Design by Mansi Gupta

And 6 ideas how to make it suck less

In my last post, I laid out why I’m convinced that building communities is the best job in the world. Well, turns out that is only half of the story 🙂 I think it is also the worst job in the world, nicely packaged all into one. Here are some reasons why I think it sucks and and some ideas how to make it suck less.

1 — You might never see the impact of your work

I genuinely believe that well-designed and well-run communities can change lives in dramatic ways. By bringing people together in a trusted environment, providing them with a place of belonging and allowing them to build meaningful relationships you can unlock tremendous potential in people’s lives. But your work and the impact of your work can be years apart. Depending on how long you work with that community or how long that community exists, you might never see the fruits of all your hard work.

There is a growing body of research that shows how not seeing the impact of your work can be demotivating, and that’s certainly a trap community builders can fall into.

We started Sandbox about 10 years ago. And it’s only been in the last few years that I keep hearing from people about how it has affected their lives in deeper ways. Those relationships just needed time to unfold into magic. In the short-term, it can often feel like no progress is being made, because short-term progress in a community is not very visible. It does happen, but it happens in little corners somewhere that you don’t know about. These stories will take time to emerge.

2 — Everyone in your community has an opinion — how much can you listen?

One of the most taxing aspects of running a community stems from a good intention: you want to listen to your community as closely as possible and you want to co-create with them, not just throw stuff at them. That, however, creates a conundrum: people in active communities often aren’t shy to share their opinions (and often people not only have opinions, they feel they know what’s best). Overall, that’s a positive sign of them feeling safe to express their thoughts freely. Yet, at some point listening to all the different thoughts and feelings becomes exhausting and a huge demand on time. And, even though everyone has an opinion, you will be in the end the person who is likely to do most of the work, and more opinions don’t make decisions nor work easier.

3 — No matter what you’ll do, you probably will piss someone off

As a community leader it is your job to make sense of the chaos and find some middle ground among all the noise. But no matter what direction you’ll choose, you will probably piss some people off. For any given topic there are members with strong opinions on the fringes. Those aren’t bad members, but keeping them happy can be exhausting.

4 — You’re the police and peace keeper all in one

When running a community, you might find yourself in an interesting place where you are both the enforcer of rules, the empathizer and the conflict resolver all in once.

You’re the police. The tragedy of the commons plays out in small ways in most communities. Especially at the beginning new members are testing out the limits: what is ok and what is not ok in this group. And there will likely be people who will try to abuse the generosity of the community to promote themselves, their own project, their campaign etc. Unless you stop them, unless you enforce the rules and guidelines, these few members will turn the whole community dysfunctional. Confronting people can be hard and emotionally taxing.

You’re the peace keeper. When humans come together, conflicts happen. That’s normal. But who likes dealing with someone else’s conflicts? Navigating conflicts in a community is especially delicate, as the collective trust among members is usually the group’s biggest asset and communities try to shy away from addressing conflicts to not endanger the overall trust. However, if conflicts are not addressed, they ultimately will take things down. Well, as the person who runs the community, the people involved in the conflict will eventually always end up at your doorstep and ask your advice or ask you to get involved. I found that always to be very tricky. How do you know what the true facts are? Right and wrong are often very muddled together.

5 — It’s a surprisingly lonely job

This seems so strange, but even though running a community you are constantly surrounded by people, I found that it can be quite a lonely job as well. Often you’re not surrounded by a team (usually due to scarce resources). And for all the reasons mentioned above, you wear many different hats at the same time. I found that people who haven’t experienced running a community themselves find it hard to relate to how taxing and multifaceted the job is, and also how much work it is. While you’re dealing with other people’s issues, who is there to empathize with you?

6 ideas how to make the job of running a community suck less

  1. Encourage people to co-create and make them experience what it means to be in your role.
  2. Collectively define decision making and governance processes, so it becomes less about yourself and more about the whole group.
  3. Define different roles with different levels of engagement.
  4. Create a culture of gratitude for people who take leadership, and express gratitude often and visibly. Have people share regularly about what this group has brought to them, which will show your impact and give motivation.
  5. Co-define processes for conflict escalation and resolution in advance and involve different members in that process.
  6. Be open and vulnerable about when you struggle as the community builder. That creates a deeper bond with your member and unlocks their support.

How has running a community been for you? I’d love to hear from you and grateful for any feedback!