The Art of Building a Community

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Swati Sahni
IvyPlus Network

We are alive right now because we are enjoying the right conditions for our survival. We are alive because of the countless meals we have eaten during our life. Because the sun shines on the earth and the clouds bring rain, so the crops can grow. Someone tends to the crops and harvests them, someone else brings them to market, and yet another person makes a meal from them that we can eat. Each time this process is repeated, the interdependence of our lives links us with more and more people, and with more and more rays of sun and drops of rain.

Ultimately, there is nothing and no one with whom we are not connected. Buddha coined the term “interdependence” to describe this state of profound connectedness. Interdependence is the nature of reality. We are all linked, and we all serve as conditions affecting each other.

The world has never felt smaller and yet more people than ever before are sharing that they feel alone. Families are becoming smaller, we don't know our neighbors very well and we are hesitant to ask for help despite the thousands of ‘connections’ we form on social media platforms. Yet, we are all still seeking deeper connection and meaning.

This new world we live in provides an opportunity for communities to come together around shared values or identities. Our neighborhoods are communities. Our university alumni clubs are communities and so are our local running groups.

Companies like WeWork, ProductHunt, and Pinterest are calling themselves ‘community businesses’ by putting people at the center of their businesses and building products around them.

The reason communities work is that each person who is a member of the community contributes to the mission in different ways. They contribute time, money, attention; some contribute more, some less. Communities are scalable because they leverage the wisdom and power of the group. They are sustainable because they are decentralized, and rely less on a select few to create all the value.

I have been building IvyPlus Network, a community of alumni from the top global universities for the last few years. What started as an informal group who met over 'alumni mixers' have since then become a highly engaged online and offline community of 15000 members spread across 15 cities in India, the Middle East, Europe, and the US.

For as long as I can remember, I have been creating micro-communities to solve for my own problems. As a 10-year-old, I mobilized other kids in my neighborhood to go door to door and ask our neighbors to not burst crackers on Diwali. I started North Delhi Cyclists, a cycling club in my neighborhood to motivate myself to bike more regularly. I created EdTalk India, to start a dialogue amongst people who care about reforming school education in India.

I created these communities with the assumption that there would be others in the world who cared about these issues as much as I did. Since I was building for myself, I stayed authentic to my needs and thus the needs of several others who joined these communities.

In building IvyPlus Network, I have learned a thing or two about people, relationships, motivation and what drives people to take action. Here are some insights that I have learned in my journey so far.

  1. Go to the People: The first principle that's worth paying attention to is that people are at the center of community building. To find out what people need in a community, you should go where the people are. In the early days of building IvyPlus Network, I would show up at university networking events to interact with alumni on their problems and areas in which they were seeking support. Through that, I learned that ‘my community’ wanted more consistency in event programming and an opportunity to connect with others in their sectors.
  2. Live your values: In the early stages of building a community, it helps to demonstrate to members how you’d like them to engage. In an online forum, post often and try to help your members as much as you can. In physical meet-ups, meet as many people as possible, and make them feel genuinely welcome. Community members would soon start emulating the values you demonstrate and also start feeling a sense of belonging.
  3. Call to action: A community has to solve a real problem for real people. Whether its a community of young mothers or web developers, the community members should know why they are a part of it. If it's not explicitly stated, people might not know how to engage and thus leave or stay disengaged. It's important for the community leader to keep reinforcing this especially as new members join.
  4. Leadership: A self-serving and self-aggrandizing leader who is far more committed to serving his or her own needs over the community will not be able to inspire action in the long term. Sometimes, as leaders bringing people together, it's easy to become convinced of our own greatness. We can help avoid this by remembering that we can lead for the long term only when we’re serving others. 
  5. Find your early-adopters: An early-adopter is a very special person. They give you constant feedback, talk about you to their friends while expecting a not so amazing experience from you. They know it’s too early for you to have it all figured it out. I started IvyPlus Network with 50 of my friends and within a few months, they started adding their friends as they saw the value in being a part of our community. Till this date, we have not spent any marketing dollars and the community has grown entirely organically, through word of mouth.
  6. Building Trust: There are a lot of things money can buy, trust is not one of them. Trust is won through constantly asking yourself what you can give to your people, by putting their needs first and through constantly practicing humility. It's not something that can be created overnight. Do the right thing, be patient and consistently deliver value to your community to win their trust in the long term.
  7. Choose Your Platform: Choosing the right platform is one of the most important steps to building a strong community. Don't just settle for passive engagement metrics like driving clicks and likes. Choose a platform that engages the consumer in a fun and easy way. For us, Facebook worked out well as it didn't cost us anything and helped us quickly get to work. Over time, as your community's needs evolve, you always have the option of exploring other platforms.
  8. Engagement:  For the community leader, its important to support efforts that keep conversations going, continue to build & strengthen relationships and unite & celebrate the community. It is only by listening, reading and understanding them that you can serve them. In building IvyPlus Network, I used 'polls' extensively to get a sense of what our members wanted, whether it was for the kind of meet-ups they wanted us to organize or the kind of content they found useful. This helped drive engagement as community members felt more involved, and we kept making changes to our product based on what our members wanted.
  9. The power of in-person meetups: While digital interactions will continue to grow, the power of face-to-face meet-ups cannot be emphasized enough. For communities, a shared experience can make people feel more connected to each other. The 200+ meet-ups that we have organized for our community are at the core of what we do at IvyPlus Network. Whether it's a wine tasting or a coffee brewing session, glacier hiking in Iceland or canoeing in Jordan, a conversation on the blockchain or artificial intelligence, it is by curating these experiences for our members, that we helped create a sense of belonging amongst them.
  10. Use Data and Stories as Tools: As a community leader, you should constantly be speaking with your members to understand how they are engaging with the community. Assess, collect, interpret the data and stories to make well-informed decisions, monitor progress and be responsive to new conditions. I have borrowed extensively from the design thinking toolkit to understand our members and their needs better.

In communities, we can be vulnerable and still know that we belong. Being able to connect people will have a profound effect on the well-being of those we serve no matter why we bring people together. Building communities will nourish our souls and of those who are a part of them. So take a moment to think of a problem you're passionate about, think of other people around you who could possibly care about it and decide whether it would be worthwhile for you to create a community around it. 

Swati Sahni is the Founder of IvyPlus Network, a social and professional network of alumni from the top global universities.

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