David Ehrlichman, cofounder of Converge, a network of practitioners who cultivate impact networks, recently joined Crypto, Culture, & Society for a talk on building communities to effectively address systemic issues. David is the author of Impact Networks, which has influenced the organizational architecture of many of the largest DAOs.
Why is it important to cultivate catalytic communities, or communities that work together to effect change on a grand scale?
It’s simple: to address systemic issues we have to work systemically.
Addressing social inequities, combating climate change, providing economic opportunity for all… all these issues cannot be solved by any one person, any single organization, or any disparate institution. They require many people working across organizations, sectors, and disciplines.
People and organizations embark on collaborative efforts all the time, but they are often frustrated by the results.
Why? What goes wrong?
Often it’s that they’re trying to structure the collaboration like they would an organization, as a hierarchy, with some central authority guiding the work and with people fitting into specific roles to move it forward. Not to mention, they try to plan it all out in advance, identifying specific, measurable outcomes for the effort before people have even started to work together. This predict-and-control approach only works if we already know what needs to be done and how to do it.
The reality is, complex issues are experienced very differently by different people. People are affected by these issues in different ways, and, like the art installation shown below, they’ll see things very differently depending on where they stand.
So, when we work together to address complex issues, we cannot plan it all out in advance. Instead, we need to bring different actors together to make sense of the issue collectively, strengthen their ability to share information and resources, and help them coordinate and collaborate effectively. This is what it means to build a catalytic community.
So how are catalytic communities formed? They usually start as something like the figure above. People begin working together in scattered fragments where some people and organizations know each other, but overall the system is fragmented, without information flowing between these different clusters of activity.
Then, some person or group sees the opportunity to connect the different parts of the system together in a more deliberate way.
This is how The Initiative for Multipurpose Prevention Technologies (IMPT) began. Bethany Young Holt, the catalyst, brought people together for the first time, including researchers, product developers, funders, policy makers, and advocates to advance sexual and reproductive health for women and girls worldwide through the development of multi-purpose prevention technologies, or MPTs. But critically, Holt didn’t stop there. She created opportunities for people to continue to connect and coordinate on their own so that would no longer be a bottleneck in the process.
Once this happened, the community evolved to Stage Three: a Multi-Hub Network, as depicted above. In this stage, information and resources flow across the network — from person to person and organization to organization — without having to go through a centralized entity.
Over time, the IMPT evolved into a Stage Four, Core/Periphery network, as shown above. At this stage, there is a highly interconnected group of participants in the network’s core, as well as a large and diverse periphery that serves as a source of new ideas and new connections to other networks.
Today, more than two hundred active participants make up the IMPT core, and more than two thousand individuals on the periphery receive its communications. You can probably think of communities you’ve been a part of that look like this, or maybe like one of the earlier stages.
It’s important to note that building a community differs from building a hierarchical organization. It requires a different approach and a different mindset. Hierarchies typically develop detailed plans to achieve predetermined goals. They have deliberate processes that serve to produce defined outcomes. But the process of growing a community is more like cultivating a garden.
You see: no two gardens are exactly the same, because every plant grows in relationship with its neighbors, soil, and climate. It’s also not possible to grow a garden overnight: it takes time for the plants to develop, no matter how much attention you give them. You can, however, provide the nutrients, water, and sunlight that plants need to grow and thrive. You can tend to the garden, providing pollinators, using fertilizer, and pulling weeds, attending to whatever the garden needs most at that moment.
You can also provide a bit of structure in the form of stakes or trellises to give plants support as they grow or even help to lay a path through the garden that others can follow. However we also know that if we impose our influence too much, walking on the plants or watering too much, we might mess things up. So we cultivate the garden with care without trying to force it or control it.
There are two more things that all the most catalytic communities have. The first is leadership. Many people assume that catalytic communities just happen — that people will self-organize spontaneously. And while that can happen, it’s extremely rare, and spontaneous self-organization usually only goes so far. The truth is that leadership always matters. It’s just a different form of leadership than the one we see in hierarchical environments.
Rather than defining rigid structures and rules, community leaders — or, more accurately, network leaders — nurture a culture of reciprocity. Instead of command and control, they seek to connect and collaborate. They are not there to tell people what to do, but to foster self-organization and to support people as they discover what they can do together.
Having strong leaders is often what makes the difference in catalytic communities, but because they’re usually so humble and quick to share the credit, we rarely ever know who they are or give them the resources they need.
Secondly, communities need some degree of structure. However, the key here is they need only a minimum viable structure — just enough to provide support, like a trellis in a garden, but not so much that it will stifle emergence and creativity. The enabling infrastructure of a community might include mechanisms for forming teams, online communication platforms, processes for making collective decisions, participation agreements, and practices for gathering and distributing resources.
The first step is to find that purpose in the center. Purpose inspires people to join and contribute their time and energy. Communities cannot be controlled, but they can be oriented around a shared purpose.
Then, as the community clarifies its purpose, it’s also helpful to articulate shared principles. Principles are fundamental beliefs about how community members intend to conduct themselves and work together in pursuit of the purpose.
Principles surround the purpose, creating guidelines for how the network will make collective decisions. Together, purpose and principles create a foundation for vibrant and coherent self-organization.
Meanwhile, it’s imperative to create opportunities for people to become connected — virtually, in-person, individually, and all at once — in convenings that bring the whole community together.
Convenings are a big deal. They are one of the most impactful things communities can do to improve coordination and foster a tight-knit network.
Convenings serve three primary functions:
However, they are often overlooked or managed incorrectly. Too often people use the precious time they have together to listen to talks that could easily be recorded and watched asynchronously. Instead, we can do so much more while convening. Including, taking the time to…
Cultivating relationships of trust means taking the time to understand what each other cares about and needs. To build deep human connections so that we can have the honest conversations that are necessary for doing the work effectively. We build trust not so that we like or agree with one another, but so that we can hold the tension through the inevitable disagreements and conflicts we’ll face, and hang in there long enough until we can find a slice of common ground, or at least have greater understanding of each other’s perspectives.
Purpose, principles, the people, and trusting relationships create the foundation for catalyzing learning and action. As we build trust, we can also coordinate actions by creating stronger flows of information, knowledge, and resources across the community.
These flows create stronger systems, just like how the trees of a forest share resources thanks to the fungal networks that connect them together. In particular, we find opportunities for people to coordinate their actions with one another, supporting each other’s work and finding quick wins that make participating in the community a valuable use of people’s time.
Finally, in addition to coordinating the things the network is already doing, we can also collaborate in new ways to impact the larger system. Communities can catalyze actions that are more impactful and that have real energy behind them, so much more so than actions that are typically directed by the powers that be.
This is because when people are brought together with shared context and trust, they are better able to make collective sense of what’s happening in the system from many different perspectives, bringing their pieces of the puzzle together to see the big picture, and taking action on key leverage points, the places where a focused effort on one thing can create big changes throughout the whole system.
As an example, we can look at the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, which brings together twenty-four organizations, including government agencies, land trusts, academic institutions, tribal groups, and timber companies to collectively steward half a million acres of land. These groups disagreed about a lot of things, but they also recognized the ecological and cultural importance of the land, and they found key opportunities to collaborate that would support all their work. Specifically, they partnered together to launch a massive regionwide vegetation mapping project, the first of its kind, and now they’re using that data to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
To summarize, these are the five core activities of catalytic communities, which we call The Five Cs.
Importantly, these five activities are dynamic and interdependent. Never fully complete, they loop back and forth on each other as the network evolves, and each will be revisited over and over throughout a network’s lifecycle.
In the end, it’s all about relationships. They are what makes it all work. Communities are only as strong as the connections that tie them together. If at any point you feel unsure about how to proceed, invest in relationships. This is how a fragmented system can become creative, adaptive, and able to produce outcomes with far greater impact than any of them can achieve on their own.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to put this work into practice, and hearing directly from the network leaders behind successful catalytic communities, check out David’s book, Impact Networks.
Crypto, Culture, & Society (CCS) is a learning DAO focused on building liberal arts for crypto. Founded in 2020, CCS has grown into a full-stack educational initiative hosting workshops, electives, and other programming for its members. The CCS community includes technologists, creators, community builders, educators, and lifelong learners. You can keep up with CCS on Twitter, Substack, and via the Society Journal.
Special thanks to Miru for the art and Tasha Kim for the graph design that accompanies this post. And to Tom White for editorial support.