Image via HPC Conferences.


And more ongoing commitment to nurture groups.


There are sooo many gatherings in this world. Many of them are well organized, many of them create value by bringing people together that wouldn’t have met otherwise, many of them leave people inspired. And many organizations — especially in the social impact space — see these gatherings as a core part of their theory of change: if I want to change ecosystem x or bring industry y forward to the next level, I need to bring together all players from that system in one place and have them “meet”.

And I think that theory is true. But it’s incomplete, it’s too short-sighted and often a waste of energy and resources. In fact, I think there are too many gatherings in this world.

What we need, instead, are for all the players in an ecosystem to have ongoing conversations, to build relationships, to get to know each other on a deeper, personal level, to build trust, to learn from each other, to start collaborating, and to start collective action. What we need is an ongoing commitment to nurture a group with a shared identity, to help them grow both individually as well as collectively, and step by step feel strong enough to stand on their own feet.

And no matter how well gatherings are organized, they can’t do that, not even if they are regularly recurring. But communities can.

I have written before about the difference between events and community, and how to turn a series of events into a community. Below are a few more thoughts on why I think investing into a community is a better investment for any organization than organizing more gatherings.

The case against gatherings

  • Events are expensive, especially if you do them well and if want to provide a unique experience.
  • Events take a lot of resources and organizational focus to produce. They are often a huge distraction, especially if your core business is not to put on events.
  • Gatherings often focus on providing inspiration, learning opportunities and meeting new people. Sometimes that content is interesting, but usually it addresses a very specific kind of attendee: someone who is relatively new to that specific ecosystem. There are probably many participants who are rather looking to deepen relationships, rather than expanding their network or formal knowledge. Many of us have already read a blog post about that “inspiring” topic the keynote speaker is presenting on.
  • Events are often quite formal, but humans don’t thrive in formal environments. The best learning and relationship-building experiences are informal.
  • Events tend to be designed for larger groups. For practical and budgetary reasons, it often makes more sense to put on a conference for 500 people, than for 50. But most people appreciate more intimate groups and get more value out of smaller groups.
  • Every time a gathering happens, so much positive energy is created among the participants, a lot of excitement is generated, but all of that potential has no specific way to go after the event and then it just puffs away.
Big highs and lows in terms of energy / excitement / engagement with gatherings
  • That still applies if you do your gathering on a recurring basis, for example every year. You simply repeat the same pattern every year: excitement and potential, slow decline of energy into nothingness, excitement and potential, slow decline of energy into nothingness, etc.
  • Many gatherings have started to provide online platforms to “connect between gatherings”, but there is a difference between being a community and having a digital platform to connect between events. In most instances, these digital platforms have high activity around the actual event, but then follow the energy and engagement pattern described above. And in the meantime they turn into annoying self-promotion channels for certain attendees who are trying to harvest the access to the larger group.

The case to invest into communities instead

  • Communities can fulfill a deeper human need that most gatherings can not. They allow people to build deep, ongoing relationships, which leads to trust. And once you have trust within a group, so much more of the group’s collective potential can be fulfilled, in the form of 1:1 support, deep learning, vulnerability, collaboration, cooperation, etc.
  • Communities create a more ongoing experience, they feel less like extreme peak events, and are ideally more embedded in your everyday life. And that steady flow of interactions is more conducive to deepen relationships and create things together.
More steady flow of energy / excitement / engagement in community.
  • Successful communities don’t have to be run by “the organizer”, but can be co-created and co-run with the community itself. This has many resulting effects, including that communities are cheaper to run than gatherings and that communities — especially after a certain maturity time — are less dependent on top-down investment and hand holdingThis makes them more stable, more sustainable, more independent.
  • A big potential upside of investing into communities comes from the creativity and scale that you might unlock. Imagine if all your members would, instead of attending one massive conference once a year, feel empowered to organize their own little micro-gatherings throughout the year. This would result in a scaled reach that would need significant resources if done in a top-down way. And furthermore, if you give your participants the freedom to create their own experiences, I have found that the results are way more creative than if we had planned it.

Downsides of investing into communities

Investing into communities instead of gatherings, however, has downsides as well, especially for the organization that is initiating the community:

  • A community takes much longer to build. It won’t provide short-term results as clear and visible as a big gathering does. Investing into a community requires patience and longer-term budget commitment that is hard to find within many organizations.
  • Communities are poorly understood and harder to explain. While you can easily explain to your board the impact of a gathering, they might find the ROI of a “community” too intangible.
  • The organizer loses control. As an event organizer, you control most variables, from the attendees, to the messaging, to the speakers to the design of the overall experience. As you transition from focusing on the gathering to building a community, you lose some or all of that control. In extreme cases, members of the community might feel that this is theircommunity and decide to take the whole group into a different direction than you would have wanted. From a community point of view, that would be a success — members feeling empowered as co-creators. But from an organization’s point of view that is a risk.

Would love to hear what you think about this distinction!