WHAT IS A COMMUNITY,
THOROUGHLY EXPLAINED

Marta Mainieri
4 min readJul 14, 2022

We would like to dedicate this article to ABC of communities, namely what we mean when we talk about communities. Not only because we believe it is essential never to take anything for granted, but also because, too often, this term is used out of context. In fact, it happens to find “calls to action” around the web referring to communities that do not actually exist. What often happens is that customers, members, and volunteers are clothed with the name “members of a community” just because it is today’s buzzword.

For a community to be such, it should have specific features; to know them is to discover their potential, imagine applications, and understand their strategic value for an organisation, regardless of whether it is a company, a cooperative, an association, and so on.

Community: a definition to set the perimeter.

In our Academy, but also in our methodology, we define a community as follows:

A group of people who gather around a value proposition, who share a sense of belonging and reciprocity, and who are stimulated by an organisation with which they co-produce value.

A definition that is not meant to be such, as it has no ambition or expectation to fit within the vast literature revolving around communities — a brief summary of which can be found in the book ‘Community Economy’ (Hoepli 2020). Instead, what we feel it is useful to emphasise within this explanation is a perimeter to orient ourselves and provide clear indications on what we mean by community for those who are considering investing in the birth and growth of a community.

The purpose is what brings together members.

The value proposition is what holds the members together, it is the purpose for which something exists. For communities, it is the synthesis of values, rules and actions that distinguishes them. In the past, the value proposition was the territory, the status or religion to which one belonged; nowadays, instead, one gathers around much simpler and more basic elements such as, for example, a passion (for walking, for travelling, for grilled meat); a common condition (“we are all mothers, or affected by the same illness”); a place (a street, a neighbourhood, a city); a product, or a practice: we are all “volunteers, freelancers, or digital women”. All value propositions must be simple in order to be easily understood and uniting. In fact, it is important that they contain a call to action, a response to a need or a desire for change that is necessary to motivate members to take action.

A sense of belonging is what moves members to participate.

A sense of belonging is what drives members to be and act together. Those who feel they belong to a community are willing to spend time and get active by participating in a discussion or event, proposing activities, suggesting ideas. It is thanks to a sense of belonging that members are willing to co-design and co-manage activities and services, thus co-producing value with, and for, the organisation. Moreover, the sense of belonging is what unites members, and makes them recognise each other without ever having met. “When I met a guy wearing a ScuolaZoo bracelet,” a community member told me one day, “I stopped him and we started chatting.”

A sense of moral responsibility is what drives members to help each other.

Those who participate in a community also feel a natural sense of responsibility towards other members. If you try to join a successful community and ask for advice, you will see how many people are willing to offer help. This is so true that many brands, more and more often, entrust first-level customer care to the community — and it seems to work just fine!

The community that wants to generate impact is stimulated by an organisation.

Finally, a community that wants to grow should be stimulated by an organisation with which it co-produces value. We have included within our ‘definition’ of community an element of governance, even though it may sound a bit forced, because communities we deal with when offering companies and associations training and consultancy, are purely those that have the ambition of generating social and economic impact. To do this, it is necessary to grow and reach critical mass, a sufficient number of people to ensure that those who enter the community are able to find what they are looking for, but also necessary to generate the necessary turnover to continue finding active people who are willing to commit and dedicate themselves to the community. For this reason we need an organisation that stimulates, coordinates, cares, unites. An organisation that can be a company, a non-profit organisation, a government, but also an informal team of active citizens. The important thing is that it takes charge of the development of the community with the aim of sharing the value proposition with it, but also of empowering it so that it is able to mobilise and act.

Are you ready to launch your community?

Once the main characteristics of a community are understood, it is possible to assess with greater awareness whether one’s customers, members, citizens, employees can really be considered a community or whether they are merely an audience, a passive consumer of a message, towards which services or products are provided. It is also possible to understand whether one is really ready to enable a community, that is, to create a common value proposition and to design the environment and context in which the community meets and interacts and the organisation listens and stimulates. It is not an easy job but if one decides to undertake it is certainly rich in satisfaction. On the advantages of this approach, and why to do it, the appointment is in the next article.

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Marta Mainieri

Marta Mainieri is a consultant, trainer and speaker expert in the field of Sharing Economy, platform design and community design.