AssociationsCommunity Management

What is the purpose of your community?

Communities differ greatly in terms of the type of member, type of conversation, culture and goal. — continue reading
Posted by Taco Potze
June 21, 2021

Open Social supports mission-driven organizations that want to make a difference.

Communities differ greatly in terms of the type of member, type of conversation, culture and goal. Sorting them into community types helps a great deal to identify its common denominator, member’s motivation and purpose.

What defines a community?

Before going into the different community types, it would be good to understand what we define with the word ‘community’.

As long as there have been people, there have been communities. People are social animals. In every human civilization groups of people have organised themselves into tribes or societies. A large part of our self-image is derived from the social groups that we are part of. This is where we want to fit in and what gives us self-confidence, comfort, motivation, inspiration and purpose. We all belong to various different communities: Your neighbourhood, sports club, hobby club, student group, work colleagues.

So, what defines a community?

Bind defines community like this:

“A community is a group of people with common characteristics, such as background, ambitions or interests, who gather in a physical or virtual location to talk to each other or do things together.”

Social psychologists David McMillan and David Chavis describe a sense of community as:

“A feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”

They argue that without clearly defined membership, an exchange of influence, fulfillment of needs, and a shared emotional connection, it’s fair to assume that the strength of community amongst a group is pretty weak.

Here is what we at Open Social think are characteristics of a true community:

  • Members have common characteristics, such as background, ambitions or interests
  • Working towards a common interest or goal
  • “Mutualistic symbioses”: Members enter in to a social contract of give & take which is beneficial for everyone
  • Members have longer-term connections
  • Members join voluntarily
  • Community is all about enabling connections and many-to-many communication
  • It can exist in a physical or virtual location

Unfortunately, social media has contributed to an inflation of the term ‘community’ being used to describe any scenario in which people congregate online. Facebook for instance uses the term community to position its platform as a valuable instrument for a better society, even though it often leads to polarizing its members instead of bringing them together. There are lots of companies that throw around the term community, using it to describe their customers and audience regardless of whether or not there’s an actual deep sense of community amongst the people they’re referring to. Marketers love titles like Community Manager, while in practice their job usually entails broadcasting branded messages from a social media channel to an audience. The word community is thrown around without much thought for its actual meaning.

The Six Types of Communities

To understand communities better, we can categorize them into 6 community types, each with a different common denominator among participants.

What we at Open Social like about using these types is that it forces us to take the community member point of view and think about the purpose of the community, which helps when defining your community strategy and objectives. Working with community types helps us and our clients better understand the unique needs and drivers of members and the common goal towards which they are contributing.

We can identify these six types of communities, each with a different common denominator among participants:

Six Community Types

See FeverBee. Note: We added “Support” as a separate type – Bind also adds “Purpose” in its book “Organising Communities”.

A Community of Action is all about mobilizing volunteers as a movement to jointly make a change in the world

A Community of Practice consists of professionals sharing knowledge and skills, and learning together.

A Community of Circumstance consists of people in the same life stage or circumstance sharing tips & support.

A Community of Place consists of people living or working in the same geographical area, like residential areas, the local bar or a public space, like a park or library.

A Community of Interest consists of people sharing the same interest or passion, always comprising a passion, hobby or interest shared by participants.

A Support Community consists of people helping each other, usually non-professional and non-material, with a particular shared question or problem.

It is good to note that this classification provides theoretical handles for understanding different communities. In daily practice, the different types often bleed into each other or are combined.

Also, groups within a community can be of different types. You might have a Community of Interest to discuss hobbies or a Community of Place with members from one city, country or region within a scientific Community of Practice in which professionals are sharing knowledge.

Open Social supports mission-driven organizations to make a difference

Three Open social Community Types

At Open social we mainly focus on these 3 types of communities: Communities of Action, Practice and Circumstance. These are communities in the true sense of the word, and in which members are driven by a higher purpose. Members are often intrinsically motivated and run by mission-driven organizations.

We’ll go a bit deeper into this type of community, elaborate on some examples of Open Social clients, plus related functionality per type.

Open Social for Action

Community of Action - Blog post image

The Community of Action (or movement) is initiated to accomplish change.

It is about:

  • Activating & connecting volunteers
  • Being driven by urgent need for change
  • Jointly campaigning to change the outside world

A community of action starts with a widely shared sense of urgency to change something outside of the community. This feeling propels people to activate and connect with each other in order to realize change. Because a community of action is aimed at change taking place outside of the community (new laws, collective labour agreements or policy), the outside world has to be included in the objectives from the start. That’s why campaigning is an essential part of these communities. They’re awareness-raising campaigns: what is the existing situation, and why does it need to be changed?

The #MeToo movement, for example, is a collective of victims of sexual abuse. Together, they want to create awareness of this issue.

The way in which we activate volunteers is changing. Traditionally, a union would rent a venue and a relatively small group of people would show up. But nowadays, fifteen thousand people would watch an explanatory video or join an online community to collaborate. Online activism can harness enormous power.

These communities are often about mobilizing and connecting volunteers in different locations around one cause.

Examples of Communities of Action:

Relevant Open Social Features & Extensions for Communities of Action:

Open Social for Practice

Community of Practice - Blog post image

A Community of Practice is aimed at knowledge sharing and learning between professionals.

It is about:

  • Connecting expertise & knowledge of professionals
  • Driven by increasing skills & learning
  • Jointly creating a practice to advance a profession or an industry

A community of practice makes it possible to share insights from practical experience (lessons learned), explore new markets, develop new policy and improve professional skills. It traces back 100s of years: The medieval guilds were sharing knowledge, skills and experiences and often introducing specific certificates for their profession or trade.

Knowledge sharing

A Community of Practice is all about connecting expertise with interest. Veterans or experts answering questions of newbies. Sometimes this is structured into a Mentorship programme.

Also, knowledge should be made visible and accessible to everyone. In an online community, to create the ideal circumstances under which this exchange of knowledge can take place, shared knowledge is made visible for instance through a resource library, but also because knowledge is shared by just answering questions that are visible to anyone in the community.


But also learning through events, event recordings and learning together: Creating communities around online certification programme for example..

Communities of practice are used by:

  • Within large corporations. Here, groups of employees with the same duties or the same occupation are formed intentionally and organically as an instrument for knowledge management. Examples organisations such as Shell and Philips.
  • Government bodies like to make use of communities of practice for specific policy objectives, for example.
  • Professional- and trade associations. They are paid for by their members who, in return, are given access to the network and a range of gatherings, and receive a magazine and/or a newsletter.

Unfortunately, it is still all too common for associations to work from an ivory tower and communicate one-way, only enabling connections 3 days a year at their annual congress. In practice, this leads to passive and uninvolved members, who might end up leaving after a while.

Modern professional associations are reinventing themselves and are proactively challenging members to contribute ideas and to work with each other under the association’s flag year-round and actually transparently collaborating with members as a true community, instead of from an ivory tower..

The Swiss scientist Etienne Wenger has contributed greatly to the development of theory around communities of practice. According to him, a community of practice always has three characteristics:

  • Domain: Skill or field of knowledge of participants
  • Community: Interaction and collective activities in order to improve their skills.
  • Practice: Collectively, visible knowledge is created; a repertoire is built of tools, experiences and methodologies that can be applied to everyone’s professional practice.

Examples of Communities of Practice:

Relevant Open Social Features & Extensions for Communities of Practice:

Open Social for Circumstance

Community of Community - Blog post image

The Community of Circumstance is for people who, whether deliberately or not, are experiencing the same life circumstances.

It is about:

  • Connecting people for emotional support & advice
  • Often with scientific or expert advice & practical information
  • Jointly increasing quality of life

These can be positive circumstances, such as parenthood or taking the step to become an entrepreneur. On, for example, older people get together to talk about anything and everything.

But often these communities are groups of patients seeking contact with fellow sufferers. The connection between these participants is usually very strong, since they can struggle to find understanding in their immediate social circle or, after telling their story a few times, they feel as if they’ve hit a limit of how much people want to hear about it. Fellow sufferers do understand, and provide unlimited space to talk.

They usually offer emotional support, but also tips & tricks suited specifically to the circumstance, for instance on what to ask the doctor, practical tips on how to increase the quality of life and a library of scientifically validated information and practical information.

Often experts, like doctors, nurses or manufacturers of medical devices are involved in this type of community. Moderators are often volunteers who are experts by experience.

Examples of Communities of Circumstance:

Relevant Open Social Features & Extensions for Communities of Circumstance:

So, what community type(s) fits your community? Leave your comment or do the quiz!


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