By Hari Sood, Heather Turner, and Alexandra Araujo Alvarez.
This blog post is part of our Collaborations Workshop 2023 speed blog series.
No specific method or framework can be applied to all communities to ensure they are healthy. Communities have different aims and resources, and their members will have a range of skill sets and needs. All these factors, and more, will impact the best approach to building and sustaining a healthy community. Nevertheless, common traits appear time and again across communities whose impact can be evaluated.
This post, the result of a discussion group at Collaborations Workshop 2023, identifies two foundational issues that a healthy community is built on. Common behavioural or operational traits are then considered in terms of ‘patterns’ (positive traits for a healthy community) and ‘anti-patterns’ (traits that can end up harming the community).
Aims of the community
The foundation of a healthy community is an agreed mission or purpose. If the scope and aims of the community are clear, then this will help in day-to-day activities as decisions can be made accordingly.
Form of governance
Alongside the aims, a form of governance should be defined. Different forms of community governance could be used. In a small group, it can be effective to work by consensus. Co-operative governance can work on a larger scale, but it tends to require more commitment than is expected in typical professional/interest-based communities. For these larger communities, decision-making often needs to be delegated to a smaller group, which can be as small as one person, as in the case of a benevolent dictator. When there are designated leaders, more care needs to be taken: how are the leaders selected? Are they selected “for life” or will different people serve for a short term? The form and processes may change over time, but it is important for community health that they are well-defined.
The following behavioural or operational traits are patterns of a healthy community:
- Documentation: making resources and outputs from the community easily accessible for community members and beyond.
- Transparency: being open about what is happening within the community, and how decisions are made.
- Communication: clear communication streams and processes across the community.
- Engagement: different ways for community members to engage depending on their knowledge/skillset/time available.
- Accessibility: being visible and inclusive across spaces/languages/contexts for different community members.
- Community goals: able and willing to update mission, purpose and focus areas based on community feedback.
- Empowerment: providing spaces and opportunities for community members to proactively engage and contribute.
- Diversity of thought: fostering collaboration across contexts and backgrounds for representative decisions and outputs.
- Infrastructure: ensuring a smooth and easy process for co-creation and delivery.
Anti-patterns are traits that communities can easily fall into, which can harm community health and make it difficult to sustain. These include:
- Lack of open guidelines, governance, decision-making processes or clear leadership roles: the community documentation should contain detailed information about the community’s aims, the ways of working, how decisions are made and how people in leadership roles will communicate and document decisions. These documents should be clear, accessible, easy to follow and open to feedback. They should be flexible enough to be updated whenever the community’s aims change.
- One person doing it all: healthy communities should be collaborative and therefore relying on one person doing all is not sustainable. An open structure should be established, allowing community members to understand how team members can contribute to the community and its importance. The onboarding process for new community members should clearly explain how to contribute to the community and the codes of conduct.
- Not listening to peoples’ ideas: a sustainable healthy community should be open to new ideas and provide spaces for feedback, discussions and community improvements. It is crucial that community members, especially the ones in leadership roles open the conversations to most of the community members and document all the decisions in a space where people can give feedback.
Whilst the outputs from our discussion group at Collaborations Workshop 2023 provide some indication as to what does and doesn’t make a healthy community, it is important to note that all communities are very context-specific. Following all the patterns will not automatically make a community healthy and similarly failing to follow a pattern or falling into an anti-pattern does not automatically make a community unhealthy.
This is why we have separated the more foundational questions of aims, purpose and governance from ‘patterns’ and ‘antipatterns’ - whilst the identified patterns and antipatterns will need to be explored and assessed on a community-by-community basis, we believe it critical for any community to be aligned on its purpose and methods of governance in order to thrive.