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Sense of Community

Created Mar 22 2021, 6:01 PM by Communities Reinvented
  • Fundamentals of CoPs


  • The Sense of Community has four components: membership, influence, fulfillment of needs, and emotional connection.
  • The Sense of Community is a key characteristic of successful communities, successful meaning active, engaged communities that people want to visit, and where members contribute on a regular basis.
  • To foster a Sense of Community, be sure to clearly define who is in and who is out; ensure that members voices are heard; ensure that members’ needs are fulfilled and that emotional connections are formed.

What is the Sense of Community?

This concept was developed by McMillan & Chavis (Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory, David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis, Journal of Community Psychology, Volume 14, 1986). They state that a sense of community can be broken down conceptually into four elements:

  • Membership - it defines who is in the community and who is out. It shows that people value the sense of belonging which comes with being identified as a member. Fan clubs are an extreme example of the power of membership and are often characterized by symbols of membership such as badges and t-shirts. A professional association,  another example of a community of practice, might have formal membership requirements such as fees and exams before you can join.

  • Influence -  the notion that “my voice counts.”  When you speak, others listen and often act on your advice. 

  • Fulfillment of needs - people belong to communities to satisfy one or more needs. In a community of practice, a common need is to get better at one’s job or profession.

  • Emotional connection - it includes shared history and shared participation and identification with that history, and a deeply felt connection between members. It is the most nebulous aspect of the Sense of Community, but still very important. 

Why is a Sense of Community important?

A key characteristic of successful communities (successful meaning active, engaged communities that people want to visit, and where members contribute on a regular basis) is a sense of community.  A sense of community is essential for a successful, ongoing, sustainable community.

How do you foster a Sense of Community?

To foster a sense of community, address each of the four components that contribute to a Sense of Community.

Membership - When you are setting up your community, be clear about who is in and who is out. Setting clear requirements for membership is essential. For example, is the community for an organization’s employees and contractors only, or is it for an external audience of partners, NGOs, and academic institutions as well? From a different perspective, is the community for technical experts in a specific topic area, or for anyone who has a passing interest in the topic area? 

Practical recommendation: Be very clear and deliberate about who to target and invite, but also, stay nimble - over time the community might need to expand the scope and audience, or vice versa. 

Influence - At the very least, being a member of a community should assure the opportunity to speak and ensure that you will be heard. If you are not heard, there is little incentive for you to speak and to remain a member of the community. At the same time, you can allow for other members to influence you because you value their opinion and advice.

Practical recommendation: Ensure your community is inclusive. For every event or activity you design, design it in a way that is welcoming and safe, and create opportunities for everyone to participate and contribute. 

Fulfillment of needs - If member needs are not being met, members will leave. If the content is not appropriate, relevant, current, or useful, then attendance, contributions, participation, engagement, and membership will soon begin to fall. It is vital for the continued existence of the community to ensure that your member needs are being met.

Practical recommendation: Survey and interview members on a regular basis and monitor the content to ensure that it is being consumed to ensure that Member Needs are being met and that they are continuing to get value from the community.

Emotional connection - While not the prime reason for joining Communities of Practice, an emotional connection between members is often a key factor for ensuring that members stay for the long term. Focus for a moment on the term “community”: one of the purposes of a Community of Practice is to create a sense of belonging, get people with a common interest to know, trust, and support each other. This connection is particularly vital amongst your most active members: your Core Team and your Core Group.

Practical recommendation: As well as providing for the technical and professional advancement needs of the practitioners create occasions for them to get to know each other and bond as a true community, for example, respond to their emotional needs for connection with “water cooler” gatherings, regular socials, and personal celebrations for birthdays, anniversaries, births and other personal events.

This article is part of the WBG Communities of Practice Toolkit licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The toolkit features practical resources to help you develop impactful Communities of Practice. 📖 Learn more about the Toolkit.  ▶ Access the Toolkit

  • Really great ideas & concepts here! Much appreciated.