Membership as Living Community

Anna Caraveli’s monthly column for SocialFishing focuses on “the building blocks for constructing new membership and business models” for associations. She will explain and explore for us how “demand-centered models require a re-orientation of an organization from products and policies to people—customers, members, stakeholders” — and these are ideas which clearly relate very directly to the themes we’ve been exploring both in Open Community and in Humanize

Once upon a time I was an aspiring academic, doing field work in rural Greece and the US and publishing about communities that formed around ritual mourning and celebrations.  I think this is why virtual communities resonated with me, in spite of my non-technical background.  The factors that contribute to success are equally applicable to virtual and professional communities.

One of these “performance” communities I studied was called the “Olymbos Glendi.”  It took place on the island village of Olymbos, Karpathos and in immigrant communities in Baltimore. It was nothing more than a party, a gathering of people for a festive occasion, except that the guests talked to each other in sung couplets which they improvised on the basis of narrative and musical conventions passed down by tradition for generations.

They sat around an enormous table laden with platters of food and ample wine, with 3-4 musicians perched at its center.  In the course of the night (and sometimes two nights or more) guests engaged in a heartfelt dialogue whose topics became increasingly intimate and meaningful as the night wore on and wine flowed freely:  personal grievances, painful social or historical events; mourning for losses or time gone by.  A transformation took place gradually from individuals having a good time to a community converging on profound and shared experiences and contributing to a crescendo of emotional expression and catharsis.

However exotic this experience might sound to some, it has the same characteristics of a successful online community.  And why wouldn’t it? The bottom line in any community is people rather than technology or process; and success depends on understanding the way human beings and relationships among them work, and not on how technologies work.  Four characteristics of success in the Glendi seem especially applicable to online communities and associations to me.

Focus the community on the special things it enables that cannot be duplicated outside of it:  Guests at the Glendi could of course discuss issues of personal and collective importance independently of this event.  Yet both the Glendi and successful virtual communities enable types of interactions, mix of relationships, levels of support, intensity and focus, speed and flexibility etc. that would not have been possible in the real world.

 Engage authentically and meaningfully:  The underlying reason for the existence of a community has to be real, continuous with, and meaningful to, the lives of its members outside it. Contrived, vague, superficial, provider-driven or disingenuous rationale for launching a community are poor foundations for success.

 Engage around outcomes:  Based on my experience and research I believe that a community has to drive toward an outcome of sorts to be successful.  The more members are engaged in the type of outcome the community delivers, the higher the level of success.  Even though, the Glendi was not a professional gathering, it was still evaluated by its outcomes—whether it resonated with participants’ deepest levels of meaning and emotion or simply remained on the superficial level of a casual, social event.  This is why, even though these were festive occasions, I was told that a “good Glendi was judged by the amount of tears it produced.”

TransforMed is a subsidiary of the American Academy of Family Practitioners and was established to implement the recommendations of a seminal report on the future of family medicine:  a new model of Patient-Centered Medical Home.  TransforMed launched an incubator type of community, the National Demonstration Project, that engaged family physicians in testing and improving this model.  Successful results fueled the formation of The Delta Exchange, a fee-based online network that helped members implement the new model in their practices to improve their profitability and patient care.  Members were also involved in continuously improving the model by applying lessons learned from their experiences to refine the model.  TransforMed and the Delta Exchange have been resounding successes in terms of both business success and effectiveness in transforming medical practice.

Enable ongoing development and transformation: In the ritual Glendi events, sung couples would evolve into collective sharing of deep personal and collective grievances, reminiscences and stories.   The criteria of success were not simply aesthetic but developmental: how far was the event able to move participants from observation to engagement and from casual conversation to emotional catharsis.   The same principle is true for successful professional communities today.   Their end-goal is not simply to recruit members but to continuously develop them.  The more dynamic a member’s progress to increasing levels of competence, knowledge, innovation etc. the higher the retention rate.

In the Veterinary Information Network, insights from online conversations are captured and built upon so that participants engage, not only in the exchange, but also in the development of a collective and personal knowledge and competence base. Unlike services that run the risk of diminishing returns, a community designed around shared value increases in value with the passage of time. As the provider and members learn collectively, the value of the knowledge capital increases and new needs for services and membership tiers become naturally apparent.  This is a self-sustaining and ever increasing loop of value.

I believe that the concept of learning, development and transformation communities could regenerate the entire association membership model, not just an aside social media experiment.  Imagine if your membership to an organization was more like a Glendi than a list of “benefits.”  Imagine membership not as the end product but as participation in a living and changing community; your gateway to continuous development; a laboratory for re-ordering and re-inventing relationships and other elements in your success chain in ways that were not possible in the real world and allowed you to achieve better outcomes. Social media has made these options possible, but it takes a shift in leadership and staff views of membership from transaction to living and growing communities to put these options to use.