This is a Milly Tamati inspired post, where she described the hard yet important work of advocating:
Part of the unwritten rules of my job as a founder and community builder is to advocate. Be a fierce support & a force for amplifying not only others, but the movement as a whole.
Clearing my schedule and responding to this essay is an act of advocating.
But as I proofread my copy for the 15th time, and hit 'send' to thousands of readers, I won't lie. I feel a bit nervous.
Even as someone who spends all their working days thinking about this conversation, I can struggle to put all this into words. We’re all working in an increasingly complicated, fluid system with so many factors at play.
When people want to start a community, in addition to creating the intended "purpose", they are often advised to do practical things like build a website. Start an email list. Or build an audience.
These are valid and useful things to do, but when you're rallying people, they need something to believe in and get excited about. They need to know you care for them and their beliefs. Being an audience member and looking in from the outside often doesn't cut it.
So many of the communities that spring to my mind never started with an audience. They started by advocating for something that they cared so deeply about. The care. The research. The challenging of that what exists in the world today is not enough.
They started doing stuff. Taking action. And sure, building an audience can be a type of action, but usually people need to do things to get there. Advocating for your kind of people is a great way to get there.
Communities often start when people see a problem worth advocating for. One that needs exploring. One that gets them excited. One where attempts are made to do something better than what exists. All of this creates an energy that people naturally flock to.
When we advocate we become the black sheep or the purple cow. The one that stands out. The one that is doing what we all want to do. The one that takes the steps to become a leader. The one that takes risks to see and say the truth.
It is this advocating that other people follow. Sometimes it shows up as an audience. Other times people simply see and recognize it. Then there are the whisper networks that are then amplified by (online) word of mouth.
But advocating is energy draining. As Milly pointed out above. What seems like a small task to show up, write, discuss, and debate is actually hours of effort. The emotional energy can be incredibly draining.
It's not only energy draining from doing the visible work. It's energy draining for doing everything that surounds it. Listening to people. Processing all the information. And of course, dealing with personal attacks that often come as part of the story.
I see plenty of people advocating for what they believe in. They are the ones that often (and eventually) end up succeeding as leaders in their field. Sometimes it leads to them building communities, or people naturally gather around them.
In this instance, advocating is a path to credibility, a career, a community or becoming 'influencer-y'. To get to this success takes years and this is what companies need to get better at understanding.
Companies see those who advocate and what it can lead to. They then want "some of that"!
How can companies get better at advocating?
As community professionals, we should then think of advocating for people from a company's perspective.
Are companies willing to do the advocating work? Sure some are, I'm not convinced most will see the value of committing. Or at least, experience and seeing what happens in practice tells me otherwise.
Advocating as a company adds complexities.
- Who is going to do the work?
- How will there be an ongoing commitment?
- Where does the budget come from?
- How will people trust that the company is truly advocating?
- How does advocating as a company differ from a grass roots individual person perspective?
- What does good advocacy actually look like?
- Where does it happen?
- How do we know it's working?
Perhaps building a community is not about doing the exercise around defining a "community purpose".
Is it that before building community, companies should get good at advocating for our people and for what we believe in? Is great advocacy what is really needed to lay a foundation for a community?
When we go through the process of advocating, we start to understand how a community should exist. Our advocacy will lead to our "community purpose".
If we can't advocate well, what chance do we have to build a community?
If we do advocate well, everything else we and the people need to build community will fall into place.
As a way to check if companies are ready to build community, should we be asking for evidence of what advocacy they have done?
Of course, it's easier said than done. 🐌