33 Ways To Build A Community (And Experience Happiness And Change)

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33 Ways To Build A Community (And Experience Happiness And Change)

Words by Mr Ben Olsen

10 May 2022

Our innate need for connection has been a casualty of the past few years. Global events have pulled the rug from under our naturally social selves. It’s therefore unsurprising that the role of community, whether that’s birdwatching, beach-cleaning or breaking bread with neighbours, has come into sharp focus as we attempt to bounce back from prolonged isolation. Let the following 33 insights from community founders, participants and academic experts shine a light on how coming together has the potential to help us feel better while bringing about broader social change.


Run for connection

Mr Charlie Dark set up the running community Run Dem Crew in London in 2007, but he feels its purpose resonates now more than ever. “The more people can encourage community, especially now, when the world feels unstable, the better,” he says. “We’re surrounded by different communities that I hope will now remind us how to become comfortable around people again after long periods of isolation.”


Reverse the tide

The need for community has never been greater. Mr Charles Vogl, author of The Art Of Community, claims that we’re living in the loneliest period ever in human history. “Over half of Americans say they feel lonely while 15 per cent of men don’t have any close friends,” he says. “Community is the polar opposite of this epidemic of loneliness.”


Find a sense of purpose

“Without wanting to sound clichéd, I’ve found the reason I’ve been put on the earth,” says Mr Kevin Maguire, founder of newsletter and online community The New Fatherhood. “I’m not motivated by numbers as much as the impact I know it’s having and the heartfelt feedback I get inspires me to do more.”


Expect support and inspiration

“For couples who have become very dependent on each other, separateness can feel awkward for a while, but with communication, this can be adjusted and handled,” says Dr Firstein, who advises similar patience if lockdown caused relationship tensions that haven’t eased. “Therapy is always a good idea if a couple cannot get out of the rut.”


Look after each other

“We are not consumers; we are citizens,” says Mr Peter Block, author and specialist in community building. He adds that we should not be outsourcing raising a child, being safe and healthy, caring for the elderly or the planet’s wellbeing to the private sector. “We have the capacity to produce our own wellbeing,” he says. “This is why community matters.”


Celebrate shared spaces

“In the UK, just over 4,000 public shared spaces are taken every year from communities due to development or lost funding,” says Ms Hannah Philp, founder of ARC Club, a shared workspace concept in London that is focused on connecting neighbourhoods. “It’s so important that we have IRL places to gather,” she says. “Even if our members drop in once a month, it’s somewhere they know they can go and be among people.”


Grow passion

Communities are most likely to succeed if they are led by passion, says Ms Sara Venn, the founder of community garden facilitator Edible Bristol. “Rather than going in and doing all the work, we wait for people to come to us with an idea before providing support and consultation,” she says. “We make sure that when we work with communities, by the time the garden is up and running they’re ready to run it themselves.”


Find out what your “why” is

For those setting up their own community, Dark advises being honest about what the purpose is. “People start with grand ideas and think it’ll work immediately, but times are different,” he says. “Start small and incubate before you blast it to the world. It takes time for people to trust you enough to give up their time and their energy.”


Give something back

Mr Charlie Bethel is the UK chief officer for Men’s Sheds, a worldwide movement that creates community spaces for often older men to connect, converse and create. “It might be a stereotype, but men often need something to do,” he says. “Making something with your hands or helping someone with a task can be very rewarding and can be a great motivator. It’s all about increasing self-esteem while helping the community.”


Answer an unmet need

“There’s an abundance of resources out there for mums, yet I struggled to find a place online that reflected my experiences as a dad,” says Maguire of the launch of The New Fatherhood, adding that the newsletter has acted as a lighthouse in bringing people together and helping them open up.


Buck the trends

According to Vogl, we’ve seen an erosion of social connection. Research in the US identifies three main trends: a population moving more than ever before, thus reducing the connections we establish; a decline in faith traditions; and the advent of social media. “It’s really good at connecting us to people who don’t care about us and not so good at developing relationships that are intimate and helpful,” he says.


Take back control

Having a say in a community can have a positive effect on individuals who perhaps feel marginalised in everyday life, according to Bethel. “When you get older, you often feel out of control and isolated,” he says. “The sheds provide a way of taking some of that control back, making decisions and being part of a community’s direction.”


All ages welcome

Heading up Run Dem Crew has allowed Dark to see the benefits of intergenerational mixing. “What starts to happen is a two-way conversation that provides a support mechanism and information exchange,” he says. “People take away learnings that help them understand members of their family a bit better.”


Start small

Vogl claims that having even a single friend at work can be a silver bullet in bringing down disengagement and accidents. “If you have a friend at work and you want to know how to do something safely, you’ll ask that friend and then you’re far less likely to get burned or crushed.”


Kickstart your creativity

According to Mr Sam Furness, who set up creative studio and community Channel Twelve in 2016, playing a part in a group can help you raise your own game. “It shifts the focus from ‘I’ to ‘we’,” he says. “When you see your peers excelling, it’s motivating. It can also be anxiety inducing, but mostly I find it helps you keep moving forward.”


Occupy your mind

“If people feel they can go and be a part of something, that can really help with mental health,” says Venn. “Getting your hands in the soil and focusing on something that isn’t whatever’s going on inside your head is really important – not just for people who might be struggling with mental health, but for everybody.”


Address your emotions

“If you put 12 older men in a room and say, ‘Let’s talk about our feelings,’ at least half might leave,” says Bethel on the alternative therapy that Men’s Sheds offers. “But if you put a lawnmower in the room and say, ‘Can you fix it,’ they’ll know each other intimately, they’ll know all about each other’s grandchildren – and you’ll get a fixed lawnmower.”


Let others guide your vision

Maguire’s background in marketing helped him land on a newsletter as the best medium for The New Fatherhood. “It created a nice feedback loop, sending something out, seeing what people thought and building something with others,” he says, highlighting the importance of co-creation.


Celebrate our differences

“The best communities have a lot in common with the best dance floors in that they have different people from all walks of life,” says Dark, using a metaphor that draws on his background as a DJ. “That dance floor then becomes a way to explore similarities and champion our differences. I want my community to be a reflection of all the people who live in the city.”


Not all “communities” are what they seem

Vogl has witnessed a lot of change since his first book on community was published in 2016. “Nowadays, I can’t go on LinkedIn without finding a new expert on ‘community’ in my feed,” he says, highlighting the need to determine between real community and those created solely for extraction, manipulation or selling things. “Many marketers have accurately discerned that we’re lonely people hungry for more connection. They’re using the language of community – ‘members’, ‘engagement’ – but it’s all marketing.”


Believe in the quiet ones

Whether it’s birders, bridge enthusiasts or gardeners, Venn advises looking out for community champions. “They’re usually the quiet ones at the back, but who have all the knowledge that people need to help them succeed,” she says. “Finding that person is key for the community and the success of the project.”


Two plus two equals five

“It can be hard for the vast majority to self-motivate when working from home,” says Philp. “Being around others can be a motivating factor in terms of productivity and we’ve seen a number of professional collaborations between people who didn’t know each other but who lived in the same neighbourhood.”


Small acts, big differences

“We don’t need to wait for grand events to feel community,” says Vogl. “Understand that you’re surrounded by other people who are feeling lonely and want to be connected more than you know. Given that’s the case, start making invitations to spend more time with them. Even walking around a park or eating a sandwich on a bench together all counts.”


Be genuine

“Being open about what you’re thinking and owning up to your mistakes is really important,” says Maguire on serving his growing community. “Go in with the best intentions and allow the community to evolve to the needs of the community, rather than dictating what you think they should be.”


Find one shared purpose

“People think that unless we are super like-minded, we can’t have a community,” says Vogl. “But for me, all communities instead come together around one shared value or one shared purpose – and one is enough. Helping keep your neighbourhood safe may be enough for neighbours to share scones together, even if you think they’re terrible in every other way.”


Making sense of life

“When I first saw the initial sign-ups at Creative Quests, I had never seen a more jumbled-up, cross-sectional group of people and I thought it might be a disaster,” says Furness of the early days. “But it’s ended up being the best thing about the community. A perfect reminder that we are all human beings trying to make sense of this thing called life.”


A sense of perspective

According to Furness, community gives people a chance to remember how big the world is. “When we had the limitations of just being inside our houses, our Creative Quests offered escapism, inspiration and the chance to collaborate creatively with someone on the other side of the world,” he says. “Now the world has opened up more again, it’s been really great seeing how people are taking their learnings and applying them to a more ‘normal’ way of life.”


Be healthy

According to Block, one of the largest determinants on our health is social proximity. “If I join an association and have some kind of social connection, I will live two years longer, just because I joined and spend four hours a month engaged,” he says. “The best thing to keep people away from doctors’ surgeries is joining a group and talking about how their life is going.”


A place for common ground

“Nobody comes to a community garden dressed in their best, which is a great leveller,” says Venn on the spectrum of society who attend her community gardens. “We deliberately don’t ask what people do, which can alienate some people, and instead we focus on what they want to get out of the community.”


Be open source

The best communities can also become incubators for further opportunities. “So many other organisations were birthed in Run Dem Crew,” says Dark. “It’s important to be open about your achievements. When communities are open source, so that whatever you’re doing internally impacts outwards and benefits not just those inside, they empower far beyond what you can imagine.”


Foster community with intimacy

According to Vogl, people rarely feel a sense of belonging at large events, whether they’re giant rallies, concerts or actions. “Most people discover connection through intimate experiences,” he says. “We call them campfire experiences. When we’re bringing people together around the same purpose, we need to be able to offer these experiences to help them feel connected to a much bigger community.”


Take your chances

Some of the best advice Venn received came from an allotment officer in an early meeting. “He stood up and said it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission,” she says. “That’s my advice to anybody. Just do it. Don’t necessarily ask for permission. If a piece of land has been left and is unloved, then there is nothing wrong with anybody making it better.”


Semantics matter

Vogl draws a key distinction between invitations and announcements. “‘Hey, guys, pizza on Friday night at 6.00pm’ is an announcement, but a personal request emphasising ‘I’d love you to come’ is a different thing and makes someone understand that someone else cares if someone shows up and spends time with us,” he says. “People love to skip the invitation and put out announcements and are then surprised that they get very little response and people are unwilling to engage.”