale boost they give to the rest of the group.
Evaporative cooling is the idea that communities are most attractive to people who are below the average quality bar in a community. This means that unless there is an intentional vetting mechanism to keep quality high, the quality of a community tends to decrease over time.
This in turn leads to the highest quality members becoming less engaged and eventually leaving the community, which then leads to a further decrease in the group’s average quality bar. This leads to even lower quality people joining the group, which lowers the bar again, continuing in a downwards spiral.
This vicious cycle only stops once the community establishes a way to vet new entrants to the community -- or when community quality degrades to a point where the only people it attracts are happy to be associated with the group’s former reputation and don’t realize the community is no longer worth joining for the people it originally attracted.
There are two main ways to prevent evaporative cooling:
- Through an intentional application and vetting process, often with explicit membership criteria.
- By having gatherings that in some way encourage people to self-select out.
An example of clear vetting criteria is the Entrepreneur Organization (EO) community, which only accepts people who have founded companies with $1 million or more in revenue.
An example of a self-selecting gathering is a Crossfit workout, which is intense enough that it attracts only people with a certain set of goals, values, and orientations toward exercise.
Be aware of what quality means for your community, and do what you can to make sure your incoming stream of new members meets or exceeds that average quality bar. This is most effective when you can explicitly define membership criteria.
#9 - Liberating Structures
Liberating structures are a number of exercises used to “free” participants in a gathering from the “tyranny" of a speaker or facilitator by encouraging participation from all members.
The most basic exercise from the liberating structure tool-kit is “1-2-4-all,” which involves:
- Inviting people to reflect on a topic individually for a set amount of time (1)
- Talking about it in a group of 2 for a set amount of time (2)
- Combining pairs into groups 4 to continue discussing for a set amount of time (4)
- Coming back to the large group and inviting people to share highlights of their discussions (all)
Next time you’re presenting information, whether it’s giving a talk or welcoming people to an event you’re organizing, try out this approach above as a way to inspire your participants to talk to each other and to actively participate in the gathering as early as possible.
For more examples of liberating structures, check out their book.
As we mentioned in the beginning, there are a number of frameworks that are more relevant to worldview-oriented communities. In the second half of this post, we’ll walk through a handful of them and how they might be applied.
#10 - Problem-Solution-Path-Exemplars
In his book, God is Not One, Stephen Prothero discusses some of the differences between 8 of the world’s “Great Religions.”
His main framework for dissecting each religion can be thought of as Problem-Solution-Path-Exemplars and is useful when distilling any community's worldview and reason for existing:
- Problem -- the great problem of life, i.e. suffering, sin, pride, etc.
- Solution -- how to deal with life’s great problem, i.e., non-attachment, salvation, submission, etc.
- Path -- individual and group techniques for moving from the problem to the solution in one’s life
- Exemplars -- people who have successfully navigated this path from problem to solution
This idea is similar to Vogl’s inner rings and Warren’s concentric circles - it’s the idea that every community should inspire its members to grow in some way, further and further embodying the values and belief system of a community.
When designing a community, ask yourself:
- How do you view the “problem” of life?
- How does your community help solve it?
- In what way should membership in your community help members grow?
- Who already embodies the values of your community and can serve as exemplars to new and current members?
#11 - Six Big Questions
In the past few decades, scholars have been searching for a broader term than “religion” or “spirituality” that can apply to the life experiences of secular individuals and encompass other types of ideologies, like Marxism and nationalism.
The term that is being increasingly used to encompass religious and secular ideologies is “worldview.”
Worldviews can be thought to answer six “big questions” about life and the human condition:
- Ontology -- what exists?
- Praxiology -- how should one act?
- Axiology -- what should one strive for?
- Cosmology -- how was the world created? How did we get here?
- Epistemology -- how do we know what is true?
- Eschatology -- how do we relate to death and mortality?
An interesting idea from worldview studies is that we all have a worldview — it's just that for some of us, they are more explicit than for others.
Even if we can’t name or explain our own axiology or eschatology, the way we act contains implicit assumptions about each of the above and can be analyzed by outsiders viewing our behavior.
In the words of Carl Jung, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life (community), and you will call it fate.”
As a community-builder, you may find it helpful to explicitly reflect on what your personal answers are to these big questions of life and how they’re expressed through your community, events, and growth path for members.
Engaging with your community’s worldview on these levels can help your members reflect meaningfully on their lives and come up with their own answers to the big questions.
#12 - Collective Storytelling -- Marshall Ganz
Marshall Ganz is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who spent 25 years as an activist organizing farm workers in California.
He currently teaches courses on “organizing for action” and “collective storytelling,” and his frameworks are some of the best out there for distilling your community’s mythology and shared stories.
The big idea in his work is that we need three stories to motivate action:
- Story of Self -- our own history and values, why we are called to action
- Story of Us -- values shared by those who are called to action
- Story of Now -- talk of an urgent challenge to those values that demands actions now
A great example of these three stories can be found in Barack Obama’s 2004 speech that launched him into the public eye.
Ganz also teaches about how some emotions inhibit action and some emotions motivate action, a lesson he learned while mobilizing activists in California.
At their best, our stories take us from inhibitory emotions to those that spark action:
- Inertia → urgency
- Apathy → anger
- Fear → hope
- Isolation → solidarity
- Self-doubt → you can make a difference
Work on distilling your story of self, story of us, and story of now to increase engagement in your community or organization!
Make sure everyone in your organization is familiar with your key stories, and help them come up with their own story of self that ties into the broader organizational mission.
#13 - Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development
James Fowler, a researcher in the 1980s, came up with the idea that people go through different stages of maturity in their belief systems, inspired by Piaget’s theories around childhood psychological development.
In adult communities and organizations, it can be helpful to reflect on where your organization sits in his stages of faith maturity.
Fowler’s first two stages of development relate to childhood, so they are less relevant to adult communities and organizations
Here are stages 3-5 in his model of faith development:
- Stage 3 — one’s belief system is heavily influenced by those with authority in a person's life. There is a strong emphasis on the authority of institutions and “sacred texts.”
- Stage 4 — one has an internal sense of what is right and wrong, often criticizing or leaving one’s childhood faith; the individual is highly judgmental of others’ beliefs.
- Stage 5 — one awakens to a broader perspective, allowing for the validity of others’ beliefs even if they contradict one’s own.
When looking at political organizations, religious groups, and even companies, one can find a number of organizations that embody earlier stages of maturity.
As much as possible, aim to create a “Stage 5” community or organization.
Do your best to create a community that respects each individual’s internal locus of authority and respects others' beliefs and practices.
#14 - Sanctification
Sanctification is a specific type of ritual that connects an everyday activity to a sense of the “sacred.”
It’s basically a way of intentionally ascribing greater meaning to everyday activities, resulting in more enjoyment and impact for its participants.
And the ritual or activity doesn't have to be inherently religious in nature — in one study, researchers found that couples that sanctified sex enjoyed sex more… and had more of it!
For builders of secular organizations, it can be helpful to reflect on what activities your community holds to be “sacred” and to find ways to invite individuals into a sense of connection to something larger than themselves.
How to define the “Sacred” in a secular setting? I like to think of this as reminding people of their connection to something larger than themselves: nature, a group, a virtue, or the broader human condition.
Reflect regularly on how your community connects your members to something larger than themselves. How can you help them cultivate that connection on a regular basis?
Each of these ideas and frameworks is immensely powerful, and with study and practice, can change the way you lead groups and help you to bring more connection and meaning to other peoples’ lives.
Moreover, the above only scratches the surface… We'll be following up with more in-depth explorations of these and other ideas in future posts.
Have another framework or concept that’s changed the way you think about community and organization design? We want to hear about it!
Ping me on Twitter, and would love to learn more.