Building Community Capacity

The goal of many communities should be building capacity. This means developing their ability to plan and execute actions that help achieve their collective goals. It is actions such as recruiting, fundraising, promoting, creating information, helping members achieve their personal goals, connecting members, partnering with other organizations, lobbying, running events, and making an impact on the real world.

Many communities have low capacity. They can’t get their members to do anything. They provide information to members, but can’t get them to engage with it. They can’t create change in their community and lack dynamism. Little happens in these communities, and their impact is low. This is frustrating for leaders and active members of the community.

To develop capacity, a community must:

  1. Have engaged members. These are members who interact with others, spend time in the community, and care enough about the community to want to see it improve.
  2. Those members must be willing to invest their time and energy, as well as sacrifice personal gain for the gain of the community. They may receive rewards for their actions, but most of the benefits go to the whole community.
  3. Have some idea of what it wants “to do.” This can be goals or a vision of some kind, there must be a reason for the community to exist.
  4. Plan and organize themselves to achieve those goals. They must be able to create projects, assign responsibilities, and make progress towards completing those projects.

Low-capacity communities are lacking in nearly all these. Communities might have engaged members, who are willing to contribute to the greater good (saints as I’ve called them in the past) but fail to provide these members with a goal or a plan to work towards. Things happen because members often try to execute on their own vision and projects for the community. Others members will likely become lurkers, or worse, trolls and grifters. Low-capacity communities often create negative, aimless members. Adding new members isn’t a solution either, as they’ll face the same problems as existing ones.

Communities that don’t focus on building capacity instead often focus on identity and status games. This can create negativity, zero-sum fighting, and a feeling of emptiness. Members care about their status more because there is fewer ways to prove they are helping the community. High-capacity communities provide actions and goals which are obvious proof, compared to proving your identity. Think of people fighting over who is a bigger fan of a certain TV show or video game. “Winning” in this circumstance doesn’t help the community, only the winner’s ego.

On the flip side, communities that build capacity can create incredible things. As an example, Balaji Srinivasan outlines how a high-capacity community could turn into a “network state.”

A network state is a highly aligned online community with a capacity for collective action that crowdfunds territory around the world and eventually gains diplomatic recognition from pre-existing states.

Although crowdfunding territory and gaining diplomatic recognition may not be relevant to 99% of communities, the ability to align and create capacity is. Communities with capacity can achieve amazing collective goals such as making an impact on the real world, creating new information, and helping individuals. Achieving goals and making the world a better place is why communities should care about building capacity.


Let me know what you think on Twitter.

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