Why a Community Approach Is Essential in Times of Disruption

Vleeming-Community Approach Is Essential July 19, 2021 By: Mathijs Vleeming

We say associations are communities, but do associations always act like a community? Embracing a community approach is crucial in times of disruption in order to stay relevant, build a closer relationship with your members, and increase your impact.

Community is in the DNA of every association. After all, their very existence was sparked by a shared interest, passion, purpose, or mission. Some associations are nurturing this community dimension, while others have lost the notion of community as part of their central philosophy and core business.

When associations do the latter, they may create only one-way communications and interactions with their members. As a result, their members become passive consumers of information, and outside an annual conference, the community exists as an email list with little or no interaction among members. Not suprising, this leads to uninvolved members, who might end up leaving after a while for more engaging opportunities.

To avoid this, now is the time for organizations to embrace a community approach in order to maintain relevancy, develop deeper member relationships, and achieve greater impact.

What Is a Community Approach?

Because of the far-reaching social changes and hyper-digital transformation brought on by the global pandemic, members now have a greater need for participation and ownership. In a true community approach, associations would proactively challenge members to contribute ideas and to work with each other year-round to increase the community’s productivity and drive innovation.

In addition, an association’s leadership would transparently collaborate with members to stay ahead in a quickly changing environment. This means a bottom-up approach, through which you are mobilizing and activating your members and empowering them to share and have an influence over your community.

While some corporations are embracing online communities and using and abusing the word to bolster brand building and relieve their helpdesks by setting up support communities, many mission-driven governmental and non-governmental organizations like Greenpeace and the United Nations are successfully using community engagement platforms to mobilize and activate their members and connect knowledge and expertise in a safe and trusted environment. Such platforms harness the power of continuous interaction and collaboration to create a feeling of belonging online.


Now is the time for organizations to embrace a community approach in order to maintain relevancy, develop deeper member relationships, and achieve greater impact.

The Power of Community

An investment in this new community approach is justified due to the increased member engagement and retention that results from it, but community expert David Spinks says in his book The Business of Belonging that the biggest competitive advantage comes from scalability: how you activate those loyal customers or members to contribute their energy, knowledge, and skills.

Spinks writes: “There's strength in numbers. Companies that build engaged communities have access to exponentially more people who contribute to their mission and objectives. Whether it's your product, your marketing, your support, or any other part of your business, you can scale it by building and activating a community.”

In the case of associations, the scalability and the power of community can especially be found in peer-to-peer learning. A community approach is about empowering your members to connect, share knowledge, distribute responsibility, and collaborate and learn with—and from—each other.

Going Back to Your Core

Letting go of some control could be a massive change of mindset for more traditional associations, especially for their boards. But collaborating with your member base is crucial, in order to stay ahead in a rapidly changing environment.

If you do not make use of the hyper-digital transformation caused by the pandemic, someone else could be harnessing the power of communities and online community platforms in your association’s industry or specialization.

Now is the time to go back to your core business of community building, and facilitate and amplify your special and unique existing sense of community in a safe and trusted online environment where your members can connect and collaborate.

Doing so will increase engagement—and potentially improve your business model as well. It builds a closer and more resilient relationship with your members, makes your organization more agile and future-proof, and above all, it can increase your association’s impact toward your mission.

Mathijs Vleeming

Mathijs Vleeming is a strategic consultant at Open Social in Amsterdam.