Resilience in a community is not simply about recovering from challenging situations but also about preventing them and creating paths for the community to evolve. The article explores resilience through 4 different areas: capacity, communication, governance and sustainability. It also touches on the effects of decentralization, and how growth affects resilience.
Communities often come together in very informal ways: someone gathers people with similar interests or experiences or a group of people assembles around a shared interest or behind a common cause. A sense of belonging and trust is built over time through shared experiences and conversations. The informality lets the community evolve rapidly and organically, yet it also allows challenges and conflict to arise. That's where resilience comes in.
As important as it is, creating resilience can often feel tedious and not contributing directly to the core purpose or activities of the community. Much of building resilience is about agreements, rules, roles and hairy topics like power or processes that either preempt or resolve challenges.
Resilience comes from the Latin word “jump back” or “recoil” and has its root in “leap”. In systems thinking, resilience refers to a system returning to its original state and preserving the same function, structure and identity after internal or external pressures. In communities, though, the current state is merely the foundation on which change and growth is built on. The Boulder Center for Resilience defines it very pointiantly as” the capacity to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce forward in the face of shocks or stressors”.
In the Close Knit framework members care for each other and their shared vision and purpose through Belonging and Trust. In turn this necessitates resilience to preserve, evolve and grow what a community has collectively created. The three elements of Belonging, Trust and Resilience make up the community fabric. Resilience is what gives this fabric the ability to stretch, adapt and extend while being strong enough not to tear or fray.
Resilience is created through activities in four areas: capacity, communication, governance and sustainability. Before we look at them in detail I want to touch on one important aspect that affects all of those areas: how centralized or decentralized a community is.
Centralized to Decentralized
Communities, like all networks, fall somewhere on the spectrum between centralized and decentralized. In very basic terms centralized communities have the advantage of speed and control whereas decentralized communities can have a further reach and more adaptability. Part of that adaptability and reach is due to the fact that large parts can be self-organized. On one hand, this self-organization is extremely powerful as it gives everyone the opportunity and possibility to act. On the other hand, if these efforts are not well aligned, they can lead to chaos.
This kind of collaboration and integration is very challenging and becomes even more so with scale. If you look at many of our larger communities, such as our government, they are mostly centralized, compared to smaller communities like your local club or community garden, which tend to be more decentralized. This has to do with the complexity of managing many different opinions and ideas and unifying them in common stories or collectively agreed upon processes.
You will see how scale and organization of efforts along the spectrum of decentralization play into capacity, communication, governance and sustainability.
Capacity is about how members contribute to and benefit from the community. It’s the capacity around the relationships they build, the skills and resources that they bring, and what members collectively co-create. These can be tangible in the form of goods and services, the spaces and places they create for each other or intangible in form of emotional support or joy they provide to one another. It’s both what members can contribute, and what others or the community as a whole can offer them. This capacity determines the opportunities and possibilities within the community, but also what the community is capable of achieving in the world.
This capacity can be reflected in an internal or external purpose of the community. Internal when its for its members, like at the Park Slope Food Coop, a high quality yet affordable cooperative supermarket in Brooklyn (more on them later). An external purpose could be Greenpeace, where a large distributed group of people is trying to have an outsize effect on how we engage with our environment.
Much of what we do with others is about communication and its many flavors. We’ll focus on 3 of them: Storytelling, documentation and feedback.
Storytelling helps us unify our actions around a shared dream or goal that a community is striving for. Its a powerful organizing and communication medium and can help us understand the larger picture while giving us relatable examples. Yuval Harari has detailed how pivotal stories are in our human evolution in his three books about humankind and our culture. On a smaller and more pragmatic scale, stories can become powerful mediums of knowledge sharing and common processes. These in turn allow new members to effectively contribute and new work to be integrated into the larger whole.
“Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories.” — Yuval Noah Harari
Documentation on past decisions or instructions on a process, acts as a centralized source of truth for members across branches of the network. This becomes especially important the more decentralized a community is in order to align the many parallel and disparate efforts. The Park Slope Food Coop for example has 17,000 members who do 70% of the work. A daunting task, which is why they have very detailed rules and processes. In the 30 years that the Coop has existed much has been written about it and the complexity of operations and its drawbacks, yet in my time as a member there, I have not come across a single rule or process that felt unreasonable or unjustified. Granted there is a lot of redundancy and emphasis on processes, but all are in an effort to keep the community’s work aligned and resolve issues preemptively.
Feedback's core tenets are about how we talk and listen to each other and deal with complex, contentions and difficult situations. Differences in values, beliefs or norms, none of which have an objective truth or right answer in addition to communication styles and misunderstandings often form the basis of conflict. In many cases it’s less about what happened but how we dealt with it. A good feedback and resolution process is based on the principles of nonviolent communication, that emphasize our experience and feelings rather than making assumptions about the intentions of others. Another helpful framework is Otto Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening that help focus the attention on and align with the speaker.
People collaborate on a foundation of values and agreements, that are translated into rules and processes, which support decision making in an orderly fashion. A lot of this is about power and who has access to resources, the ability to make and execute on decisions. As you might have guessed this is one of the more expansive and complicated topics reaching from who sets the narrative, over what happens to marginalized voices, or the decision making processes and if voting is based on consensus or consent.
The goal should always be to empower as many members as possible, as this allows the community to better self organize and create a stronger sense of belonging through ownership of ideas and decisions. As discussed in my article on belonging, a strong sense of belonging is created not only by a member belonging to a community but also by the community belonging to them.
It’s also essential to be explicit about governance, values, power and ownership, as this forces a community to realize and carefully consider its organizing dynamics. Fascinatingly we actually have a strong urge to behave in line with the expectations of our peers. For more on that see Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments from the 1950’s.
In addition to being explicit, it is most helpful to translate rules into actionable processes. For example if a guiding principle is to be self-reliant and self organized, a helpful way of expressing that is letting members know that they can always initiate a task on their own and loop others in rather than wait for others to start.
Think of a co-living community or even your family's household – it works best when duties and responsibilities follow a posted schedule, lapses have clear penalties and members know how best to engage the group in a decision making process and everyone feels empowered to speak up and be heard.
Healthy communities are powered by a reciprocal loop of contributions between members and the community. This means that as much as members give, they also need to get something out of being part of the community. What people give and receive can be a plethora of things: goods, services, support, a listening ear or friendship.
This might sound transactional but its not necessarily. To me, transactional or generous have to do with trust, time and kind of interaction. The less sure you are that someone will return a favor, the faster and in the same form you want it repaid the more transactional your interaction is. In contrast, if you have faith that you will be helped when you need it, however you need it, even far into the future you’re giving and receiving generously.
The bottom line is that all this requires members to participate. The challenge is that often members have different engagement levels, based on their current life situations and priorities. A community builder should always expect this and be prepared to try to find out what needs and motivations members have, so that a lurker can become a contributing member and relieve some of the pressures from highly engaged members. In some instances a member might have not found a good way to contribute or even know where to start. That said it’s important to realize though that people are part of many different communities and that engagement levels will vary over time and by community and those flows and ebbs are normal and test a communities resilience.
Often much of the work falls back to the founding members, community builder or core team and it can quickly become overwhelming. It’s important to find a balance between contributing time and energy and in return being sustained by the community.
Growth is often misunderstood as a driving force for sustainability. It’s undeniably important, yet it's often reduced to a few basic metrics like growth of memberships or growth of funds. Membership growth, especially when it happens fast, can actually be quite counterproductive and lead to lots of governance and sustainability challenges. Growth can happen in many different areas such as relationships among members, personal growth or through the community's outputs and efforts. Rather than growth strictly being quantitative it can also be qualitative.
Belonging, Trust & Resilience
A strong sense of belonging and trust are needed in every community, especially in its inception and early days. As things mature, more members join and more efforts are underway by members, and building resilience to align efforts becomes increasingly important.
Resilience starts with understanding its degree of decentralization, if you have an internal or external purpose and what the community's capacities are to achieve or work towards that purpose. A big part of that resilience comes from creating the right governance structure, inclusive, comprehensive yet not too complex processes and making rules that are explicit and actionable. Lastly resilience is built by operating on an energy and time net positive budget, by engaging all members and ensuring people's needs, desires and ambitions are met and focusing on the growth of members and their relationships.
When Belonging, Trust and Resilience come together a powerful flywheel is created that makes membership desirable and the members's efforts flourish. I hope this framework and its principles will help you build strong and thriving communities.