My latest post for the Stanford Social Innovation Review is now up – you can check it out and join the conversation there; or read the repost below!

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Last year I used the metaphor of “gardening vs landscaping” to outline some of the key attributes I believe make for successful community building, on or offline. The basic idea:

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.

Lately, I have had the opportunity to chat with various colleagues like Bonnie Koenig, Debra Askanase and others about the topic of cross-platform community building. The way I look at it, the issues and best practices are just as clearly linked to the idea of gardening as other community building approaches are in my previous post. Here’s what I mean:

Cross-Platform Community Building :: Tending to Multiple Flowerbeds

The internet is huge, there are literally countless platforms where people are forming community. Your organization, whether it has an organizational presence there or not, has people interested in your services, programs, mission or cause talking about it and everything else all over the social web – from mainstream networks like Facebook and Twitter to niche communities on Ning or even forums (some branded, some not).  As much as the temptation may be to want to call out to everyone interested to join you in your place, the best thing you can do is recognize that not everyone flourishes and thrives in the same place, with the same treatment, and even the same amount of visibility. We should approach our community building work with the intention to create thrivable community on and offline, and in order to do that successfully we need to take time to recognize which elements contribute to various groups and segments of our community thriving.

Let’s look at the way a gardener can tend to multiple flowerbeds in one big backyard and the way that translates to our work of building community across the web:

Analysis and evaluation: the garden is visiting all of the flowerbeds or cultivated areas of the yard (and all the ground in between!) so has the best view to continually evaluate and analyze what’s working and what it isn’t, where things are dry or over-watered, where the weeds are cropping up and where the birds and bugs are hanging out. The garden can make decisions based on all this data to keep the whole yard in a thrivable place, but also recognizes the need to give part of that evaluation opportunity to the plants themselves by giving them a chance without assuming one can only grow in certain conditions or prefers being near only certain others.

Cross-pollinating: just like a bee, as the gardener goes from each bed to the other, she is helping cross-pollinate the plants; in our case, this means sharing conversations, ideas, and insights across the greater network. Highlighting opportunities, events, or conversations of interest across various platforms to prevent groups operating in silos when they may be interested in discussing the same/similar issues – the difference is the preference for where online to talk, not necessarily what to talk about.

Transplanting: as part of the analysis and cross-pollination, the gardener is also taking steps to ensure that if a plant is really not thriving in it’s current location, that it can have the chance to try out another place in the garden – maybe one with more or less sunshine, fewer or maybe even more plants nearby, anything to give it a new opportunity to grow. In our use of community building, this can be seen simply in sharing the links between platforms when sharing content or stories from one to another, or by highlighting the needs of users or groups to the larger network.

What do you think? What would you add about cross-platform community building? What issues is your organization facing or examples can you share?

Want to keep talking about community building across platforms? Join me for a monthly online chat!

New on SSIR: Community Building in a Big Backyard
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