08 Culture of community

Often, funders have the idea they can “create a fellowship community”, as if this can be constructed from the top down. Building community is a co-creation experience between the “engineers” who decide to begin a community and the “citizens” who will participate in it. Creating and populating the community space happens all at once, and the co-creation process leads to ongoing and co-owned stewardship as the community changes and evolves. This is a shared responsibility.

Finding the right people to enter into this kind of relationship with a funder is difficult. It’s hard to see past the sales pitch and find partners active in the worlds you wish to change, with an approach you can trust. To that end, we believe it is best to enable people whose lived experiences suit the challenges they are trying to overcome. A member of a community uniquely understands its challenges better than an outsider is able to. It is not our job to tell them how they should approach the problem but instead to help them build the power they need to effect change.

In the fellowship, we strive for as little hierarchy as possible. Where it exists, it exists with respect, empathy and a clear understanding of roles. For example, there is a clear funding relationship between the fellow and the Foundation. The fellow is responsible for the plan, for determining how that money is spent and what indicators for success might be present, and for communicating that back to the Foundation. There is clearly a power dynamic at play, but it is designed to quickly yield to a partnership in which successes and failures are shared. These are also shared with the community, through various means; this turns individual experiences into community learnings, and builds some of the bonds of fellowship.

The community is reinforced weekly for all active fellows in a web-based chat called “Fellow-up”, where everyone talks about what they are working on or struggling with that week. One fellow starts, and when they have finished their check-in, they nominate someone who has yet to speak. This not only serves to update everyone but also enables collaboration and supports the notion that the community is responsible for moving things forward. There is no leader or moderator. Fellows ask questions and suggest people from their own networks who might be helpful to others.

All fellows have an account on the same chat platform, and this provides a space for shared interests and community beyond regular check-ins. The platform hosts a channel for aspiring vegans to share recipes and tips, and a plank channel for bragging about planking times. There’s a “helpmeout” channel connecting those with a question with others who have a solution. “Softwaredev” provides a space for communal tech support, and there’s a travel channel to facilitate real-world meetups with one another, at home or when fellows find themselves in the same distant corner of the world. It’s about people and building relationships, not some kind of forced fun imposed by a funder. This non-hierarchical structure is also a key feature of a twice-yearly event open to the whole fellowship called the “Gathering”.

True fellowship only works with community. At times it’s difficult to see the difference between fellows, alumni and the Foundation. There are different roles, but all inside the same co-owned space. All part of the fellowship, all part of the community. These lessons were learnt over years of evolution. Top-down engineering mistakes were made in the early days of the Foundation; these became opportunities for learning.

One of the early learnings was that new fellows were overwhelmed when they first joined the fellowship. Trust takes time, but there’s nothing wrong with helping it along.

The idea of a “buddy” was introduced, and new fellows were paired with current fellows in an effort to build relationships and allow a safe space for questions. Success varied because of time zones, chemistry, and other factors. In time, the buddy system evolved, and Jesse von Doom, who became a fellow in 2014 with his project CASH Music, which provided open tools and infrastructure for musicians, now serves as buddy to all new fellows. He meets with each new fellow to learn about who they are, let them know that “yes, this really is what it seems”, gives them crucial tips and connects them to other fellows. By the time a new fellow attends a Gathering, they easily slip into the community and feel at home.