How to Decide the Best Community Contribution

How to Decide on the Best Community ContributionLast week, I wrote about deadbeats in the community. I even swore. In English. It was great.

I didn’t really mean it.

Well, I did mean some of it, like the part where I say screw the deadbeats who use ‘community’ as their reason why I should contribute my time and effort into helping them build their business. And I did mean to start a discussion about what community should really be all about.

You see, no one is discussing what community means. We all have our opinions, certainly, and the amazing number of comments on the ‘Screw Community‘ post clearly conveyed that.

But what was interesting is that people were thanking me for bringing up something that up to now, has only been suffered in silence. Communities on the internet are relatively new and evolving every day. It seems we should be talking about them and shaping them.

We’re not. We’re becoming bitter about them. It’s time for that to stop, and it’s time to start looking at which communities are worth the time and effort. We all need to be making wiser decisions about our contributions to the communities we should be building.

Just What Is a Community, Anyways?

A community, in its most basic definition, is a group of people who:

  • Live in a particular area
  • Have common ownership
  • Have common interests
  • Have an agreement of goals
  • Interact with each other

We already know that community isn’t an obligation. You don’t have to be part of one. You don’t automatically become a member. You have choice, and there are a wide range of communities you can choose to be part of.

Community is a good thing. By joining together as one, people can make great stuff happen, both for themselves and for others. Everyone gets more of what they want, faster than they could have on their own, and usually with much greater impact and better results.

What’s In It For You?

Before you decide to support any person, cause or community, though, you really need to do your homework. It’s tempting to accept an offer of contributing to a shiny new business or a developing community ready to take on the world, especially when you imagine the potential returns.

And, it can create some stress, too. You might toss the decision around for a few days, thinking about the time you’d have to spend but worrying that if you say no, you might miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could decide quickly whether you should or shouldn’t say yes? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could see the future?

Well, yes. Yes, it would.

Since we can assume that no one reading this blog has that crystal-ball gazing talent, though, we have to rely on other ways to make decisions. And that means weighing the pros versus the cons objectively. That’s the only way you can make an informed decision on whether supporting a community cause is the right one for you.

The Kind of Communities I Support

I support plenty of people and communities. I do my part. I give my time or money freely where I think it will be best spent. But of course, I can’t contribute to everything, nor do I want to. There is only so much of me and mine to go around. The same goes for you.

So how do I choose which communities to support, and which people to help out? I have a checklist. And I’ll tell you about that checklist and what’s on it in a moment. But above all, even before going through this checklist, I ask myself some very simple questions:

  • Do I know who he or she is?
  • Does the individual have a track record or history as reference?
  • Do other people know this person?
  • Do I trust the person asking me for help?

If I answer any of these questions with “no”, then that’s it. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. The buck stops here.

Trust has to be one of the largest determining factors in any contribution I make. Every single person or charity or community or cause that I’ve ever given to has been one that had already gained my trust. Without trust, I have nothing at all to fall back on, and there’s simply no guarantees I’m not being taken for a ride.

James’ Magical Contribution Checklist

If there is indeed an established measure of trust between myself and the cause in question, then there’s good reason to move forward to deciding whether the cause is one I’d like to contribute to. So, I measure the decision against my answers to the following:

  • Do I believe in this cause? Does it match my personal values?
  • Is the individual a friend of mine or a member of family?
  • Has the person demonstrated willingness to contribute in equal or greater measure?
  • Is there any potential return or gain for my business or me?
  • Will I gain exposure or promotion with my target market?
  • Will this person, business or community improve my life or help me in some way?
  • Is there any immediate or short-term benefit for my contribution?
  • Has this person, business or community helped me or improved my life already?
  • Will my contribution help one person, a few people or many people?
  • Does the individual or group truly need my contribution to survive or achieve their goal?
  • Is this person, business or community one that will help me back when I need it?
  • How much time/effort/money will I have to contribute, for how long, and can I afford it?
  • What will I have to sacrifice in order to contribute to this cause?
  • Do I like this person, business or community?

Let’s take this in context, shall we?

Once Upon a Time…

Nick Cernis decides to open a blog called Put Things Off. Joy for Nick. I have no idea who he is, what his blog is about, and couldn’t care less. I go about my day.

Then Michael Martine, a friend of mine, tells me I should go read Nick’s blog. I know Michael, we have similar interests, and I trust his judgment. And he’s telling me to read Nick. Off I go.

Nick’s post is good. I appreciate his writing. I enjoy his humor. His ideas get me thinking. I like the questions he raises – and they’re ones that I’ve idly thought about myself. Plus, I just got to read a free blog post on a subject I’m already interested in. I leave a comment to show Nick I like his work, and then I go about my day.

Two days later, Nick shows up at my blog. He leaves a comment – witty, insightful… he’s obviously read my post. And his comment encourages a few other comments. A discussion ensues, and I am happy.

This continues several times until Nick and I recognize each other easily. We know each other’s blog. We like each other. We’ve commented back and forth. We hang around with the same people, too. We’re buddies!

And Nick emails me with a request. (Or maybe I emailed Nick. Whatever.) I am happy to comply, and because I like Nick, I even go the extra mile. Nick is happy, I feel good, life is grand.

Three months later, I email Nick with a request. (Or maybe he emailed me. Whatever.) He returns the kindness I paid him some time back, I am thrilled, he feels great, life is wonderful.

And these days? Nick doesn’t even have to ask. Neither do I. We contribute to each other’s ventures in whatever ways we can. We are part of a community.

Community is Your Friends

A community isn’t a group of people you don’t know. A community is a group of people who are your friends, who support you and who believe in you and who are there if you need them. They give when they can and they help you when you’re down.

That’s community.

These people are the ones that don’t ask you to put on a face. You can come to them in hard times and admit you’re stuck. They won’t laugh. They’ll help. They can come to you, too, and you’re there for them as well. And if neither of you can help each other, then you each work hard to find someone who can.

That’s community.

These are the people who are more than happy to give you a leg up and help you reach your goals because they think you’re pretty great and that you deserve that leg up. They’re happy to see you win, to get ahead, to have a better life. They’ll do what they can to help you make it happen.

That’s community.

These are the people who have the right to ask you to guest post or write some copy or contribute an ebook or get help with some design. These people are business savvy, sure, and they’ll use that savvy, of course.

And if they didn’t sincerely like you, and they didn’t sincerely want to give back, they wouldn’t ask.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. The coolest part about the internet, dating back to at least usenet, is that we can deliberately create our own communities of like-minded people.

    Our shared – community – spaces need not be co-located in meatspace.

    Even cooler: we can be part of wildly different communities, all at the same time.

    BTW, you have a borked anchor on Nick’s link.
    .-= Dave Doolin´s last blog ..Search Engines ARE Part of Your Audience =-.

  2. The last time I got lost and ended up my blogging adventure in oblivion was when I felt my blogging was senseless having no community or friends.

    Then I went back and tried another approach to blogging. That is, trying to gain friends and build communities…and my blogging has never been the same.

    A blogging community is I think a must. You help out each other, you feed each other’s blogging appetite; you may not come in to terms on some issues but at the end of the day, you are still friends. That which is more important.

  3. Oooo, someone ELSE who knows about Usenet! I started on that back in 1988 and haven’t looked back since. Fun fact – did you know that the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1999 was considered to be the first war ‘fought by email and fax’? You could post to Usenet via email…and the people who were LIVING that horrible time kept updating the Internet community about it day and night. Incredible stuff….and because we were all part of that soc.culture.china or soc.culture.asian-american community, we “knew” a lot of the people involved.

    I think the best community occurs when the human element is starkly put out there for others to appreciate and gain interest. I know that for some folk, I will happily go the extra mile, and others will be introduced to my Delete key in rapid fashion!

    I like treating others as I enjoy being treated myself…and search for communities that hold such concepts dear as well.
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..A friend is ALWAYS a priceless gem and you’re never too old for more =-.

  4. I think community is one of the buzzwords of the past couple of years. Everyone wants to build a community, because it’s the thing to do, but not many people know what it is (online) and why it’s important to become part of one. They just think it’ll make them money or bring in traffic. As someone who helps brands build their online presence, I can tell you many big names are interested in jumping on the “community” bandwagon without understanding why. I sort of miss the “old school” communities from back in the early part of the decade.

    Without sounding too up with people, community is why I’m such a blogging addict- I dig the vibe. I’ve been participating in online communities and forums since the 90’s for many reasons- none having to do with traffic. (Even when people started paying me to help build their communities). As someone who was shy and didn’t make too many friends in the real world, online communities were important for human interaction. Now I understand them to be something more. A place for like-minded people to share and interact. I meet the most unselfish people in the world through online communities.

    I’m still not sure if I would ask my community to work for nothing though. I’ve taken flack for posting guest content in the past and have since changed my policy. My blog and community are about giving freelance writers a place to find paying work – I wouldn’t feel right about turning around and asking for free content – even though people offer every single day. However, I trade guest posts with some bloggers. I can live with an even trade.

    Nice food for thought on a Monday morning.

    I love your description of community progression.
    .-= Deb Ng´s last blog ..85 Hacks to Help Your Freelance Writing Career =-.

  5. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    James, this deserves a Pulitzer. Your rant will probably get more comments and hits, but this post has the content and the vision of what a community can be.

    ps. My community has had a hard week, this made my day.

  6. “if they didn’t sincerely like you, and they didn’t sincerely want to give back, they wouldn’t ask”

    This is the thing that I had trouble learning. There is a local arts group made up of people I went to high school with. I wanted to do a bit of writing for them, pro bono, just because they’re pals. They made some happy noises but never got around to including me in their efforts, no matter how I tried to communicate with them.

    They weren’t interested in a community being involved. Now, I do what I can to find communities that actually want to grow and share and have fun creating together. That’s a good life, I think.
    .-= justin´s last blog ..Morning Comes Early =-.

  7. James,

    As usual – Kudos.

    I think community could be explored (online community especially) in millions of blog posts. There are many misconceptions:

    1) the difference between a free community and paid community – I prefer not to even call the ‘paid’ version a community and rather a group membership. However, expectations are highly different. With a free community, most people expect to get back what they put in and that drives high quality and important discussions. With a paid community they expect to get back based on what they pay, which I find equals many questions and answers but not much collaboration or objectivity.

    2) communities are not built overnight. Don’t expect to create a forum or blog and have a community response in 1 day, by default prospective participants are skeptical (especially online) putting their time into something, not knowing if it will be here tomorrow – so it is going to take time for the community leaders to build confidence and respect.

  8. James, this is a great post. I’m really glad you did this sequel to your ‘Screw Community’ post as they complement each other well.
    The other thing about communities that you didn’t discuss here that I see is level of involvement from its members and turn over for various reasons.
    I’ll use this blog as a convenient example. You have certain people consistently reading and writing insightful comments and other people (like myself lately) drop in to add their two cents. Turn over (or change in the community make-up) happens over time as people’s lives or interests change – online or offline. This thought brings me to my final point. I love how you (and the rest of the crew) draw parallels between life online and offline. It makes so much sense and everything much more clear to me.

  9. Great post!

    I think most people don’t really understand the concept of “community.”

    People say “they really like my site” and ask if I want to trade blogroll links. If they really liked my content they should have put up my link first.

    I had another recent visitor who never commented or never contacted me before say, “I am a huge fan of your site …. do you want to promote my new affiliate product.”

    It is amazing how many people are all nice and friendly, ONCE, then you never hear from them again. That type of drive by shooting is not welcome in my community.
    .-= John Bardos – JetSetCitizen´s last blog ..Interview with Nomadic Couple, Kelly Hale and Mike Schimanowsky =-.

  10. This is just a great post. We throw around the term “online community” all too often, without really thinking about what it means. “Online” just means where the community is, everything else about community is just the same as if it were your local neighborhood.

    Everyone who blogs, whether they are trying to sell something or just talk about their interests, is trying to create a community. Yet so few people think about how they might develop that. When you hear people talk about “community spirit” then you’re likely to think about a close-knit group who help each other out, who are prepared to give of themselves because they know that it will be reciprocated if they need it. That’s why the most successful users of social media and the most popular bloggers achieve that success, because they are charitable and have developed that genuine community spirit.
    .-= Robin Cannon´s last blog ..Correctly Using H1 Tags With WordPress =-.

  11. @ Dave – We can certainly decide to build a community, but if we don’t go out and find like-minded people, a community can never survive. You truly do have to give first to get back – which is the beauty of it all, aye?

    @ Elmot – I’ll be the first to say it’s way more fun to ‘walk’ into Twitter or a forum and hear everyone shout, “Hey James!” And I grin and hey everyone back. If you don’t have that feeling in blogging, I’m not sure there’s much community happening. Good on you for finding that feeling for yourself.

    @ Barbara – Mmhm. Treat others as you would be treated. That’s why the “free work” community never really lasts long, I think.

    @ Deb – I’m glad to see you chiming into these posts – I know you’re a huge, HUGE advocate of community and it shines in everything you do. And, knowing you personally as well, I can say your mindset backs that up, too.

    We have a community over at (it’s an RPG gaming board, for those creative writers out there…) and it’s been running nearly two years. Costs a fortune in time and energy, but our ER community is a damned strong one. Feels great. And that’s why I keep doing it.

    @ Mary – I know. The rants always get more attention (way more fun, eh?) But if anyone bookmarks a post to come back and think over, I hope it’s this one.

    And chin up on your own community – maybe it’s time for a change?

    @ Justin – I agree it takes a long time before you realize what a community really is. In fact, I had a hard time putting my finger on it to write it into this post and thought long and hard about who I consider part of my community and why. I’m glad that I managed to convey the right concept and words in my description.

    @ Heather – You wise thing, you. I think you just gave me more fodder 😉 And I’ll add one to your list: Communities that come with conditions.

    There are people who literally can’t contribute more than their good wishes or presence to a community, for whatever reason. And if that isn’t enough for people, then that isn’t a true community. It’s just a clique with rules.

    @ Mark – Dude! Where ya been?!

    I love how you (and the rest of the crew) draw parallels between life online and offline. It makes so much sense and everything much more clear to me.

    I’m glad, because to be honest, I’m tired of the world considering the online life a different reality. It can sometimes feel that way, but the truth we all need to realize is that this isn’t a separate plane of existence. We all have one life, and we’re all living it, in the best ways we can.

    So why not integrate it into the best it can be? Because my life, whether online or offline, is still just one life that I have to live.

    Cheers 🙂

  12. @ Robin – You snuck in, you sneaky thing, you.

    Your comment reminds me of Chris Brogan. If there’s any face out there that comes to mind when I think of the words “community spirit”, his has got to be number one.

  13. Great follow up, James!

    No man is an island, especially on the internet, and this is a great checklist for keeping a healthy balance between business-minded self-interest and having a net of supporters. Love it.

  14. James,

    Funny, it seems this topic is everywhere I look right now… last post I wrote that there aren’t two worlds, and “community” in web 2.0 is the same as it ever was, and here you are showing how much an online checklist for deciding when to jump in can look… just like an offline checklist.

    Trust, transparency, support, furthering interests, win-win. Well-said.


    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..MCE Round Table: 2.0 or Same As It Ever Was? =-.

  15. James,

    A great follow- up post on awhat was already a great stand alone post. It makes me sad that the word community is starting to get such a bad rep. I hope this will start a good conversation and help get that turned around. What we have at ER would be a great example if anyone is looking for a model to learn from!

    To me it comes down to four things- trust, respect, friendship, and a common goal or cause. Those are the bones of a good community. If that structure is in place- the rest is easy. Without any one of those pieces…chance of success- almost hopeless.
    .-= Wendi Kelly-Life’s Little Inspirations´s last blog ..Amazing Dirty Dishes =-.

  16. Kenji Crosland says:

    Great post, James. I’m also a big fan of Put Things Off and it was nice to hear that story about you and Nick. Community is something that happens naturally. It’s not something we can force. Social media can certainly grease the wheels but when you get down to it, community is still the same as it has ever been.
    .-= Kenji Crosland´s last blog ..How to Write a Bio =-.

  17. James – spot on! I feel like I’m constantly educating people on this very subject. This seems especially relevant to people wanting to build “social networks” and then get all caught up in the “numbers game.”

    As you’ve pointed out, community is more than numbers and involves a big dose of respect. I loved your example regarding the growth of your friendship with Nick Cernis. A great explanation of how relationships work.

    Thank you for the great post!

  18. James, I like the way you broke down the meaning of community. We all have to play a part in it to enrich ourselves. I’m not the most boisterous person or community orientated but your post made me look at things differently. Thanks.
    .-= Omar´s last blog ..Mediocre People =-.

  19. Remember those cards in Monopoly, the Community Chest ones? The yellow ones with the Monopoly guy on him. I always liked those. I always liked the idea that if we are a part of a community we have something like an ongoing karma bank. One we make deposits in and sometimes withdrawals, but over all, the Community Chest is a well that we all replenish. By acts and deeds great and small. Some known, some anonymous. Some gesture of simple grace or kindness, or some resource or another, cash or in kind works… I don’t think human nature shifts just because the mode of connection is different. So real community is predicated on a series of actions over time. And trust comes from those.
    Deciding what or who to contribute to? That’s a personal choice don’t you think? So we don’t dilute ourselves too much.

  20. This is just so darn heartwarming, I think I’m going to cry…
    .-= –Deb´s last blog ..Gold Star Cop Out =-.

  21. @ Deb – Don’t cry. You’ll smudge the ink and it’s still fresh 🙂

    @ Janice – I always lit up when I got to pick any kind of card – because it usually meant money 😉

    You and I have a story, too. We’re part of each other’s community, are we not? And it all started with a little this, a little that…. blue paint on my table, a beer in your fridge… ‘Twas verra nice.

    @ Omar – Truthfully I think the quietest people are the ones that have the biggest hearts for community.

    @ Lisbeth – Ah, social networks – there’s another word that rubs me the wrong way these days, if only because everyone’s building one!

    @ Wendi – Yeah, I couldn’t help but think of our gang, eh? It’s a great example – and I think the community we have there is what really holds it together 🙂

    @ Kenji – I love stories. Who knows who my next victim will be! 😉

    @ Kelly – Like I wrote above, I think there’s actually very little difference between the online world and the offline world. Way, WAY too many lines can be drawn between the two for me to suggest they might be terribly different.

    And, if I might extend a notion, I think perhaps people are a little tired of them being so seemingly different and are trying to pull the two closer together into something single and real.

    @ Rose – Well, if I were an island, I wouldn’t be a very good one. Unless I was in the Bahamas. Mmhm.

  22. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    I loved Janice’s reference to Monopoly and the Community Chest cards.

    It made me wonder: If the traditional Monopoly game represents a microversion of the offline business world, what would a parallel universe Monopoly ONLINE world look like?

    Further, if we created an online Monopoly game, what would be on the “Community Chest” cards?

    Fun to think about.

  23. @James – “Dude! Where ya been?!” Well after reading Kelly’s latest post over at MCE Round Table (especially the quote at the top – We all come from our own little planets. That’s why we’re all different. That’s what makes life interesting. —Robert E. Sherwood) I think I’ve been visiting other planets. 🙂
    I very much agree with your thoughts about integrating our online and offline lives and the one life each of us has to live. It’s nice to get together on this and other blogs/communities and discover our commonalities.

    @Kelly – Thanks for what I’ll call your generous ‘connector’ post and the link to Tim Berry’s post which included a great TED talk I hadn’t seen. I had already seen the Validation YouTube video which I also think is great.

  24. James,
    Verra vera nice indeed, Quebecois. We have a lovely story. One I treasure…pads off to his fridge to look for juice this morning…maybe sneak a croissant…

    Thank you. Hm…nice to think about. On the cards? Art work, fundraising, time. Any of my skill sets for something I really believe in.

  25. Many people now are getting themselves linked to virtual communities over the internet – where they find other people with similiar interests, goals and views accross the globe.

  26. James rocks.

    The idea of community is probably been lost with the arrival of the internet and social media and all that jazz. The old community was your immediate neighbourhood, a small street, quiet, white picket fences etc

    The new community is online. You can know people from 20000 miles away, never ever meet them, but can really get to know them.

    Good work James – will be coming back for more!
    .-= Simon´s last blog ..Ridges Peregian Springs =-.

  27. James,

    I didn’t read this post, nor do I care about community… I just wanted a backlink. Ok, thnx bai! Signed, Feminine Hair Care Products India.

    …All joking aside, this is a great follow-up post to your rant the other day. 😛

    A few days of reflection and introspection can do wonders!


    .-= Chris from AB Web Design, LLC´s last blog ..Why Paid Online Press Releases Aren’t Worth The Paper Their Not Printed On =-.

  28. @ Chris – You forgot to make your last Comment Luv post the one that goes to ???? ????? I’m onto you!

    @ Simon – Thank you for the kind words (I do indeed rock!). And yes, I do appreciate that I have morning coffee with Mel in Australia and plot with Ali in England and get emails from people in Africa. The internet’s pretty darned cool that way.

    @ Janice – Don’t eat the last one 😉

    @ Mark – True, true, we all kind of breeze around and find new spots to read and hang, aye? This is a cool, good thing. (Just don’t forget to come back!)

    @ Mary – If my online life were Monopoly… Oh. Wow. That’s a visual image involving a lot of crowing and cackling and I’m not sure anyone wants to think about that… ow.


  29. ( Puts the bag of fresh ginger cookies in his jar and a nice bottle of Shiraz on the counter, then hustles off to the studio before he notices there are only crumbs in the croissant basket….mind on the paint before she clears the back door…she smiles… and races out of his shouting range… ) 🙂

  30. James, I like the way you broke down the meaning of community.A great follow- up post on what was already a great stand alone post.

  31. @ Sandi – Thank you!

  32. This is a great post that really defines the meaning of a community. I think with the emergence of social media and mobile phones a lot of community spirit has been lost. Thanks for your insight


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