Community is a hot topic these days. After years of pandemic separation and responding to crisis after crisis, we’re seeing more energy and interest in collaboration than ever before. When we launched Profit & Purpose last year, we noted that nonprofits and companies alike were ready for more dynamic partnerships that tackled big community problems – and many of the projects coming from these partnerships are exciting.

In the last six months, we’ve seen collaborations around FAFSA and making post-secondary education more accessible, partnerships that invest in hyper-local education projects and groups imagining what a future workforce needs to be successful. While many partnerships are in their earliest days, we are having more conversations than ever before about collaboration and how we can build something stronger, more resilient and more community-driven.

The conversation isn’t limited to nonprofits and CSR divisions of companies. Our communities are facing some big challenges around education, housing, workforce development and more. And, nearly every community institution is reckoning with how to best engage and help work towards big solutions. I snapped to attention in my own church yesterday when the topic of community came up yet again and I found this line to be especially profound (thanks, Matt O’Neill!).

 “Alone we ruminate. Together we reflect.” 

Rumination is the act of thinking about a single idea, turning it over and over again in our minds. At its best, this is meditative and deep – but more often it is repetitive and crazy-making. Several definitions compare it to a ‘cow chewing cud’ – which is great for cows but not so great for innovation and productive action. (I went to middle school next to a cow field. Trust me when I say that cows are not known for their decisive action and quick thinking).

To reflect means to think deeply about something but I like this definition better: ‘to give something back, as light or sound.’ I think this is an incredible definition of collaboration done well. When we reflect together we’re able to see ourselves, along with different points of view with more clarity. We gain the ability to see the full picture – including things we couldn’t see when we were ruminating alone.

In the social good space, collaboration is a hotter topic than ever. We all believe that the way forward is together – so how do we do this effectively?

Communities of Practice

As we continue to build out the Cultivate platform, we’ve been more and more inspired by communities of practice. The term was coined in 1991 by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, who described communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

So simple – but so powerful. The heart of a thriving community of practice is the combination of shared expertise, community and active practice. Last week, Josh shared that we’re studying Impact Networks and putting this concept into practice on our Cultivate network. Here is why we believe that communities of practice are the way forward as we tackle complex, community-level challenges:

Communities of Practice break down silos. 

There’s been a lot of talk about silos in the last several years. Nonprofits, companies, foundations, neighborhoods and governments are all working on community-level challenges – but no one organization has all the answers and resources needed. Conversations about more collaboration and bringing more people to the table have rightfully been prevalent – but actually shifting to a collaborative model is challenging.

Communities of practice break the silos because the requirements for joining are so simple – a concern or passion for an issue and the regular practice of it. This means that anyone with both concern and credible practice can be ‘at the table.’ Once a trusted community has been established, it isn’t bound by the typical norms of a single entity setting the agenda and sending invitations.

Companies, large foundations, community leaders, day-to-day practitioners of the work, faith communities, academic institutions and more can work directly together. This is where reflection feels so powerful – when we sit in a community centered on a specific issue (vs. title or organization) we see the strengths, experiences and expertise of a range of people reflected back at us, moving us forward and giving us new ways to think about challenges.

Communities of Practice solve problems faster. 

Early in the pandemic, I had the opportunity to spend time with UCITY Family Zone, an organization that leverages a community of practice model. They work at a neighborhood level, bringing together grassroots leaders alongside local institutions to bring forward community-driven solutions across a range of issues, including health, food security, education and more. In mid-2020, they let me join a virtual meeting of neighborhood leaders who were responding to COVID crises that were outside the purview of any one organization. In one case, they discussed an apartment fire that had left several families without a home. In just minutes, a nonprofit, a church and a neighborhood leader had checked every challenge off the list and ensured that these families would be housed, fed and helped to find new housing – an activity that would typically have taken multiple calls to multiple organizations over several hours.

While this is a highly-localized example, this process makes responding to challenges faster and easier to reach. Because these organizations had taken the time to establish trust, they were able to quickly bring forward their resources and ideas together, rather than problem-solving on their own, creating wins for everyone involved.

Communities of Practice make the work bigger.
Nearly every leader we speak with right now has ‘system-change’ top of mind. This is true of grassroots leaders, institutional leaders, academic leaders and everyone in between. We know our systems need to be evaluated and revised – but how can we do this when we only have the power of our single institution? Again – alone, we ruminate.

When we work in communities of practice, the work becomes more than just the tasks we take on at our individual organizations. It becomes about the system as a whole and how collaboration can build greater outcomes. The systems are too big and too complex for any of us to tackle on our own – no one person or organization has the expertise, resources and network to tackle it all.

But when we reflect together we gain new perspectives, more creative solutions, more robust networks and a greater bank of resources. Working in community projects a stronger, louder voice and more robust discussion – making the work bigger than any one institution or individual and creating wins across the board.

Building an Intersection

We believe communities of impact – or impact networks – are a highly effective way to bring stakeholders together to tackle big community challenges. As we continue to build our Cultivate platform, we plan to build a space that offers a highly collaborative environment that enables stakeholders from across communities to come together around specific topics for learning, discussion and problem-solving.

We believe that meeting at the ‘intersection’ of our work is where the most effective work happens. Communities of practice are the act of building this intersection where we can come together, bringing our best ideas and resources forward to build the community we want – together.

Written by Janet Ervin