We met in 2013. First virtually, then in real life. We now live about 20 miles apart. We share a birthday. We both have Irish roots. She's been a software tester since 2013.
Back then, I had a thriving community of software testers at my fingertips. At that point Emma was a 30-something with no experience in testing and stuck in a low-paid and dead-end job. She was desperate to get into testing but wasn’t sure where to start.
In 2013 we were hosting our 2nd conference. As a bootstrapped business I was in awe that I was starting to make a living from building a community. It felt like such a privilege. The community had given so much to me, so I knew the right thing was to give back. And so we did, by offering out a scholarship.
You can read Emma’s full story, but here’s the TL;DR:
- we gave her a week-long scholarship for a training course and conference
- it was my personal goal that she ended the week with a job offer (and she did!)
- since then, she's been a long-term supporter, and she's spoken at our conferences, hosted meetups, supported the community, volunteered, convinced her test team to come along to conferences, and yes, she even got a tattoo.
Now this is just a quick list of things that I can count off the top of my head, but I have zero doubt that the reciprocation and energy of Emma created unmeasurable growth for our community. For eight years she's done nothing but shine positivity and give back.
We can look at this from a business perspective. We could say it cost us £1500, which was about the price of the full week of training and conference in 2013.
From a strictly financial standpoint most businesses may not be able to see the ROI in supporting an individual, especially someone that comes from a risky background. For me it was a no brainer: the community helped me get to where I was, so it would be wrong not to give back in any possible way.
But here’s where the community builder’s view of ROI differs from an accountant’s measure of ROI: I didn't expect anything in return.
I've given on so many other occasions, often without seeing a direct return. We cannot always expect an Emma story, but giving as a business strategy is one that deserves more attention.
“Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?”
Anne-Laure Le Cunff wrote about takers, givers and matchers, which is where this post is inspired from. Community builders are very much givers, I really can't see how they can be takers or matchers.
I believe at the heart of community building we need to have the freedom and power to give.
We should be able to know what resources we have access to and use them to our best advantage.
Sadly, many community builders understand the challenges to giving:
- budgets are constrained to specific tasks
- every action is questioned
- we are not given the opportunity to explore and experiment
- there is a culture of measuring things that don't matter
- old school business practices are given priority over being community led
If you want to be community led, you must enable the builders to go build, which often means the freedom for them to give.
Free them, provide guidance and boundaries instead of restraining them. Think of giving as the equivalent as growth tactics, they need experimentation and they can help your community grow.
When we build community we want to increase the love between everyone, and there is no better way to do that than giving within boundaries.
When we choose to enter into a community, we have choices, everywhere. We can choose to be takers or matchers, or we can purely focus in on being givers. As a business we can choose to focus in what we can extract, or what we can give. Of course, it's not always an either or situation. But it is a choice.
Personally I find having boundaries helps guide my approach to giving. I love the concept of not doing that here.
This is when I pull out “we don’t do that here.” It is a conversation ender. If you are the newcomer and someone who has been around a long time says “we don’t do that here”, it is hard to argue. This sentence doesn’t push my morality on anyone. If they want to do whatever it is elsewhere, I’m not telling them not to. I’m just cluing them into the local culture and values.
This creates a clear boundary of things we don't do or accept within our communities. The above example is based on behavior, but the same idea can be applied to many aspects of community building. To help us create boundaries of what we can, or cannot give.
For Ministry of Testing we didn't:
- accept sales pitches
- accept repeat talks
- have keynote speakers
- give space to the same old arguments
In addition to defining what we don’t do, I think it’s also helpful to create a list of things that we do here. You'll want to be specific, but not restrictive. And of course having boundaries that align with the vision and goals of the community is essential too.
Some examples taken from my community life experiences, with Ministry of Testing, a community of software testers:
- we will keep an intentional eye on community blog posts and Tweet them
- we will look for new voices and amplify them 10x than experienced voices
- we will find sparks in people and help them grow with us
- we will ensure every speaker has their travel costs covered
- every conference we host we will give scholarships away
- when someone makes a reasonable ask, just say yes
- we do seek new and diverse voices
- we do want to be fun
- we understand the world is forever changing, we therefore always seek a new future
- we will seek to collaborate with the community on new ideas
- we will put people before money
Building community can become an overwhelming task. Boundaries, especially positive ones, help bring clarity to community builders.
Clarity is powerful in the sense that it enables your team to act quickly, independently and with certainty.
The last thing any member of a community wants to feel is that they are part of a transaction. Instead they should feel like they are part of a community, or a conversation. Enabling community builders to respond freely and confidently within the boundaries creates a sense of genuine connection.