The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging

The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging

by Charles Vogl


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Create a Culture of Belonging!

Strong cultures help people support one another, share their passions, and achieve big goals. And such cultures of belonging aren’t just happy accidents - they can be purposefully cultivated, whether they’re in a company, a faith institution or among friends and enthusiasts. Drawing on 3,000 years of history and his personal experience, Charles Vogl lays out seven time-tested principles for growing enduring, effective and connected communities. He provides hands-on tools for creatively adapting these principles to any group—formal or informal, mission driven or social, physical or virtual. This book is a guide for leaders seeking to build a vibrant, living culture that will enrich lives.

Winner of the Nautilus Silver Book Award in the Business and Leadership Category.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626568419
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 09/12/2016
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 248,422
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Charles H. Vogl has been working to build communities since his days as a Peace Corps volunteer. He now works with leaders in technology, finance, media, government, and social change organizations to help them create a meaningful difference. He is also a founding producer at Broken English Productions, creating works that have won several international awards.

Read an Excerpt

The Art of Community

Seven Principles for Belonging

By Charles H. Vogl

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2016 Charles H. Vogl
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-843-3


Understanding Community

In this book, I define a community as a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another's welfare. It's distinct from a group whose members may share ideas, interests, proximity, or any number of things but lack concern for one another. Such groups can have huge memberships, like the Museum of Modern Art, the American Medical Association, or Greenpeace, but their members do not share any strong social connectedness. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, says it best: "They root for the same team and they share some of the same interests, but they are unaware of each other's existence. Their ties, in short, are to common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another."

When we see that others are concerned about our own welfare, we'll invest more in building community with them, and we'll feel more connected. We have communities in our lives that don't have formal membership but to which we feel connected because of this perceived mutual concern: the neighbors on your street or in your apartment building, your pickup sports friends, or even the people you know from your commute. Though informal, these are real and important communities.

Recognizing a Community

There are certain features that are almost universal in healthy communities. While communities have different levels of maturation and sophistication, these features will quickly emerge as communities mature and gain importance. Your success in growing a community will depend on how well you can understand and articulate the following features:

Shared values
Membership identity
Moral proscriptions
Insider understanding

Values Bind a Community

We all want to be part of a group of people who share our values. It doesn't matter if we dress, behave, work, or consume similarly, or even whether we live in the same area. We want to believe that others value what we value (and disdain what we disdain). Shared values are what attract us to a group in the first place. By understanding how a group develops and expresses values, a leader can help a community mature and grow.

We may seek out a community because of a shared activity or interest (people sharing interests often share behaviors). Shared activity indicates sharing some value for the activity. But we'll feel disconnected from such a community if we discover that there aren't enough shared values. For example, consider CrossFit Oakland (CFO). It's a fitness training facility and an affiliate of the global CrossFit fitness network known for a particular style of high-intensity workouts. The CrossFit company that created the network was founded in Northern California in 2000 by Greg Glassman and Lauren Jenai. There are now over thirteen thousand affiliate gyms and more than two million exercisers in the network around the world. The gyms are famous for their strong cultural identity, which includes creating supportive communities that help women get strong alongside men.

CFO is a local gym founded by Mike Minium. He knows that members may join because the gym offers high-intensity and varied training, but they stay because they feel connected and welcome. The community values health, safety, and respect for personal growth far more than strength, speed, and competitiveness. Members show it in their words and instruction and in their acceptance of people at all levels of physical ability. If you look at CFO's website, you'll find this language (edited):

We believe in working hard so you can play outside, play inside, play with your kids, play with your friends, play on vacation, and play your way through life.

We do what we do because we believe it works to get you fitter, stronger, and healthier.

We believe it empowers you to perform better in the gym, in sport, and in life.

We do what we do so that more of you can live longer, healthier, happier, more amazing lives.

We serve you if you want to get in shape and don't know where to begin.

We serve you if you are looking to get better (faster, stronger, fitter) at your sport.

We serve you if you are looking for real, tangible, and lasting changes in your overall health and appearance.

We serve you if you are seeking quality coaching and a supportive community.

It may surprise you that there's belief and service language on a website for a fitness center. I discuss this later. For now, you can see how their public language clearly shares that they value faster, stronger, and healthier members. They also value community, health, and those who "don't know where to begin" (novices). I know from conversations with Mike and from personal visits to CFO gyms that there are also unstated values in the community around honoring the effort of those with the most physical challenges. These include safety, patience, and long-term health rather than near-term performance. Anyone who can afford the fees at CFO can join. But only those who embrace the stated and unstated values will connect and feel genuinely welcome. CFO is a community because the members don't just train together, they care for one another. And members will stay only as long as they continue to feel CFO's commitment to those values.

Virtually all communities express their values either consciously or unconsciously, and often in both ways. They do it with actions and with words. Visitors can learn about these values in explicit ways on a website, in marketing materials, and from formal inquiry. But implicit ways are at least as powerful. They include what members say to one another, whom they welcome, what they share, and with whom and where they spend their money. No matter what the explicit values are, the implicit values will reveal the real deal.

My favorite way is to see where they put their "warm body." I look for what community members value so much that they actually put their bodies near it. With CFO, for example, leaders and members spend significant time in the gym, greet new visitors in person, and help new or low-performing athletes with their exercises rather than spending their time only with high performers. Where members put their warm bodies tells a visitor whether they mean what they say. You may know groups that say they value generosity, contribution, and cooperation, but you have seen that they're actually selfish. Most people quickly figure out the truth.

When I was a documentary filmmaker in New York City, I felt closely connected to an informal community of social justice filmmakers. There was no official membership card or secret handshake. Most of us belonged to several film organizations, but membership in them was not required to be part of our community. Even though there was no formal membership, I felt connected because I knew that other filmmakers cared about my success and well-being, just as I cared about theirs. We shared equipment, crew, legal knowledge, our own labor, and many hard-won lessons. When the film-making partner of one of our members was kidnapped in Nigeria, we raised money to pay for his safe return and provided much-needed emotional support.

I was attracted to that community because we valued telling important stories that would bring a measure of justice and healing to the world. We valued spending our time and money to tell stories that might never provide a positive return on the financial investments we made. We all valued making a difference in the world far more than our own comfort. To this day, I am proud to be a social change documentary filmmaker. Understanding the shared values that attract and keep members in a community is important for leaders. For continued success, leaders must both clearly share and personally represent the values so others can recognize what they want to join.

A community's values evolve as times and people change. Your community almost certainly values something more than outsiders do. It's not important that on the first day you can recognize and name the ultimate values for your community. In fact, it may take some time to understand what things you value more than others. Moreover, as time passes and culture changes, it's imperative that the community values also change. This is how you stay relevant in a dynamic world. For example, it was not long ago that many American communities (like churches) valued racial segregation. While this is still a value in some places, a lot has changed since the 1950s.

Formalization can destroy a community if values are ignored. When efforts arise to formalize or corporatize a community, there's often understandable concern that the effort could destroy the very community it seeks to grow. This is why it's so important to recognize both the explicit and the implicit values that attract and keep members connected. Remember how CFO explicitly values higher performance and a supportive community, and how it implicitly values patience and the efforts of low-performing athletes. Any effort to grow will fail if members sense that the community leadership is neglecting important values or introducing unwelcome ones. For-profit corporations are particularly at risk for this if they value members for their revenue potential rather than for their contribution and commitment. Leaving any meaningful portion of core members feeling disconnected or abandoned is a real danger when formalizing or corporatizing a community and can lead to its destruction.

My friend Margaret has been working for years at a well-known ski resort I'll call Ski Valley. She told me what happened when a major corporate resort operator took over. The new owners celebrated the "soul" of the resort in their marketing, but their actions eroded the connections, camaraderie, and commitment the employees felt at work. She described how she and her coworkers used to look out for one another. She valued the connection between work lives and social lives, the freedom to improve the operations, and the friendliness of a workplace built for happiness.

That all changed when the corporate leadership came. The Welcome sign at the lodge entrance was replaced with three new signs: No Dogs, No Alcohol, and No Drones. Instead of each department celebrating its holiday parties as it chose, all were invited to a combined fifteen-hundred-person event with no intimacy. Now, instead of being able to knock on a manager's door or chat in the locker room to discuss operational improvements, staff receive instructions come from someone miles away. Not only does Margaret miss the opportunity to discuss improvements, she doesn't even know the name of the decision maker. The values that she appreciated about the community aren't there anymore. Margaret said that employees who were fundamentally "do gooders" have left. Instead of coming to work excited to improve guest experiences, many others just "show up." I suspect that whatever standards the executives wanted to bring in, they didn't plan to destroy a culture of vigilant improvement and mutual support.

Communities can have unhealthy implicit values (without knowing it). Unhealthy values are those that aren't serving members and may even restrict connection and enrichment. You've probably seen this in a community somewhere. I briefly worked at an elite educational institution where there was an implicit value of demonstrating "effortless brilliance." Some seemed to love this and showed off their mastery by dazzling others. But many students felt oppressed, fearful, and trapped by this value. They weren't confident that they had brilliance to share. Often, they wouldn't say anything aloud for fear that someone else would cut them down and thus demonstrate a greater effortless brilliance.

You can imagine how little social connection and enrichment was fostered when students feared speaking. The problem was so severe that several students I knew created their own secret communities to be safe from the inevitable criticism and judgment of their peers. In particular, spiritual and religious communities often run into this challenge of unwelcoming implicit values. They may advocate an explicit value of welcoming strangers, but their language (and whom they stand next to) shows that they value their own homogeneity, familiarity, and conformity. It's largely the disagreement over values and apparent hypocrisy that angers outsiders and prevents visitors from joining for connection.

Values and Membership Identity

Because members share values, the community helps answer three important questions for members in some way:

Who am I?
How should I act?
What do I believe?

I call this membership identity. The identity may not apply to all areas of a person's life. In fact, to an outsider it may appear that the values and identities are inconsistent with other areas in the person's life. For example, someone can be generous and kind in one community (church, poker group, or alumni association) and a selfish bully everywhere else. You've probably seen this kind of compartmentalized identity.

What's important to understand is that when a member is in the community, the community's values and identity feel comfortable and right. Further, when members are around other members, those values and their identity are reinforced. Obviously, the particular values and identities that are reinforced will have profoundly different influences in different people's lives. Some values and identities are deeply helpful and others equally hurtful. As a shorthand here, I'll define healthy values as those that encourage members to care for and enrich themselves and others. The more broadly that care is defined, the better.

Stop here for a moment, and think: how would you describe your community's membership identity? If your response is that your community doesn't tell members who they are, what they should do, or what they should believe about anything at any level, then there are two possibilities. First, you're not really creating a community, but only a group. A group may share interests and values, but a community has connections so that members care for the welfare of one another. Second, you're simply not recognizing the membership identity. Consider why someone would seek you out and what that person hopes to gain as a member. Consider what that person expects of members and leadership, both formal and informal.

For example, if you have a weekend bicycling community, are there ideals that your members hold about bicycling? Perhaps they enjoy biking because it's good for their health, or because it's for the brave and adventurous, or because it's an environmentally friendly outdoor activity. These provide an outline for your community's identity. Does your community have ideas about how good bicyclists act? (This is usually identified by contrasting with how bad bicyclists act.) Do you have ideas about your identity as bicyclists? Do you welcome anyone with a bicycle? At any age or skill level? Will someone preparing for the Tour de France fit in with this community? How about a ten-year-old with a mountain bike? You might answer that anyone who enjoys bicycling is welcome, that you have special events for beginners, others for racers, and others for off-roaders. But would a bicycling police officer recording your group for terrorist surveillance fit in equally well?

The point of these questions is to help you recognize that there may be identities present in your community that are unrecognized and unstated. It's important for you to consider them carefully, because there's a twofold danger to not recognizing them. Below are examples shared with me from people I know within supportive communities they cherish.

Melissa recently retired as the first female firefighter captain in the history of New Haven, Connecticut. In her career she ran the busiest firehouse in the city and oversaw two teams. Over the years she has pulled people out of wrecked cars, responded to shootings, and of course put out fires. She told me that she absolutely has a community of firefighters that she knows will respond to her no matter the hour, weather, or emergency. They know that she'll do the same for them. Here's how she describes the identity of her personal community of firefighters:

Melissa's Firefighter Community


Being hypervigilant about saving lives, including a willingness to take high risks.

Embracing life in the present.

Training for years for the single worst day of someone's life.

Deep understanding about a place and circumstances to be ready for emergencies ("pre-fire planning").


Who I am: I'm the fixer on the worst days. I'm the assurance in terrible circumstances.

How I should act: I show up no matter how bad or uncontrollable the situation. I exude confidence and control no matter what surprises show up.

What I believe: I believe life is fragile. I believe our lives can change in a moment, and I believe risking my life is worth saving someone else.

Adam is an executive chef in the San Francisco Bay Area who runs professional kitchens and consults for restaurant owners. He's also building a national food company. He has a community of executive chefs who support one another with big events and logistical challenges, and celebrate together with lots of food. Here's how he describes the identity of his community of chefs:

Adam's Executive Chef Community


Working long hours to create excellent food.

Creating new food experiences.

Respecting people who make extraordinary food.


Excerpted from The Art of Community by Charles H. Vogl. Copyright © 2016 Charles H. Vogl. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introduction: The Inspiration for This Book 1

Part 1 Recognizing Community

1 Understanding Community 9

Part 2 Seven Principles for Belonging

The Seven Principles 31

2 The Boundary Principle 33

3 The Initiation Principle 43

4 The Rituals Principle 49

5 The Temple Principle 67

6 The Stories Principle 75

7 The Symbols Principle 81

8 The Inner Rings Principle 87

Part 3 Advanced Ideas

9 Distinguishing Religion and Avoiding Cult 115

10 Managing Community Face-to-Face and Online 123

Epilogue: Endings and Beginnings 137

Beginning with Acknowledgment 139

Last Thought 143

Resources 145

Appendix A Leader Worksheets 147

Appendix B Dinner Community Case Study 157

Notes 183

Acknowledgments 187

Index 189

About the Author 193

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