The Association as a Planned Community

By: Rick Mockler

Looking for new ways to build membership, improve communication, and create dynamic events? Take some cues from the best residential communities, where opportunities for connection are literally built in.

How's this for a cross-training exercise? Leave your association career and take a job designing and building neighborhoods, taking responsibility for the residents, streets, homes, walkways, and common areas. Take a break from building a professional community—build a physical community instead.

For me, this was more than an exercise. In the past decade, I went from leading a human-services association to cofounding a development firm. Our niche business specialized in pocket neighborhoods that facilitate strong neighborly ties. About 18 months ago I came back to association work, and I was surprised at how much of my community building in neighborhoods applies directly to association management. Working in these two fields, I've observed a common denominator among their most successful leaders: Their vision transcends day-to-day products and services. Instead, they promote a sense of connection among members.

If you have a few years and money to spare, I'd recommend joining a real estate firm and developing neighborhoods. But if you'd prefer the executive summary, here's what I've learned, from the macro issues of site planning and urban design right down to furnishings and decor.

Line of Sight

Outstanding design guides us without our being aware of it. Good architects, for example, plot the streets, pathways, and orientation of homes in ways that gently direct our attention. An often unnoticed but key design element for neighborhoods is the line of sight.

If you want people to connect naturally and spontaneously, visual connections are essential. Because our firm's goal was to inspire people to step out of their homes and participate in the community, we positioned windows and porches so residents could easily look out onto a common pathway, bench, or patio furniture and see their neighbors. These visual connections sparked socializing. If someone wanted to catch up or ask a favor, they were inspired to step outside and chat.

Next, we positioned the neighborhood common facility to be visible from the central path, so that once someone stepped outside they could see who was entering, leaving, or hanging out on the deck. The visual cues pulled them in.

For associations, think of a member's workplace as her home; your challenge as an association leader is to draw members' attention to your gathering nodes. The nodes could be local chapters, internet forums—any natural first step to draw members in. Maybe it's a student chapter while they're still in school, but the key is to enable members to look down the path and notice the greater activity. Some call this "transparency," but I prefer "line of sight" because we're subtly directing the member's attention.

Virtual sight lines require even more intention than physical ones. Unfortunately, association websites and social network platforms often obstruct our view. Perhaps a local chapter just never gets around to posting their events or maybe a social network platform feels more like a maze then a vista. While I'm not a big fan of Facebook's content, I love its design for including so many sight lines. When members log on to Facebook, they immediately see who else from their network is also online. When an event is occurring, members see a list of others who have registered. The system is always engaging us.


In a vibrant neighborhood, walking is supported through connected street grids, appealing landscapes, and interesting cafes and local shops. One of the biggest obstacles to this is cars, so good designers work to slow traffic and buffer it from people, letting bikers and pedestrians know they're welcome.

An association's challenge is also to slow traffic, so members will see your offerings and connect. This came up for us recently in our conference exhibit area. We realized members were dashing between booths to get their passports stamped but not actually stopping to chat or learn. The "speeders" were disrupting our pedestrians. After conferring with our vendors, we decided to slow traffic: We eliminated the passports.

Website traffic poses a slightly different issue. High volume is not ordinarily a problem, but you still want to encourage people to walk around. A key overlooked metric is the page where people most often leave your site—associations often have a page where lots of members race in and then quickly race back out. Think of this as an opportunity to encourage folks to get out and check out the neighborhood. The trick is to have enough signposts and teasers to catch their attention before they speed away.

Eyes on the Street

When city planning codes prohibit high fences in front yards and require homes be oriented to the street, it's not just for aesthetics. More eyes on the street translate into greater public safety. If there is a common pattern among industries in trouble, it's that no one is minding the street. Proactive associations "mind the street" by encouraging licensing, quality standards, and enforcement.

In my association's industry, our state Department of Community Care Licensing regulates childcare facilities. For some time, there had been growing frustration between the department and some of our members. A couple of years ago, the head of the licensing department and our association intervened with a series of regional listening sessions that identified issues and problems. A joint work group produced a detailed Q&A document, followed up with a second series of meetings.

This joint intervention didn't just neutralize adversity; our members have become supporters of the licensing department in the face of statewide cuts in staffing and funding. As an association we support their mission and have consulted with them on their efforts to streamline while also becoming more user friendly.

Gathering Places

Planners and architects often refer to a "third place"—a bar, coffee shop, or other hangout that's neither home nor work where people can gather to relax and enjoy each other's company. Smart developers build storefronts, playgrounds, dog parks, and all sorts of shared amenities because they create extra value. The vitality of a community can be judged by the volume and diversity of its gathering places.

What are your association's gathering places? Hopefully your exhibit hall is both a marketplace and a playground, a place for members to connect and hang out as well as do business.

The best gathering places are often layered within existing structures. Chapters, sections, and committees, for example, are all gathering places. While meetings need to be well run and efficient, they are also places for members to connect. After all, connection is a major reason why people join in the first place. I think of a good committee as working the community garden: It involves sweat, sowing, and weeding, but it is also social, rewarding, and hopefully produces a nourishing product.

Diversity of Building Types

There was a time when builders could put up acres of identical housing. Homes were a commodity; neighborhoods were afterthoughts. Strong communities today offer choices: apartments, varied home sizes, condos, townhomes, and local centers with stores and offices. Aside from visual appeal and effectively segmented marketing, this approach also serves a person's changing needs throughout his life.

What if an association saw itself as a town center surrounded by a patchwork of housing types? Communities of practice would emerge fluidly, and associations would quickly respond with the right structures. While some members like to be clustered by geography, discipline, or career stage, others might sort by psychographics. For example, traditional association events often favor extroverts, but more tailored approaches can create venues for members to connect in smaller groups.

Just as smart neighborhoods support residents later in life by incorporating retirement communities and supportive housing, smart associations support members over the arc of their careers. Many baby boomers, for example, will defer retirement past age 65, and even after they have stopped working many will still want to stay connected. These are all opportunities for new structures and offerings to members.


Compared to the sweeping view of city or neighborhood design, meal settings may seem mundane. They're not. Good designers pay close attention to the human interface—the crucial details that determine how people experience their creation. And few things are more intimate or meaningful to people than their meals.

Our firm's neighborhoods always included a common facility that could host meals, and we noticed the serving style affected the chemistry of interactions. We used serving bowls that people could pass around because we found that this stimulated camaraderie. Other serving arrangements created a less social experience, making residents more likely to dine quickly and dash out. So my association has introduced family-style dining at some events, sometimes for an entrée or perhaps for dessert. Beyond mealtime, we review our event seating and layout to make sure we're not just being efficient but facilitating member connections.

The ideal pairing of furnishing and activity creates an atmosphere of intimacy and connection. Our annual conference planning committee had an inspiration last year: Instead of hiring a live performer one evening, it created a karaoke night. We coupled cozy surroundings and member participation to create a hit event that was fun, memorable, and received rave reviews from attendees.

Architects and End Users

Our development firm pioneered a process that engaged future residents in the planning of their neighborhood. Our architects told us that they could design 90 percent of the neighborhood by themselves, but the rest could only be accomplished by consulting with future residents. That last 10 percent made a big difference, because it created the elements of community identity: the unique water feature, the springed ballroom floor, the distinctive landscape plan.

While every association wants to be responsive to members, the challenge is to customize services without becoming inundated with specific demands. The key is a clear and disciplined process. We differentiated between programming and design. An experienced architect engaged the group to create a "program" that identified users' needs, desires, and preferences, but the architect still did the drawing. The architect showed sketches to the group to confirm whether he met the group's program, but he didn't hand pencils out to the group.

Member involvement is vital, but everyone has a horror story about member involvement gone bad. Dissecting these stories, I usually notice that an effective process was absent. Member participation does not mean turning over operational decisions that are appropriately made by staff. Effective participation requires a clear and disciplined process and effective facilitation, so everyone's time, energy, and role is respected and rewarded.

Creating Value

In our gut, most of us know that social connection is valuable. Academics have supported that idea in books like Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone and in specialized case studies. In my own area of early childhood education, research shows that young families enrolled in childcare centers fare notably better than similar families using less social forms of childcare, simply because the center environment creates connection and mutual support among parents.

Despite all this evidence, however, Americans' cultural bias toward individualism discounts community. So to secure investors and bankers, we had to demonstrate that our social value translated into monetary value. Fortunately, independent appraisals did just that: Homes in our neighborhoods commanded a 15 percent premium over similar homes in more conventional subdivisions. It turns out that you can take social capital to the bank.

To be clear, the value of community building goes far beyond money. Consider the story of developer James Rouse, who helped build Columbia, Maryland, in the early 1960s. At the time, he declared it would be a racially integrated community—an unusual stance for a developer at that time and place. Builders were afraid that they weren't going to be able to sell the homes. Only after several shaky years did the project take off and eventually become a success.

I share this because Rouse and his partners were no doubt encouraged by local builders to view Columbia simply as a financial investment and to define "community" in a narrow way. Many of us in associations have faced analogous dilemmas. But authentic community is about more than curb appeal, and it's not about constructing gates to keep people out. Community building is an opportunity to draw in colleagues and members from far and wide, creating value by connecting them to something larger than themselves.

Keep Building

Community building is never finished. In their recent book The Abundant Community, John McKnight and Peter Block argue that consumerism has eroded neighborhood life because it encourages residents to be passive and stop taking an active role in their community. In response, they emphasize the importance of local associations where residents connect around common interests. While they describe smaller volunteer associations, their point is relevant to larger and more professionalized ones. We can't build community from the top down; it has to come from the grassroots up. We can't just produce goods and services for our members to consume; we also need to create an environment where members can connect, share, collaborate, and thrive.

Community building is a blend of structure and spontaneity. Great design creates an environment that encourages community, but ultimately there are some things that we as association managers can't control. We need enough humility to remember that while we are the architects and general contractors, our members are the residents who will choose to use our structures as they please. While as association staff we may produce fantastic products and services, our ultimate legacy is the quality of our community.

Rick Mockler is executive director of the California Head Start Association in Sacramento, California. Email: [email protected]

Online Extra Video: David Gammel on Engaging Members

Building community into your association works best when you understand what engagement you're creating for your members. David Gammel from High Context Consulting talks about what engagement entails and how to use your database and website to accelerate member engagement with your organization.