Season 1 - Episode 08

How to Build a Community People Will ACTUALLY Join

Discover the power of community building during challenging times, and how it can drive social impact and create lasting connections.

DT Episode 8 Website

Is community in decline, or is the way we’re participating just changing?

The data and statistics, as always, are messy. And there’s valid opinions and arguments supporting different trends here.

But whether or not community engagement is in decline, our relationship with community is going through a rapid transformation. 

And as a social impact brand, you need community support to power your work. You can’t power your mission and reach your true impact potential alone. But, building authentic, vibrant communities seems harder than ever before. 

Today, we’re talking all about community-building. And specifically, how to build an authentic community around your mission — and why that’s becoming an increasingly important part of a successful social impact strategy.

In today’s episode, we cover:

  • Why community is changing and what that means for your social impact brand
  • The key pillars of healthy and vibrant communities
  • And how you can build a community around your cause to drive support, engagement, and revenue for your mission



It was 2009, and The Great Recession was in full swing. In the U.S., the GDP was down by 4%. Virtually every sector of the economy was hit. Hard. If you weren’t directly affected by layoffs  you probably knew someone who was. The future was uncertain. And there weren’t many signs of improvement in sight. 

It’s also the year I officially founded Cosmic. 

But you know what I remember most about this time? It wasn’t the tough economy. Or the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that was so prevalent around me. It was community. 

Because I was working out of a small coworking space in Santa Cruz, California called Nextspace. 

Nextspace was full of small businesses, solopreneurs, and professionals. Nextspacers were launching startups, meeting people, and generally just trying to figure out how to invent the next chapter of their professional lives amongst all the chaos. 

I actually met 2 of our longtime team members at Nextspace, Matt and Lisa, who are still working with us to this day. 

At the time, I didn’t think deeply about the community at Nextspace. Or community-building in general. I was just excited to be part of a space where I could work alongside other entrepreneurs and build my professional network and opportunities.

Fast forward to today. 

You’ve likely heard depressing statistics and narratives about how our communities are in decline. That participation in civic engagement is reaching all-time lows. That our culture is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic to the point that the Surgeon General has declared it a public health crisis. 

But is community in decline, or is the way we’re participating just changing?

The data and statistics, as always, are messy. And there’s valid opinions and arguments supporting different trends here.

But whether or not community-engagement is in decline, our relationships with community is going through a rapid transformation. 

And as a social impact brand, you need community support to power your work. You can’t power your mission and reach your true impact potential alone. But, building authentic, vibrant communities seems harder than ever before. 

Today, we’re talking all about community-building. And specifically, how to build an authentic community around your mission — and why that’s becoming an increasingly important part of a successful social impact strategy.

In today’s episode, we cover:

  • Why community is changing and what that means for your social impact brand
  • The key pillars of healthy and vibrant communities
  • And how you can build a community around your cause to drive support, engagement, and revenue for your mission

Let’s get to it.

Part 1: Why community is changing and what that means for your social impact brand

Here’s a concerning fact: lacking social connection can increase your risk for premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. 

Throughout history, our survival has depended on humans relying on the support of each other. And even in our modern era, we’re still biologically wired for human connection and social engagement. 

Traditionally, much of our social connection came through being part of local community groups, neighborhood associations, and other local organizations. But our culture, and our relationships with our communities, have shifted over time. And this isn’t a recent trend. By many different measures, social connection and participation has been in a steady decline since a peak in the 1970’s.

In 2018, only 16% of Americans reported that they felt very attached to their local community. In the last 20 years, our time spent engaging with friends in person has dropped by nearly 2/3rds on average. More Americans are living alone than ever before, and this has steadily increased decade-by-decade. In 2021 almost half of Americans reported having three or fewer close friends.

Any large cultural shift like this can’t be explained by any single factor. But we have to imagine at least part of the shift, especially recently, is the digital transformation of our modern era. 

Before the internet, smartphones, and social media were so prevalent, communities were mostly organized by geography. Community centers, local sports leagues, book clubs, churches and religious communities, and civic and social justice groups met and organized locally. 

Of course, there have always been examples of communities that have organized nationally or even internationally. But these communities were still typically broken down into local chapters or regions — and many national and international communities are still structured this way. 

Today, many of us are joining online communities in addition to our local ones. And many brands are placing big bets on trying to leverage the power of community to drive engagement, loyalty, and support. It’s hard to find a brand or influencer today that isn’t offering some type of membership-based community. 

But a lot of these digital-first communities end up becoming “zombie” communities, where slack or discord groups house hundreds or even thousands of members without any meaningful engagement or relationship-building. 

So we’ve essentially replaced traditional forms of community and social engagement with new digital forms of community that aren’t meeting our psychological or physiological needs.

So are online communities or hybrid communities pointless, then? No, of course not. There’s plenty of examples of digital-first communities that have provided tremendous value and even deep relationships. More on this later.

But first, what does this all have to do with your work as a social impact organization?

Today, people are yearning for social connection and a deeper purpose in their lives. And social impact organizations like yours are in a unique position to provide people with a space of service and the sense of belonging and purpose that they’re looking for.

One of the causes of decline in community engagement is a decline of what’s called “social Infrastructure.” 

You have the ability to be part of creating this social infrastructure through building and nurturing community around your mission. 

And there’s a rich history of social movements and organizations that have done just that.

Social impact brands often refer to their supporters as “our community of supporters.” But do your supporters actually feel like they are part of a community? Or just supporting a cause that they care about?

To truly activate your brand and reach your mission, community-building and community-engagement should be a critical part of your strategy. But building any strong community — offline, online, or both — requires strategic thinking and has to be approached with care and intention. 

Luckily, community-building has been studied deeply and widely through many different lenses. And there are 5 core pillars that all healthy communities must have that can guide your efforts to build and nurture your community of supporters. 

Part 2: 5 Key Pillars of Healthy Communities

Whether you’re building community online, offline, or both, there are 5 key pillars that make up a healthy community. 

Let’s take a look at each of them, and then we’ll consider how they might apply to community-building for your social mission. 

Pillar 1: Shared Interests

Every community, from your local knitting club to a grassroots political movement, is born from a foundation of shared interests and values. 

A chess club only works because their members share a common interest and passion around chess.

This is typically the spark that ignites the community in the first place. 

But it’s also the glue that holds the community together long term. 

Often, belonging to a community even becomes a central part of a member’s individual identity. 

Pillar 2: Forging Relationships

Individual members of a community want to know that they are part of something bigger than themselves. They want a sense of belonging. But healthy communities also lead to individual human connection and relationships. 

This is often a key reason why people join communities in the first place, and what separates communities that just hobble along from communities that thrive. People seek community largely to fulfill their human need for human connection and support. Healthy communities recognize this core value and are structured to help nurture relationships within their community. 

Pillar 3: Collective Action

Healthy communities almost always have activities, actions, and traditions — even if that’s not the primary purpose of the community. 

A local dance studio meets regularly, puts on public performances, and hosts other community events. The core purpose of the dance studio is to help students progress as dancers. But the community element of a dance studio is built around the collective actions the entire dance studio organizes. 

Especially if a community is built primarily to enact change, then collective action should be a core part of the community's strategy and structure. 

Pillar 4: Value Creation

At the end of the day, people join communities because it provides some sort of value — whether that’s tangible or intangible value — for them

A book club creates value for its members by introducing them to new books, forging and deepening friendships, learning new perspectives, and so on. 

A classic car community provides value for its members by creating opportunities for them to share their passion with others who also care about classic cars, providing a sense of belonging. 

A mountain-biking group helps members get in shape, stay healthy, and enjoy a shared passion. But when members plan and build trails and advocate for more inclusive trail access, it creates a sense of shared accomplishment and progress — a deeper form of value creation. 

True communities go beyond member benefits and perks and tap into deeper forms of value-creation like connectivity, belonging, and even identity. 

Pillar 5: Diversity

Joining a community allows you to connect with people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Diverse communities are stronger because different perspectives lead to interesting discussions, cross-learning, and ultimately greater empathy and understanding. 

Which community would you rather join? A running club where everyone is 18-22 years old and runs sub 8-minute miles, or a running club where the age range is 16-96 and everyone runs at a different pace? In this case, the age and speed diversity of the community creates more space for members of different backgrounds and fitness levels to be part of something they love. 

Now that we’ve identified 5 pillars of healthy communities, let’s think about how they apply to community-building for your social impact mission.  

Pillar 1, shared interests, should be an easy one. You’ll want to attract members who align with your mission and share some core values with your organization. 

Pillar 2, forging relationships, requires some deeper thinking. How can you build your community in a way that creates opportunities for true member connection? Organizing regular meetups, creating mentorship programs, and encouraging collaborative projects are great ways to create opportunities for members to spend time together and get to know one another. Relationships take time to build, and creating regular structures for time together is a big part of helping your community create deeper connections. 

Pillar 3, Collective Action, is where the true power of building a community around your mission comes to life. When you provide community space and structure — and opportunities for collective action — you can empower your communities to make a real impact for your mission. And this is true in person AND digitally. Community grows stronger with collective progress and accomplishments. Especially for social impact communities, members want to know they are making a real difference towards your mission. Make sure you are providing clear opportunities to take action. And be sure to share regular updates how their efforts have created an impact. 

Pillar 4, Value Creation, is where you need to get creative. Remember, people ultimately join a community to meet a need or desire that they have. But the deeper benefits and values of your community might not be obvious to potential members before they join. Be sure to connect your community to your social impact mission. Ensure that your community provides tangible and intangible benefits to your members, like human connection, fulfilling purpose, and being part of something bigger than themselves. Social impact communities have an outsized opportunity to create deeper value for their members compared to other communities. Leverage this superpower to your advantage. 

Pillar 5, Diversity, must be actively managed and considered. The basic goal is to create a community that is inclusive instead of exclusive. Where members feel a sense of belonging. Some communities entice their members with status and exclusivity — but this won’t translate well to social impact brands. You can (and should) have community standards and requirements, but be sure that they don’t unintentionally marginalize or exclude some of your supporters. For example, if your community requires a paid membership, consider a no-questions-asked free membership for those who want to join but don’t have the financial means to do so. 

The 5 key pillars of community building are a great place to start when you’re planning a new community or looking to improve one that you’ve already started. But these are just foundational concepts. To truly elevate your community experience and create a community people actually love, you’ll need to consider a few other important strategies. We’ll get to that next. 

Part 3: How you can build a community around your cause to drive action and revenue for your mission 

We’ve covered the ways that community is changing in our culture and the 5 key pillars of healthy communities. Now, let’s look at some actionable tips that you should consider whether you’re building a new community or working towards improving a community that’s already in place. 

Tip #1: Start Small

Rather than opening your community up to your entire network, it’s best to start with a small cohort of beta testers to work out the kinks. Find your top 10-20 ambassadors and invite them to help build your community. Introduce the idea and come to the table with some options, but be open to listening to how you can best serve your community rather than forcing them into predefined structures. If you can find a way to build something that works for your core audience, you can scale it up from there. 

Tip #2: Onboard with Intention

Being the newbie can be uncomfortable, and coming into a tight-knit community can feel awkward and overwhelming. So really nailing the on-boarding experience for new members is crucial. This requires more than a welcome email sequence or a membership card. Human curation and introductions are a great way to help newcomers feel instantly at home. You’ll need to take the time to get to know your new members so you can determine who would be best to connect them with. 

Tip #3: Foster Relationships

A huge value to joining a community is creating relationships with other community members. And this doesn’t end at onboarding. Ensure that your community is structured in a way that will create lasting relationships. This is one of the key differences between communities that stay surface level and communities that are truly special. 

Tip #4: Community is Co-Created

Communities cannot be forced. They are co-created by the community members and community organizers and curators. Think gardener vs. carpenter. A carpenter meticulously plans and crafts each element of his creation from start to finish, placing each piece with precision. But a gardener focuses on creating the conditions for growth, and lets nature do the rest. You should approach your community-building like a gardener, providing the right conditions for a healthy community but being willing to adjust based on how the community responds. 

Tip #5: Actively Gather Feedback

This one is crucial. Community members who feel unheard or unseen will not last. And the approach to organizing a community that worked early on might not work today. But you have to do more than just put out passive asks for feedback. Provide different options for your community members through surveys, discussions, 1-on-1 meetings, and more. Different members will be comfortable with different formats. 

Tip #6: Charge a Membership Fee

You want to build an active and engaged community. And people are more likely to perceive a community as being valuable if it’s not free. It’s a proven fact of human psychology. Again, you have to balance this with your goal of creating an inclusive community. The no-questions-asked free membership model is tried and true here. This also allows you to build a community experience that’s actually valuable and worthwhile to your members. You can create a tiered membership model based on different fee structures or member responsibilities.

Tip #7: Keep it Simple

When you’re designing your membership model, perks, and member benefits, it might be tempting to promise a lot. But you don’t want to overcomplicate this. Remember, people are busy and will only be able to commit so much time and energy to your community. You don’t need to overdo it. Like most things, it’s best to keep it simple, consistent, and focused. You want to create as little structure and format as possible, and let the rest happen organically. At Nextspace, the coworking space where I started Cosmic, a lot of the community structure came from Friday Happy Hours. Every Friday, members would gather and hang out informally. Much of the community value and networking happened at this informal event, even more than the formal and structured networking events. 

Tip #8: Make it Hybrid

If you’re in a position where in-person meetups and events are possible, there’s still nothing that can replace face-to-face human interaction. But virtual events, meetups, and communities are more popular and possible than ever before. A hybrid model, where virtual and real-world interactions are offered, will help strengthen and grow your community. Now that so much community happens exclusively online, it’s quickly become an expectation that there will at least be some sort of digital component to your community.  

Tip #9: Make it Flexible

You want the member experience to grow and scale with the interest and capacity of each member. Set a minimum expectation of engagement, and provide community members with clear options to grow and deepen their commitment to the community as it makes sense to them. If you create a community structure that’s too rigid, life will get in the way and you’ll start to lose valued members for no good reason.

Tip #10: Appoint a Community Manager

Although you want to co-create your community with your members, communities always need curation and moderation. And this requires consistent monitoring, engagement, and conversations with your members. Even if it’s not possible from day one, having a community-manager that can take the lead on curating your community is critical. A community manager can help set and reinforce community norms and rules, and also sets the vibe for your community. So this role is one that shouldn’t be left to chance, or set up as someone’s second job or focus. 


Of course, there are infinite ways to build community around your cause. These tips should be thought of as a starting point, not a series of hardline rules that are set in stone. The big idea here is to build a community with intention, and to ensure that your community is set up for success. 

Ultimately, community is what happens when you aren’t looking. So be like the gardener and provide your community with the right conditions to help it grow and thrive. 


As a social impact brand, you’re uniquely positioned to help create critical social infrastructure, build spaces for collective action, and provide a sense of purpose and belonging for your supporters. 

Building community for social movements has a rich and proven history. And, it’s becoming an increasingly important element for your broader social impact strategy. 

Today we covered the ways that community-building and community participation have changed over time — and are rapidly changing right now. We also explored the 5 key pillars of healthy communities and considered them through a social impact lens. 

Healthy communities are built on a foundation of shared Interests, strong relationships, collective action, value creation, and member diversity. 

And when you create a healthy, thriving community around your social cause, it can unlock the collective action and human connection that can set your mission and your organization apart. That can lead to transformational change. And that can create an impact on society AND profoundly impact the lives of your individual supporters. 

As humans, we need to connect with each other. We need to feel like we belong. And we need purpose in our lives. 

Let’s leverage the power of social impact. Let’s expand our work and our missions to build stronger communities. Because transformational change happens when we work together, person to person, to create a brighter future for humanity, our planet, our communities, and ourselves.


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