What Is Community Building?

Positive change results when people openly collaborate to achieve shared goals

The Sprout Fund helped foundations, nonprofits, companies, and governments make an impact on the issues they cared about most. Sprout began its work primarily as a grantmaking organization: over its 17-year history, Sprout worked with regional and national philanthropic partners to make more than $7 million of community-decided investments in more than 1,100 early-stage projects, organizations, innovators, and activities.

But distributing grants was only the beginning. In addition to providing catalytic funding to promising projects, Sprout also spent more than a decade forging connections between people working in service of critical social causes like education, art, and neighborhood development. Our experience suggests that most problems cannot be solved in isolation; instead, we believe that positive change results when people openly collaborate to achieve shared goals.

We think the best description for this body of work is community building: the process of creating or enhancing connections among individuals within a specific geography or interest area. The people who lead this type of work are community builders: the advocates who use open practices to catalyze civic action.

This publication seeks to share what our experience has taught us about the field of community building as we see it. It documents our approach to helping communities collaborate to address their own challenges, and it highlights stories of other community builders we admire whose work has had similar positive impact.

Our Approach

Complex problems require collaborative solutions. To help people collaborate effectively, we believe in designing experiences that provoke discussion, spark insight, and forge lasting partnerships. We endeavor to create intentional arcs of activity that mobilize people to work together to achieve shared goals.

True, authentic, and organic community building happens when people have ongoing opportunities to collaborate with one another and steadily increase their participation over time. This is important because relationships matter and they grow stronger through intentional collaboration.

We’ve all been to dynamite events that hint at collaborations that might develop. We’ve seen provocative speakers and engaged in dynamic discussions, and we’ve likely imagined how it might look to sustain that initial energy into productive action. Unfortunately, those enthusiastic sparks don’t often catch fire—usually because there’s no one tending the flame. 🔥

The core of community building is experience design: the work of developing purposeful and engaging activities that enhance social cohesion. We believe in the power of engaging in meaningful dialogue, and we’re partial to face-to-face get-togethers. Digital experiences can be valuable, to be sure, but we think the most productive, exciting work happens when people meet in person. Such events, when done well, foster productive relationships that enable people to collaborate intentionally and effectively over time. After all, relationships are the currency of community building—we trade in trust.

Successful community building sustains productive collaboration and catalyzes collective action. We like to use the following model to organize our community building efforts:

What is community building?

We think about our work as a campaign: an intentional arc of focused, action-oriented activities that mobilize people to achieve shared goals. Campaigns are comprised of experiences that purposefully bring people together to make progress toward an overarching goal. Those experiences are supported by a series of experience design techniques that empower people to collaborate effectively.

Design Principles for Community Building

We think that the most effective experiences make the most of participants’ time together. We embrace unexpected collaborations. We value openness, which means sharing ideas, showing your work, and inviting contributions from others. We insist on recruiting diverse participants and we employ high-quality facilitators who help push the work forward.

We never want people to feel unwelcome, unaware, or unclear. Rather, we want people to feel included, prepared, and informed. Which is why we seek to design accessible, engaging, and action-oriented experiences.

Sprout hosted hundreds of small- and large-scale events, from focus groups to multi-day festivals. While each event has its own goals and character, all Sprout events were guided by a series of principles that embody our comprehensive approach to experience design.

  • 👐 Inclusive: Experiences should be community-based and accessible to all who want to participate.

  • 🎯 Purposeful: Experiences should be imbued with intent. Don’t host a meeting that should have been an email.

  • 🌏 Contextual: Experiences should honor history, acknowledge prior work, and be clearly situated in place and time.

  • 👷 Participatory: Experiences should be participatory and interactive, and utilize co-design whenever possible.

  • 🎆 Catalytic: Experiences should create tangible after-effects that activate community members.

  • 📷 Well-Documented: Experiences should generate shareable artifacts, including photos, videos, and other archival material.

Applying human capacity and ingenuity to complex problems our best hope against the robotic uprising. 🤖 Seriously though, solutions to such problems rarely emerge organically; they require cultivation and a structured approach for orchestrating the chaos and determining the best path forward.

Active, intentional community building creates the conditions for individuals to build strong relationships with one another and form coalitions that can accelerate the pace of change.

What You Can Expect

Explore the following chapters to learn more about our approach to community building. We’ve created tools you can use to develop your own community building campaigns, and we’ve shared links to our favorite resources from around the web that inspired and supported our work.

We also hope you’ll draw inspiration from how people apply similar practices in contexts around the world. You can see 10 examples of other “community builders” in Voices from the Field, and you’ll note that our own examples throughout are drawn from Sprout’s work across a variety of fields over the organization’s two-decade history.

Remember: at its core, community building is about creating the conditions for collaboration and facilitating connections between people. So long as you stay true to that mission, your work will surely continue to evolve and grow.

We hope you’ll use these stories, examples, and ideas as the starting point for your own community building work, no matter where you work or what you do. Moreover, we hope that the ideas and examples we’ve shared here will help other communities achieve their own meaningful, positive change. Read on!