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5 tips for community stewardship
When we talk about community AKA the buzzword of the 2020s, we have to be clear about the terms we're using.
If you're building a community, here are some ways you might describe your job:
- Community builder
- Community manager
- Community designer
- Owner (hopefully not this one)
- ✨ Steward ✨
Let's start with defining stewardship
I actually hadn't heard people describe themselves as community stewards in the modern context until I spoke at Topia's ConfluencerCon, at a panel about community stewardship.
It was an uplifting discussion for many reasons, but the primary one was that we're finally decoupling the idea of building something with hoarding power! What fun! Stewardship in the environmental movement has long been contrasted with dominion. In the former, you're taking care of something. In the latter, you own it.
This applies to communities too. Here's my favorite definition from Community Commons.
Stewardship is defined as “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” When applied to our collective work to advance healthy, equitable, sustainable communities, the concept describes leaders -- both people and organizations -- who take responsibility for forming working relationships to drive transformative change in regions and communities. Importantly, stewards within the context of our work to improve communities must have a vested interest in promoting an equity orientation in regard to purpose, power, and wealth.
They go further to highlight shared stewardship that ultimately promotes well-being and equity.
Why does stewardship matter?
Other than just "being good", here's some facts from Thriving Together.
- There is an 'Increasing perception that “we are all in it together”(up from 62% in the fall of 2018 to 90% in April 2020).'
- Communities are working across sectors to build inclusive, welcoming public spaces like parks, playgrounds, and riverfronts.
- 9 out of 10 American workers are willing to earn less money to do more meaningful work.
In other words, stewardship (instead of ownership) is the future. It's not a new concept by any means, but it's one we're recognizing we need to adhere to if we have any hope of working towards a thriving world.
Even if you're building a product community with a less lofty purpose, the way you look after your members and your community health will influence how your business is seen, and most likely, how it performs. Increasingly, people don't want to participate if they're not 'in it together' with others.
What are your responsibilities as a community steward?
You have to answer this question yourself as a community builder, but I found a few resources from Rethink Health that can provide a framework for you to think through.
- Sync individual and organizational interests to a shared vision. When conflict arises, you have to put aside your own vested interests in favor of the vision your community works towards. If you have a bread-making community where the vision is to teach 5 million kids how to make bread, and your high-tech members are offering you 1 million bucks to teach a year-long breadmaking course at Google, as a good community steward, you might turn them down since it would take away from your time teaching 5 million kids how to make bread. Or, you might negotiate: I'll do a weeklong session if Google donates $250,000 to Kids Making Bread.
- Cultivate a culture of belonging and inclusion. According to Rethink Health, "It’s the job of a steward to enable the broadest possible participation in the work to equitably transform that system". If you think your community is exempt from thinking about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, you... are wrong. There are no exceptions. (Unless you're a cult, in which case you are not a community.) Even if you're not working towards social change, this matters. Let's say your community teaches web design. A community owner who believes in dominion will prioritize their own web design content. A good community steward will invite in a diverse range of perspectives and experience, learning about issues that might not affect them. They might include a blind designer, who teaches the community about accessibility. They might include a designer from a rural village in India, who raises awareness about the lack of basic technological tooling. Through a culture of belonging and inclusion, more members are empowered to speak up and truly shape the community to reach its potential!
- Listen and learn. You have to take feedback. Not just reactively, but proactively. Find out what your members are saying — not just in surveys you send out after events, but what they tell you in your 1:1s, or casual notes they drop via email. There will be nothing that'll help you more as a community steward than to listen more than you talk. (This is a very hard lesson for me and I'm still learning.) In my journey as a community steward so far, I've learned to push a little harder, gently, on our more introverted members to ask them what they really want. What kinds of experiences they will participate in. What reminders they need. What makes them feel valued. As a community steward, you have to see your members as humans first; members second. Listen to their needs, and take action accordingly.
- Manage community governance equitably. As your community grows, you'll have more members taking on responsibilities that you might have previously done, like hosting events, posting discussion prompts, buying snacks, and raising funds. Whether or not this work is volunteer-based or paid, it must be governed equitably. This is why I'm fascinated (but not knowledgeable (yet)) about decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). DAOs are a new governance model made possible through blockchain technology that allows communities to be owned by members. DAOs hold the promise of cooperatives, which are also owned and governed by members, but DAOs have the extra step of being able to have more verifiable, transparent records of ownership. As a community steward, whether you're using blockchain or the barter system or a piece of paper to manage your community, you're in charge of governing the power structures. Big task, right? I really love Govrn's explanation of how they think about governance. There's a lot that's changing in this space, but one thing will continue being true: governance is important, and it's your job as a community steward to figure it out. 😘
- Measure health and wellbeing. If you're entrusted to take care of your baby (in this case, your community), you have to make sure you're actually taking care of it. You should know what you're measuring and what is a good indicator of health, and it's okay to keep learning on the go! I think the new parent analogy is actually great for this one. You're never going to know it all, but you should know what you're looking for, and you'll get better with time. Katie Patrick's effective action checklist is a cool tool for impact-minded communities. I also like CMX Hub's tool on measuring community health (and they actually used a baby-related analogy too, so I know I'm on the right track).
What are some communities you're part of that do this stewardship thing well? Whether it's your friend group, church, Twitter, or something else, I'm curious to learn more on this topic of stewardship and how we can use this concept to cultivate healthier, happier communities.