Could communities for impact be the game-changer in creating system change?


Anne Merkle


Communities, networks and movements working toward social and environmental impact are stepping into the spotlight more and more. From the activists who formed Extinction Rebellion to the Robert Bosch Foundation establishing the Bosch Alumni Network or Impact Hub which connects members of their local co-working community into a global one. 

Communities unite
Communities combine skills and vision and unite people under a joint purpose and mission. Melting arctic ice, social reforms demanded in Chile, all of these challenges require systemic change. And communities can play a fundamental role in driving that change. Online and offline communities create opportunities for people who care about a topic or issue to convene while bringing different profession, cultures, origins together in a diverse membership base. Thus a variety of perspectives, experiences and hopes for the future are mixed and silos are decreased. In the League of Entrepreneurs, all members identify as an intrapreneur, a change agent working within an organisation. Intrapreneurs come from all kinds of companies or NGOs and can find the necessary support to be impactul within their community

Communities create change
Communities create impact for members via relationships built within the community (co-founders, organisational partners, door-openers) and knowledge exchange between members:  failures and successes get shared with those that can apply them. Further communities aiming for impact can tackle wicked problems through collective action.

For those two reasons, the chance to overcome silos and the potential impact on people and today’s challenges, communities are a key puzzle piece when it comes to social and environmental impact. Nevertheless, many communities struggle to succeed because there is little capacity building, financial opportunities, and leadership support available. In fact, the first platform for capacity building focused on communities for impact launched only recently.

Learning from the business world
One of the main challenges those communities face is to secure funds and pin down a sustainable business model. The benefits of investing into community building was discovered by businesses years ago. Since then, communities have become a tool for creating brand attachment and customer satisfaction to drive product sales. The Harley Davidson member community, the Apple support community, and Facebook hosts thousands of thematic communities.

An assumption by CMX, the main trainer for community building for the corporate world, is that a new community develops every two minutes. Communities for profit are well established and well supported compared to those operating in the sphere of creating positive social and environmental change.

How do communities sustain themselves?
Oftentimes, communities function for too long without a sustainable funding model. Community builders give their time on a volunteer basis and operations are run on a shoestring. To remain viable, communities must think about their business model as soon as a first membership base is created. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for community funding models.

Generally speaking, there are two types of revenue streams:

1. Internal revenue
– Membership fees
– Buy-ins
– Donations
– Internal crowd-funding

Many communities are financed almost exclusively by internal membership contributions. This model more stable over time and helps members seethe value they receive from their membership. If a member is willing to  pay 1,000 EUR every year, they most likely believe their membership is valuable. ‘The League of Intrapreneurs has a fee for membership to enable us to keep our focus where it belongs: on you, the intrapreneur.’

2. External revenue streams
– Revenue generated through community assets (consulting, sharing intelligence and data from the community)
– Marketing-based partnerships (sponsorships, advertisement)
– Charity-based partnerships (grants, fellowships)

External revenue streams are rooted in community assets, partnerships, or sponsorship. Fundraising activities include consulting, sharing knowledge, securing of partnerships, or proposal writing. Usually a combination of income streams are needed and savings that allow for lack of new revenue for a period of time.

OuiShare, an international network accelerating projects for systematic change, is an example of a community focused on diversified external revenues: sponsorships and event ticket sales, public grants, global partnerships, revenue from projects, donations from individuals.

If a community chooses to fund itself with external revenue streams, striking a balance between fundraising and fulfilling the community’s purpose can be difficult. Most community builders do not have a finance or a business background. This can make it challenging to think about business models and funding streams in an effective way.

The business sector has discovered the potential of communities and thus many companies developed within a short time period that offer tailored platforms and trainings for community builders. Additionally, those communities have a company budget that supports them in their establishment and growth. On the contrary, communities for impact those that bring together individuals thriving for impact have very little offers for capacity building support and little to no backing up. Instead of focusing on their activities and their impact many communities navigate their operations with a very small budget and, as such, are unable to meet their full potential. What role can communities play in creating systemic solutions if they are financed adequately?

Anne Merkle is Global Partnership Lead at Impact Hub Network, and currently leads the global partnership between WWF and Impact Hub

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