30 May The Community Dictionary | Episode 3 – Belonging
Welcome to the Community Dictionary. This series of articles will feature the English version of the Italian spoken podcast hosted by Marta Mainieri, and produced by Produzioni Dal Basso.
“Belonging” might as well have been the first word in our community dictionary: indeed, this is the primary ingredient of community-making. We have been emphasizing this since Episode 1: if there is no sense of belonging and if members do not feel part of a community, then there is no community at all.
A sense of belonging – Definition
A sense of belonging is what motivates members to be and do together. Those who feel they belong to a group are willing to devote time to the community and engage in various activities: attending events, contributing ideas, and even taking charge of initiatives. A sense of belonging brings members together and allows them to recognize each other without ever having met. While belonging was once associated with territory and excluded strangers, nowadays, in the diversity of environments in which communities operate, belonging is defined by simpler aggregating elements such as passion, practice, territory, a common condition, or a shared product. Upon these aggregating elements are built the value proposition of a community, its purpose, and thus its identity and sense of belonging.
Of course, defining a perimeter within which to cultivate a sense of belonging is not enough. Time, for example, is an important variable that cannot be controlled. A sense of belonging establishes a bond with the community and its members, and fostering these bonds, and thus relationships, takes time, especially if you want them to endure. The time variable, however, can certainly be aided by actions taken by those promoting the community.
The role of branding
The first action is the creation of a brand and visual identity that serves as both a container and a messenger of the community’s identity. For today’s communities, whose members are no longer confined within well-defined territorial boundaries but are spread across distant locations, branding is crucial. The fluidity of relationships within the community, and the ease with which members can join and leave, makes it necessary to have a clear, unambiguous, even symbolic message that newcomers can identify with and “older” members can use to solidify relationships. In today’s communities, the brand becomes the evident expression of the diverse personalities, activities, and experiences that converge around a common project or idea.
Branding thus becomes essential in uniting all these different personalities together and cultivating a sense of shared belonging. This holds true for both for-profit communities and nonprofit organizations. Consider, for example, the experience of Nolo, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Milan that has now become a hub of civic activism. The creation of a brand played a vital role in developing the identity and sense of belonging among its citizens, consequently driving them to take action.
Actions can encourage belonging
Precisely the latter is another key element on which to grow a sense of belonging. The experience, the doing together, asides from being a foundational part of community membership, it must also generate a degree of satisfaction that encourages members to participate continuously. In fact, those who participate in a community should experience a double satisfaction: one as individuals fulfilling their personal needs that prompted them to join the community (usually related to information, economics, or purpose), and another as individuals contributing to a group that rallies around a value proposition. The more individuals recognize the experience as valuable to themselves and others, the stronger their pride in belonging to the community grows.
Enabling and the sense of belonging: a direct relationship.
Lastly, the sense of belonging is directly proportional to how much an organization actually enables its community (referring to Episode 2 of our podcast). The more members are involved in the design and management of the community, the more active they become. As involvement increases, the sense of belonging deepens. A research report conducted a few years ago by Collaboriamo and the Catholic University of Milan on Blablacar revealed that 40% of ambassadors (those most active in using the service) claimed to be highly involved in the community, compared to 26% of those with less experience.
Not all members, in fact, feel the same level of belonging within the community. As a community grows larger, older members, for example, may experience a stronger sense of belonging compared to newer members who may be criticized for not even knowing the community founder’s name. This phenomenon, though amusing, actually indicates that changes are occurring within the community and that the sense of belonging is also influenced by the community’s openness. However, we will discuss this further in our next episode.
If you would like to contribute to the debate or contact us for further information, please write us to firstname.lastname@example.org.