Lessons Learned from a New Community Governance Model

March 8, 2022

Community Blogpost 2022

All too often we think of community in terms of being with folks like ourselves: the same class, same race, same ethnicity, same social standing and the like… I think we need to be wary: we need to work against the danger of evoking something that we don’t challenge ourselves to actually practice. – Bell Hooks

Our very diverse and continuously growing community of over 600 Social Innovation Management Fellows with alumni in over 70 countries around the world presents a huge asset to its members and their work – the multitudes of perspectives, experiences, networks and insights are rare in an ever-increasingly polarizing world where it is hard to move beyond one’s ‘bubbles’ or echo-chambers. However, with growing numbers this asset can easily become dormant; communities need care and intentional design that enables the kind of interaction and inquiry needed to unlock a healthy exchange and cross-pollination of perspectives.

This is why we decided in 2021 to pilot a new governance model that would support the community in its growth in alignment with our shared values. (You can read more about the process in this blog post.) The main goal with this new model was to create a flexible structure that can channel the culture of emergent leadership, that we have fostered in previous years, into a more dynamic format that would allow both regions as well as interest-based clusters to self-organize more easily and create safe and brave spaces for inspiration, support, continued learning, and collaboration.

One year later we look back at what was accomplished with over 24 internal to outward-facing gatherings and initiatives. Some included supporting current Fellows in their learning activities, in-person or virtual happy hours, casual meet-ups and learning and exchange sessions where we collaborated with partners like Includovate or Impact the Future. But in the day-to-day, Fellows supported, challenged, inspired and learned with each other, grappled with difficult questions and problems, found and shared resources and encouragement within our global community platform and the various regional groups. All thanks to the support of the regional and interest-based circle leaders as well as the emergent initiatives of countless community members across the board. These individual’s generosity, vulnerability and agency is what continues to make this ‘one of the few professional communities that actually work’ to paraphrase some of the feedback we have received.

Community 2021
Deep gratitude to the first-year Community Leaders for their work in 2021!

A key learning we found interesting in the process is a counter-intuitive insight: The best approach to volunteer leadership roles in a community like ours seems to be one that focuses the ambitions and ideas of the leaders on projects that are a 100% aligned with their professional interests – both in terms of content and process.

This initially created resistance as people identified with servant leadership, regarding putting their own professional interests first as selfish. If you take on a community leadership role, chances are that you want to do right by the community and be the leader you think one ‘ought’ to be in this context. However, we realized that the reframe here is from selfish to alignment: It is impossible to cover the interests and needs of all community members in a group that is as diverse as ours. Each contribution that is sustained over time ends up attracting the right people to the initiative which creates tremendous value for the community as a whole. And in volunteer capacities it is way more likely that an initiative will be sustained over time if it is in direct alignment with the leader’s professional growth goals. 

The question remains – what about the people then, who feel their interests aren’t represented by the initiatives of their community leaders? Isn’t the goal of community leadership to serve the whole community? Won’t this approach replicate the problem of echo-chambers and bubbles? Here we learned to rely on the emergent leadership culture that used to be our main approach in the past with this community. Emergent leadership gives room for anyone who feels something is missing to also step up and start a circle or initiative – or ask others for support. In terms of governance this means that anyone can start an interest-based circle and join the Global Community Council to represent it in the governance system. This council is also where leaders can address cross-pollination and global initiatives challenging us to practice and walk our talk.

With this and many more learnings in mind we welcome the next generation of courageous, visionary and generous community leaders at Amani Institute: please see who they are here

Our utmost gratitude is with the inaugural leaders who pioneered this model with us, the Community Builders Group for reviewing our plans in 2020 and being a great home of support for community leaders and Community Rule by Media Enterprise Design Lab who have created an incredible resource for creating dynamic community governance models.

by Geraldine Hepp

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