Image by Maureen Barlin on Flickr

Why You Can’t Get Paid To Build Community

I’ve noticed a paradox: almost everyone with money wants to build community, and almost no one gets paid to do it.

Community, like physical health, is something that we’re wired to need but can’t define. There are many, many definitions but no agreed upon paradigm, many ways to quantify it but none that begin to capture its complexity. Even with this inconsistent methodology, science is pretty clear that relationships help us accomplish pretty much anything we might want to deploy money to accomplish. Care about physical health? A network of supportive relationships can positively impact everything from obesity to heart disease. Care about education? Social isolation has been shown to have a strong negative impact on mental health and cognitive function, while group learning is extraordinarily effective when done right. Want to grow a company? Make a scientific breakthrough? Build some water infrastructure? The resilience of the relationships surrounding your project isn’t just a factor, it’s arguably the strongest predictor of success in every case.

This is why almost everyone investing money in anything has a vision for the community that they want to create around the thing that they’re investing in, and why hundreds of billions of dollars are spent annually to execute on those visions. The vast, vast majority of this capital is wasted.

Consider the Panel

Panels solve an important problem: if you want interesting people to come to your event then it’s good to be able to offer them speaking opportunities, and days of back-to-back panels are great for maximizing the number of speaking slots available. But no one forms relationships in a panel. Not the panelists, who are too exposed to veer from their established soundbytes. Not the audience, who can only engage with one another snippily over social media. The one, narrow thread of relationality that exists takes place in the two minutes after the panel when the speakers are flooded with requests from the audience, an environment where meaningful conversation is almost always impossible. The result is a desert of relationship: a room where hundreds of people have gathered at great expense to connect with one another and no connection is happening.

When money is deployed to build community, strategies like panels aren’t just common, they’re a near-universal practice. Money is being deployed in ways that fly in the face of well-understood components of social psychology and community organizing. In a moment, we’ll discuss what some of those components are, but suffice it to say that there are experts in relationship and community building the way that there are experts in accounting, medicine and law; people who are highly skilled at getting a room full of people into relationships with one another. We should live in a world where these people are a respected professional class, where panels don’t exist, and where people who want to turn hundreds of millions of dollars into a community can do so at least as effectively as they can turn billions of dollars into a rocket ship. But we don’t live in that world. Let’s talk about why.

Why Almost No One Gets Paid

But there was a problem. Foundations generally write checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations with full-time fundraising staff to keep pace with the rigorous demands of the grant application and reporting process. The grantmaking process can easily take years from initial conception of a funding priority to cutting checks, and it’s so much work that foundations generally cut a few large checks to a few organizations. The folks in Ferguson, and cities like it, needed $2000 in the next 48 hours. There simply wasn’t a way to deploy capital that nimbly to people who the foundations didn’t yet know or trust. The professional philanthropists were all too familiar with stories of how airdropping money carelessly could destroy growing movements. By deciding who to give the money to foundations would be de-facto picking the movement’s leaders from the outside, a clear recipe for disaster. Adding money to the mix would shift incentives, attracting a different professional class of organization and organizer who wouldn’t be as directly connected to the issue or to the people on the ground.

It boils down to a problem of measurement. It’s very difficult to know if community is happening from the outside. When we’re inside of a community we feel it with every cell in our body; we are, after all, evolved to associate community with survival. But try to prove to someone on the outside that community is happening and that certainty melts away. We can measure things: the number of people who show up, the rate at which they keep showing up, the rate at which they do the things that we want them to do, but these metrics tell us very little about the quality of the relationships involved.

If I say I’ll give money to whoever is best at getting people to show up I’ll wind up funding people who know how to build an audience, not people who know how to get that audience deeply connected to one another. If I measure how good the community is getting people to take a particular action then I take away the community’s ability to determine what that action is, and the creative heart of the community becomes cold and transactional. Because there’s no good answer to the question of measurement, there’s no good way to compare two people out to build community and determine which one will be more successful. If I fund a portfolio of community building projects, it’s very difficult to understand how that portfolio is doing short of showing up in the community myself and seeing how my body feels about it (which also won’t work if the community isn’t built for people like me).

This lack of certainty means that funding the work of community has a high transaction cost: it requires a great deal of trust, and that trust takes time and resources to build on everyone’s part. This is why it’s harder to fund communities than it is to fund rocket ships. Rocket ships are complicated: they have a bunch of different parts, but it’s comparatively straightforward to make a prediction about what it will take to make each part work and to put them together. Communities are complex, in most cases they are impossible to predict. It’s easy to spend huge amount of money and get nowhere, and it’s common for people with little to no funding to be the ones who change the world.

Getting Paid Matters

In my research into various Facebook groups, Slack channels and forums I’ve noticed a consistent trend. Many groups start because a dedicated organizer is able to create a great experience for people they know. Those people show up and keep showing up, and for a while the group is magical: discussions are fruitful and interesting, a shared sense of values and norms allows the community to maintain cohesion, and the myriad benefits of community start to blossom.

Then, because the community is great, more people start showing up. These people bring diverse new perspectives, they’re eager for what the community has to offer, but they need care and attention to be onboarded effectively. Controversies have always been a part of the community, but as it grows they become more frequent. Group admins who started out trying to create a great experience for people they care about become inundated with an increasingly urgent set of fires to put out, all of which need to get handled outside of school or their day job. Their mental health frays. Eventually, they either burn out and quit or become so overwhelmed that crises start piling up. Either way the community fractures, the controversies take over and all of the benefits are lost. People who don’t like fighting on the internet leave and those who love it find their way in and stay.

Communities that have something powerful — that should by all rights be growing, evolving, and transforming the world — are reduced to an emotionally damaging wasteland or (in the better cases) a transactional stream of spam-y announcements. I’ve seen very similar trajectories play out in offline communities (though they don’t scale quite as quickly, which helps).

Mechanisms for financially rewarding successful community-building wouldn’t eliminate this problem, but they would help a great deal. Not having to hold down a separate day job does a lot to eliminate stress. So does having support. Startup founders are under extreme stress when they scale, but because they have money a robust ecosystem exists to support them, develop tools to address the challenges they’re experiencing, and connect them with talented people who can help. Such supportive ecosystems are a critical part of most large communities and grassroots social movements, but they are severely limited by the funding limitations already discussed.

There are two exceptions to this rule; two scenarios in which community builders do get paid (even well paid), and have access to a small ecosystem of supportive services as a result. Let’s examine them in turn.

If You Want To Get Paid, Build A Community Of Rich People

The result is a world in which people building community for the non-wealthy are generally rewarded not for the effectiveness of their work, but for their ability to narratively package that work to funders. A typical NGO may operate in one community throughout the year, then need to package its work to funders in an annual report and a single annual gala. In this event, wealthy allies and board members connect with one another in a second, parallel community that builds trust by witnessing a sort of philanthropic theatre. Members of the community being funded are often asked to perform narratives of vulnerability, trauma, and empowerment in order to extend the community’s feeling of trust and intimacy to wealthy patrons. Extremely effective community organizers who lack the connections to bring together wealthy donors or the willingness to engage in such philanthropic theater are often unable to get funded for their work, while individuals with wealthy connections but little on-the-ground experience often can.

This dynamic becomes especially difficult for anyone working to build community that disrupts the status quo. Wealthy people tend to be invested (financially and otherwise) in the way that things currently operate, even if they aren’t personally made uncomfortable by the shifts in structural power that your community is making they will begin to have awkward conversations with their friends who are. And those awkward conversations could be enough to get them to skip your dinner this year. You can articulate a need for radical change, doing so will probably strengthen your narrative and help you build trust, but the change should be carefully calibrated to only be as radical as those deeply invested in the current system are comfortable with.

There are a few things that community is especially great at: supporting people underserved by our social institutions and fostering new powerful ideas that challenge and improve the status quo. And those are exactly the things that it’s hardest to get paid to do.

Avoid Communities With A Predefined Outcome

Think about the last really good conversation you had. It probably felt full of possibility. You probably felt a surge of connection, creativity, and excitement as powerful new realizations emerged. As a general rule, the more interesting a conversation is the less predictable it is. If you know how a conversation will end before it begins, then the conversation often isn’t likely to lead to an ongoing relationship. The more narrowly transactional we are, the less effective we are at building trust.

This creates a big problem if the success of your community boils down to a single predefined outcome. Healthy communities constantly generate interesting new possibilities, strategies that are often more effective than what their organizers envisioned at the outset: a group of enthusiastic students show up with a breakaway viral video, or a teacher has an in with the local union that could massively accelerate your work. Effective organizing is about starting with one strategy and then adapting it to meet this shifting landscape of opportunity. If your success is measured in a graph, then more often than not your job is to nip those new possibilities in the bud before they distract everyone from hitting their numbers. The work of community becomes not about giving people agency to collectively achieve your shared goals, but about getting them to do what you want. The result is a community filled with bad conversations where deep connection and trust are rare. You can get paid to do this work, but it’s not enjoyable and often becomes more about containing the creative possibility of community rather than enhancing it.

The Community Funding Triangle

Everyone I know who builds community falls somewhere in this triangle, and is constrained accordingly. Most foundation-funded community groups, for example, tend to fall somewhere along the bottom of the triangle: a mix of utilizing existing connections and powerful stories to receive financing and defining outcomes in grant applications to which community members must conform. People whose work is funded by middle to low-income community members tend to fall in the upper third (they get paid relatively little), unless they do so on a massive scale, in which case they drift towards the bottom right. There’s no way to get around the problem of trust-building with funders, and it tends to render the most powerful community work unfundable.

People who wish to fund community work have three parallel limiting options:

  1. Fund people you know and trust
  2. Fund people who reliably follow through on their goals
  3. Don’t fund anyone

There’s no way to fund people you don’t personally know who are doing new and powerful things that you want to see happen in the world, because there’s no good way to build trust with those people. This means that while capital can easily flow to promising for-profit businesses it is almost impossible for them to flow to promising communities, even when those communities are deeply aligned with the funders’ goals.

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way

Before the advent of medical research, no one could quite agree on what it meant to be a good doctor. The human body is complex, healing is complex, and it was difficult to know which practices were having an effect. For much of human history, medical practice was derived from a mix of apprenticeship, lived experience, and personal opinion.

All of this made it very difficult to tell good doctors from quacks. Whether you got paid as a doctor had less to do with how well you healed and more to do with who you were healing: doctors who built trust with the rich made a good living, doctors who served everyone else didn’t. All of healing fell under one largely undifferentiated job description, and large-scale investments in medical infrastructure were difficult because it was unclear exactly what that infrastructure was supposed to DO. As a result what medical institutions did exist regularly caused more harm than good, and were designed as much for the amusement and validation of wealthy patrons as for the work of medicine. There is a reason why surgery used to happen in a theater.

All of this changed with the introduction of robust medical statistics. People had measured things before, but this was the first time that the practice of medicine had been tied to a set of rigorously tested theories about how bodies and healing work. Suddenly it was easy to tell which doctors were worth paying: the ones who followed the science. It was easy to deploy capital to build hospitals because the people deploying the money had an easy way to know if the hospitals were being effective. This made it easy to subsidize hospitals for people who couldn’t afford to pay themselves, and meant that doctors could demand a competitive salary regardless of what kinds of patients they served (though serving the wealthy still has its perks). We can pay our doctors today because medicine has moved from an individually learned skill to a scientifically understood professional practice.

This statistical approach still leaves a great deal to be desired: preventative treatments are widely understood to be more effective, but still difficult to fund. We arguably have learned to fund effective treatment but not to fund health precisely because health is more difficult to measure. But the measurements we do have have resulted in a global healthcare system funded by exactly the people who would invest in effective community building if they knew how: governments, employers, and major philanthropic donors.

One Day, You’ll Get Paid

Eventually this will change. Eventually we’ll agree on a definition of what it means to build community effectively, and people who know how to build relationships that change lives and transform the world will be appropriately compensated for their work. But not until we understand how to measure success.

David Jay has been building communities, mostly online, since 2001. He is currently lucky enough to get paid to build community.

Head of mobilization @ the Center for Humane Tech, fascinated with the way that relationships and movements form.

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