A Sense of Purpose: Strong Communities Can Overcome Big Challenges

Jan 4, 2016

Cook-offs, bike rides, parades and dance parties—these are not the traditional public hearing-style events for which government agencies are known.

But these events helped to fuel the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Rebuild by Design Challenge (PDF, 484 KB, 1 page, January 2016), boosting the collective morale among a complex, multidisciplinary network of engaged stakeholders.

Hands reaching together for a handshake

Because the challenge’s community structure was based on a common goal—to rebuild following Hurricane Sandy—participants left their egos at home, shared information and learned from one another. The desire to serve a cause greater than themselves brought thousands of people and hundreds of organizations together.

“Designers were learning from finance people and finance people were learning from designers and they were all learning from hydrologists,” said Scott Davis, who helped administer the HUD challenge, which included a series of community events in various neighborhoods.

Currently on loan from HUD to the RAND Corporation, Davis continues to work on issues related to disaster recovery, resilience and adaptation. During a recent Challenge.gov webinar, Building a Community, he joined an expert panel to describe how developing strong, problem-solving communities can increase the likelihood of a successful challenge and provide momentum even after the competition.

The New Normal

As Americans become increasingly mobile, the traditional concept of community has expanded from a city, town or state to include the online domain, with networks stretching the globe.

Individual and teams contribute money to fund a solution

Federal crowdsourcing events, such as challenge and prize competitions, represent an inexpensive way to bring together diverse mindsets to solve problems of various scope and scale.

“People feel a sense of purpose” when they are part of a community, said Jono Bacon, director of community at GitHub. He added that members of a community gain access to tools, knowledge and other people.

And while the concept of community may be fading in the physical world, it has grown in the online world. Just look at Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap, the Open Compute Project and more.

These initiatives are known as “write” communities and include people brought together by the idea of improving something, said Bacon, who until recently led community efforts at XPRIZE.

A community grows and takes shape somewhat naturally, but Bacon and Davis also offered advice for how to manage that growth:

On Size

  • Communities can grow to any size. For large communities, the key is providing a framework for navigating the community without getting bogged down in bureaucracy, Bacon said.
  • Added Davis: This will allow people to give to and take from the community in a meaningful way.

On Cost

  • Community building and engagement should not be shortchanged in the funding process. Convince funders early on that there will be a larger return on investment if they adequately staff the community building aspect. “Don’t look at it as the cost to do it, look at the cost of not doing it,” Davis said. “The benefits will extend in ways you can’t really imagine in the moment.”
  • The value of community—relationships, creativity and collaboration—is difficult to define in economic terms or with performance metrics. Define realistic ways to chart the success of your community and build a strategy around that. After all, “unity is in many ways an intangible value,” Bacon said.

On Getting Started

  • It takes a variety of different approaches. Look at the demographic you want to build out and engage with that community. Be authentic. “The very best people who build communities are people building communities for themselves,” Bacon said. For example, software engineers building a community for software engineers.
  • Building a community from scratch can be overwhelming. Keep in mind that you’re building a community of communities that overlap in interest areas and professional applications. “Take advantage of existing communities and those mechanisms and tools and build with those pieces so you don’t have to build everything from scratch,” Davis said.

On Expectations

  • Be careful when hiring a community manager. There is ambiguity in how the industry defines community management, evangelism and community engagement. “Be really clear in what you’re looking for,” Bacon said. “I’ve seen mismatched expectations.”
  • Engage the end-user early on the front end. Don’t come in at the end and say, “Here is your solution, does this work?” Davis said.

Finally, Bacon and Davis emphasized that the positive impact doesn’t end once a winner is announced. The community formed during a challenge can help continue the work after the competition is over.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JhOZP61_XI&w=600]Next up in their training series, Challenge.gov will cover the importance of capitalizing on the momentum of a challenge after a prize has been awarded. The Post-Prize Industry and Post-Prize Impact webinar will take place on Jan. 14. These Challenge.gov training modules are part of a seven-part expert training series, How to Design & Operate Prizes to Maximize Success, hosted by DigitalGov University.

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