My latest post is up on the Stanford Social Innovation Review opinion blog.  You can read the full post and join the conversation on SSIR here. The post is copied below.

My current job title includes the term “Community Builder” and I get asked nearly every day just what that means: how do you build community? where is the community you want to build? how can I be a community builder online? Tips, secrets, ideas?!  I want to take a break from all the hard work building community (does that get a wink?) to share some of what I believe is the core of successful community building (on or offline).

“Community building” is about a lot of things.  Some people define it as organizing, especially around specific events, campaigns, legislation, or fundraising.  Others see it as specifically applying to online community spaces, like a social networking site.  I believe that community exists everywhere, really.  That the Internet is a huge community of people looking to connect with others like them to form smaller, more specific communities.  Those of us in positions to support those connections and collaborations are some of the luckiest people in the global network, acting as the email or Twitter post or blog reference that helps individuals make networked jumps to where they really want to be.

Gardening vs Landscaping

So, what’s the secret to successful community building? You guessed it: be a great gardener and avoid the temptation to landscape.  Here’s what that means:

  • A gardener only takes out the weeds; a landscaper takes out everything that isn’t part of the design.  Think about the number of beautiful plants or trees that have sprung up in parks, your yard, or even out in nature that weren’t “intended” to be there but quickly grew to be a valuable part of the ecosystem.
  • A gardener isn’t afraid to mix things around; a landscaper plans and plots and plants.  Sometimes you can’t know ahead of time just which plants will respond well or want more sun or shade so you need to be flexible.
  • When a storm hits, a gardener can remain open to planting anew and rejuvenating others; a landscaper may just order more of the same.  Sometimes it takes a storm to realize which plants just weren’t going to make it or which were able to stick it out.
  • When in doubt, a gardener will try more plants or kinds of plants and see which take root; a landscaper may default to less.  What about the plants you had never used before to know about and how they took root, flowered, and bolted up right before your eyes?

Clearly, this is all very metaphorical here with the back yard options.  It is, though, meant to paint a picture:

The Gardener creates an ecosystem open to change, available to new groups, and full of fresh opportunities to emerge naturally.  The approach is focused on organic collaboration and growth for the entire community.  The gardener is simply there to help, cultivate, and clear the weeds if/when they poke up.

The Landscaper creates an ecosystem that matches a preconceived design or pattern.  The approach is focused on executing a preconceived environment, regardless of how natural or organic it may be for the larger area.  The landscaper is there to ensure that everything stays just as planned.

Your Community

How can you apply these ideas to your community building? The first question I always ask myself when considering a new tool or functionality online, a new project or campaign, or even new partnerships or members is: “Is this something the Community wants or something I want?” It doesn’t matter what I want, really.  It matters what the Community wants.  And how do you know if or what they are interested in? ASK!  Be sure to always provide opportunities for your community members or those who come across your work to share their ideas about what they would like to see, how they’d like to connect with each other and how they would like to work with you.  And when considering anything new, ask for feedback and share your ideas and plans ahead of time.  You may be surprised, but your Community often has even better ideas than you!

What do you think? Do you have other ideas about successful community building? Have a great example or case study you want to share?  Looking forward to more!

You can read the full post and join the conversation on SSIR here.

Online Community Building: Gardening vs Landscaping
  • As an activist/Social Entrepreneur who both teaches social media, and was trained in Landscape Design & Horticulture, I was struck by your metaphor.

    The public sector, top-down, well-funded part of the Voluntary & Community Sector definitely fits the prescriptive landscaping view, which occasionally produces great works (at great expense), but is a long way removed from people’s lives.

    We on the ground garden away in our patches, but en masse, and with a little Guerilla Gardening [1], we can spread improvements to our environments 🙂

    – Richard


  • Thanks, Richard!

    I think you use just the right word: prescriptive. Social change, community impact, and organizing are NOT sciences. We can’t prescribe ahead of time just what is needed or what will work. We have to build systems flexible enough to continuously change and improve to make larger/deeper impact and better serve the community involved.

    In this metaphor of gardening, then, what is the real-world equivalent of seed bombs? 🙂

    (Seeds bombs defined here:

    Thanks for joining the conversation!

  • Thanks Amy… Really sums up a user-led/’lite-touch’/hands-off approach. ‘Less-is-more’ really is the key to community building, if the people involved are going to be invested in the change that you/they want to see.

    Often amongst those of us who do this kind of work (online or offline), it’s tempting to ‘over do it’, as we can feel like it helps justify our roles (not always appreciated by the outside world). In fact, it is often a matter of NOT doing, even if you think you know all the answers. And that is the real skill/talent in community building; being able to stand back (as much as possible) and resist the urge to do it your own way, no matter how much you think your way is right… the garden may end up looking like you think it should, but it just as easily might not, and that’s a GOOD thing!

    You can tell your flower garden to grow vegetables all day, but if the soil isn’t right for it, the new seeds won’t take…


  • Thanks for joining in, Liam!

    I think the urge to dive in and even “take over” when serving as the community builder is not only ever-present, but incredible important to overcome. Just as you say, being able to stand back and support the community growing on its own is the best thing a community builder can do, even if it feels like he/she isn’t “doing” his/her job!

    This makes me think about measurement and if the urge, as you say, to justify one’s job as a community builder leads to over doing the management or structure, etc., is that because the way we measure the success of the group is based too much on pre-decided attributes of the community? How can we be sure our measurement doesn’t impair the organic growth or new directions of the community?

    Clearly that’s another post in itself, but love to get the mind running!

    Thanks for your ideas!

  • Thanks for a great post, Amy!

    I was particularly excited to see this quote: “Is this something the Community wants or something I want?” It doesn’t matter what I want, really. It matters what the Community wants.

    As the Community Media Coordinator for Cambridge Community Television in Cambridge, MA, this is a great reminder for those of us who work in nonprofit community spaces, both virtual and physical.

  • Thanks, Colin!

    Would love to hear if you have any examples from your work at CCT in Cambridge – what kind of “community spaces” either on or off-line do you engage regularly, what have been the biggest lessons you have learned?

    Thanks again for joining in!

  • The measurement piece is very true – I can’t help but sometimes feel there’s an inherant contradiction between current public/voluntary sector accountability measures, and the organic nature of communities. The second you start to say ‘x’ should be the planned outcome of ‘y’, you start to take away from the necessary – and usually messy! – freedom of natural community growth. It’s not to say that planned interventions (online or in the real world) cannot be succesful, but simply that they need to allow things to shape themselves, with the appropriate support to flourish indepedently.

    Local community campaigns often try to pre-determine their outcomes without legitimatly involving those who will/should benefit from them. Thus, even when their desired ‘change’ happens, it isn’t always accepted or appreciated by the people who might be its greatest champions, because they didn’t have the chance to contribute meaningfully, or do it themselves…

  • Cheryl Ives

    Thanks for this. I was just struck last week by a similar metaphor while trimming the suckers on my tomato plants. They look like good, healthy, strong growth, but they are not fruitful. They just suck the resources. Paring is part of good gardening and it frees the fruit to grow.

  • I loved reading this article – especially the definitions of what a gardener is vs. a landscaper. I am definitely a gardener as I can’t bear to relocate anything that has struggles so hard to find a niche for itself.

    I agree that all the hard work is providing something that the community wants but persuasion about what you love yourself must come into the equation somewhere?

  • I like these contrasting metaphors SO MUCH. I find one of the biggest challenges is that category of unknown needs. Sometimes asking community members what their needs are isn’t enough. They don’t have answers…YET. Also, you need to observe closely– look for what is there but also look for what isn’t there. It takes an experienced gardener to know what might be under that layer of soil!

    Thanks for this post!

  • So true, Liam! I definitely think the contradiction you speak of is present and actually oppressive for many. It’s a snake eating its tail in some ways – organizations know they have to measure/track/report and decide on what/how things will be measured and deemed successful or not before they even begin (because they have to write them into the grant or project proposal)!

    I definitely believe we need to engage those in the community being “helped” when we design any of our work, whether it’s the organization’s goals, specific projects or programs, and even campaigns. I’ve written about that on the blog before as well (you can see some via the “community” tag:

    Thanks for your contributions!

  • That’s a great point, GardenMad1 – As the Community Builder, we do still have a responsibility to be part of that community and share our voice, too. We don’t get to be louder than anyone else, but we do get to put our ideas in the mix!

    Thanks for adding to the conversation 🙂

  • Thanks, Sylvia! You make a great point: we can’t expect the community or individual members to know what they want. That’s why it’s a great idea to be open, provide the channel for input/feedback if people have something to share, but mostly share ideas or proposals for feedback. It’s easier for a community to say it wants a discussion forum instead of a blog (for example) when presented with a survey or opportunity to vote, etc., than it is for members to just start asking for a forum. So, part of the job for the Community Builder is to analyze activity and be one step ahead, thinking of what could continue growing or helping the community do what it wants to do (enable the interaction or growth required) and highlight the options back to the community.

    Thanks for joining the conversation!

  • Pingback: Gardening the system « Path To Sustainable()

  • Pingback: Cultivating a Stronger Co-op Sector « On Co-op Advocacy()

  • Hi Amy,

    Thank you for the wonderful metaphor. It really gets to the heart of what we try to do everyday in the co-operative sector.

    Cultivating the power and desires of people is the first step in creating real change.

  • Pingback: ScienceBlogs Channel : Technology | blogcable()

  • Pingback: 3 Steps to Determine Your Website Functionality and Content – Marketing Funnel Revisited «

  • Paul –

    Thanks so much – glad to hear it resonates with you and I’d love to hear any examples you have from the co-op sector that illustrate this! I couldn’t agree with you more that we have to nurture people individually first to build a movement for change.

  • Pingback: Sustainable Community Building [for Humans] | Online Community Report()

  • AngelaReitan

    I have done both landscaping and gardening.  Unfortunately, despite the ability to do significantly more than just mowing the grass and pulling weeds, I am not capable of passing a landscaping exam because I know nothing about paving driveways, installing water features, and other more serious things which would appear on the test for the business license.  However, I would like to be able to dig holes and plant rose bushes wherever my clients wish.  I’ve had to improve and reposition edging, move gravel and redesign gardens (but rarely), and have even been asked on the occasion to move a tree or shrub from the back yard to the front yard and vice versa.  I intend to maintain clients in the real estate industry.  When they cannot manage to maintain their houses, I would be hired on to do the necessary work.  Does anyone know if it is possible to attain a business license in gardening and occasionally do the small landscaping routines like installing edging without having to get the landscaping license?