Tag Archives | Community

What Makes a Successful Community?


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The Backstory

In a few days you will get to read the next installment in the Captains Curious series, which was written by creativity expert Connie Harryman. Connie and I became friends through our mutual involvement in an online community for Organization Development professionals, and we both serve on the Operations Team (the board) for this community.

Last night in our semi-monthly board meeting, Connie mentioned to the group that she had written a guest post for my blog, and she told the group that this was really a success for the community. It demonstrates the benefits of being an active participant in a community: We would never have met, much less become colleagues and friends, were it not for our active involvement with this group.

The Question

This got me thinking about communities (one of my favorite subjects). In particular, it got me thinking about them in a new way, with a question: What is “success” for a community?

I started thinking about the communities of which I am a part: Various online communities, two Master Mind groups, two business networking groups, a local community of coaches, the community of people who volunteer for the Sandra J. Wing Healing Therapies Foundation, the community in which I live, various circles of friends, and my extended family. How would I gauge the “success” of each of those?

The Real Question
This raises a core question: How do we define “community?” This is a question I have been investigating for a couple of years.[1] Different people define “community” differently, but one consistent thread is that community members have something in common. In addition, communities often have a shared purpose.

So a Community Is Successful When…

So, it seems to me, one could assert that a community is “successful” to the extent that it achieves the goals that arise from that purpose, to the extent that it is true to its purpose.

In the case of the Global Brain Trust (see the first paragraph), part of its purpose is to help organization development professionals to connect, share knowledge and collaborate. Since it was the platform that allowed Connie and I to do that, her guest post for my blog is indeed a success for the community.

Surprise Benefits

This has me thinking about my other communities, and their purposes, and the extent to which they are “successful.” Which also has me thinking about the benefits of membership in a community, and how sometimes those benefits aren’t part of the stated purpose.

For example, the purpose of the Sandra J. Wing Healing Therapies Foundation is to provide financial grants to cancer patients who are going through traditional treatments, so that they can pay for healing therapies that help them cope with the effects of those treatments (therapies that usually are not covered by insurance). Those of us who are part of the community of volunteers know that we are helping to achieve this purpose, and the higher purpose of making life better for cancer patients and their families. But there is another benefit, which I can’t really say is part of the purpose, but it certainly contributes to my desire to be a part of this community: I get to hang around and work with some of the most amazing, extraordinary people. And I have to say that is true for most of the other communities I choose to be a part of.

The surprise benefits, like that one, that come out of my participation in my various communities are the “secret destinations” in one of my favorite quotes:

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber

The Purpose May Change

Sometimes the purpose may expand, or it may shift.

For example, one of the mastermind groups I participate in was formed by local people who had attended Marcia Wieder’s Become an Inspiring Speaker[2] program last fall. The initial purpose was to give us a forum to support one another in continuing to expand our skills as Speakers. Over time, the number of members shrank but the purpose expanded to include supporting one another in a variety of ways as we build our businesses. (And we have become very close.)

Although we tend to think of communities as being stable and grounded, they are not; they evolve, people come and go, and we are all fellow travelers in the best sense of the word.

Which leads me to another thought: Perhaps one higher purpose of all communities is to provide support of one kind or another to its members, and to facilitate support between members. It is this that makes it a community, not just a demographic.

Our Role

All of this has me thinking about my role in helping my communities to be successful. While some communities provide a safety net to members who cannot contribute, it is the mutual support and support of the community by its members that makes it possible for the community to support its members. A community is not a one-way channel to which its members are entitled.

So that’s what’s on my mind this morning: Gratitude to the people in the communities of which I am a part, and a reminder of the responsibility I share to help my communities – and the individuals in them – to thrive.

Questions for You

What communities are you a part of? What are their purposes? What benefits to do you receive – whether expected or unexpected? And how do you contribute to the health and success of your communities?


Back to Post [1] I have been interviewing people on this exact subject, so stay tuned. If you would like to help with the transcriptions, please contact me in the comments below or at susan at susantblake dot com.


Back to Post [2] Affiliate Link


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Two Old Women – A Parable


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Once Upon a Time, two old women were abandoned by their tribe during a horribly long, bitter winter when the tribe did not have enough to eat. Members of the tribe did not want to do it, but they saw no other way to survive. There was not enough food to go around, and the old women slowed them down as they moved from place to place. There was much fear among tribe members – fear of the winter, fear of doing wrong, fear of starving, fear of cannibalism, fear of being left behind with the old women if they spoke up.

So no one spoke up.

The old women were aghast, and hurt, and angry. They could easily have given up, succumbed to self-pity and the cold.

But they did not.

The tribe did leave them their tent, the daughter of one of the women left strips of animal hide, and the grandson of one surreptitiously left them his hatchet. The old women decided to use these things, and the skills they had forgotten but once used regularly, to catch rabbits, build shelters and keep the coals of their fire alive. Despite their aches and pains and broken hearts, they moved to a new campsite and survived through to the next spring. They proceeded to build a comfortable shelter and stockpile dried fish, meat, and clothing made from the skins of the animals they had caught.

The two old women made a comfortable life for themselves, but they were quite wary of their former tribe members. They made sure that the place they chose for their winter home would be difficult to find, as they were afraid that the tribe would come back and steal what they had so carefully built over the summer.

The following winter, the tribe returned to the place where they had left the two old women. It was another difficult winter, and the tribe was nearly in as difficult a situation as they had been the previous year. They expected to find some evidence that the old women had died there, and were amazed – and hopeful – when they did not find that evidence. The chief, who had wrestled hard with the decision to abandon the old women, decided to do the right thing and sent his best scout and three hunters to search for the old women.

After a long search, the wise scout found the area where the two old women had established their camp. He smelled the faint smoke of their fire and called out to them.

Terrified, the two old women debated whether they should respond. They decided to face their fear and called back to the scout. The two old women shared some food with the four men, and they exchanged stories, warily.

The scout told the old women that the chief regretted leaving them behind and had sent him to find them, and that they meant them no harm. He also told them that the tribe was, once again, in dire straits and suffering great hardship.

The two old women again debated – what should they do? This was the tribe that had left them to die. Although they had more food than they could use by themselves, should they share?

The two old women recognized that they had the chance to do the right thing. Yet they also recognized that they were not ready for things to go back to the way they were.

They decided upon a compromise: They would share their wealth with the tribe, but they would maintain their separate camp. They had come to value their independence and relished the success they had made from reawakening and building upon their old skills.

In time, there were reconciliations and the two old women spent time with the young ones, teaching them the skills they had once forgotten, sharing their wisdom and enjoying new respect within the tribe.

*    *    *    *    *

I recently re-read this legend of the Athabascan Indians of the upper Yukon, which is movingly told by Athabascan writer Velma Wallis in the little book, Two Old Women. I was moved again by the many lessons this story has for us, lessons about fear, courage, perseverance, confidence, humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

But this time the story offered me another meaning. The last time I had read this story was long before the economic troubles that began in 2007, long before thousands of companies faced starvation and fear in the coming economic winter.

Two Old Women, I realized, is a parable for this time. It carries much food for thought: Millions of people were abandoned by their tribes during this winter, left to fend for themselves with only a hatchet and a few supplies – and their wits. For many there have been unexpected benefits – new skills, rediscovered skills, opportunities for independence. For many there has been malnutrition and frostbite on many levels. For some there has been reconciliation. For most things will never be the same.

What lessons do you take from this parable? What role would be yours in this story?

I was one of the tribe members, until I became one of the old women. I am pleased to say that I have survived – and thrived. I will also never be the same, and I am glad.

What about you? The story is not over; what role do you play, and do you wish to change it? Is reconciliation possible? If so, what shape should it take?

Note: I do not tell the story of the two old women and their people nearly as well as Velma Wallis. I encourage you to get a copy of Two Old Women and let this fine storyteller weave her tale for you.


Photo Credit: Ian Britton, www.freefoto.com

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