What about organizing a picnic instead of putting on a 2-day conference? (Photo by Ben Duchac on Unsplash)

When we started Sandbox in 2007, we aimed to organize a yearly, impressive conference that would bring together leading young change makers from across the globe. We were scouting locations, we were talking to potential sponsors, we started to dream up what an amazing event would look like. That approach made sense to us, because an inspiring and well-organized conference felt like a smart way of getting prospective members excited. It felt legit. It felt like something people would take seriously. Plus, it was what our role models, like TEDLIFT or Picnic were doing.

And then the 2008 economic crisis hit. Lehman Brothers went down, and our conference idea with it. As budgets were tightening, we simply couldn’t find any organization that was willing to support the project.

So instead of putting on a fancy convergence, we were forced to operate on a minimal budget and had to figure out a cheap and simple way of connecting our members. That’s why we started organizing small, local dinners in every city we lived or went to, often hosted at people’s apartment, often done as potlucks to keep cost down for everyone.

And that original limitation — of keeping things cheap and simple — became the best thing that ever happened to us.

Less is more

By accident we had found a powerful, but counter-intuitive design principle for communities: less is often more. While bigger, fancier events in grandiose locations and amazing programming, more sophisticated digital tools and all-paid scholarships seem on the outside like a great tool for community building, I would argue that they often can be counter productive.

The power of cheap and simple

Doing things the cheap and simple way is powerful for a community, because:

  • Simple and cheap experiences are often much more informal, and humans connect more deeply in informal environments. If you could choose between connecting to a stranger at a 500 person conference or in someone’s living room with 7 other people around, which one would you prefer?
  • Simple and cheap experiences are easy to organize and can be organized by volunteer members, they don’t have to be organized top-down. That makes the community more co-created and distributed, further strengthening the sense of belonging. Sophisticated, bigger events usually take a ton of money and resources to organize, absorbing a whole team for weeks or months.
  • Simple and cheap experiences can easily be replicated in other places and they therefore allow a community to scale.
  • The community will simply be able to organize many more minimal experiences than big ones.
  • Simple and cheap experiences are a good starting point that allow organizers to be creative. While the core of Sandbox dinners has always stayed the same, people have come up with numerous ways to change them up: they hosted them in parks, in castles, on beaches. One hub in Washington DC developed a format where one person from the hub tells her/his life story over dinner. Another hub has been cooking the dinners together. Top-down we could never have come up with all these ideas or executed in such a creative and diverse way.
  • Simple and cheap experiences make a community more resilient. If the group runs out of money or has messy leadership transitions (both things we encountered at Sandbox), the experiences are more likely to continue, because they are not a big lift. This creates consistency and long-term stability.

The role of bigger experiences

This isn’t to say that there is no role for bigger and more sophisticated experiences in communities. They play an important emotional and symbolic role, often a way for the group to create a sense of whole. It took 5 years for the first Global Summit at Sandbox to eventually happen, and once it did, it added another layer of meaning, another dimension to “we’re all in this together”.

I also see how — psychologically — for early communities bigger gatherings have stronger draw. They make the community look more legitimate, more substantial. They are a great marketing tool and differentiator to attract new people.

But I would argue that it’s dangerous to rely on these bigger experiences to be the main backbone of the community, because they are often such a big lift. Instead, I think the core of a community should be as simple and cheap as possible. And then, if resources allow, the community can decide to put on bigger experiences from time to time. But ideally, the cheap and simple core experiences continue, no matter what.

What do you think about the “cheap and simple” approach? And what other powerful design principles have you found?