What Healthy Relationships Teach Us About Healthy Communities

In organizations where communities form (whether around a product, mission, or otherwise), there is often a sense of perplexity or trepidation around how to engage with them. What is the proper way to talk to community members? How do I work with them, and what can I do to keep the community healthy and growing? The good news is, if you know what it takes to have a healthy personal relationship, you already know how to build a healthy community.

Prioritize them

In a good relationship, we prioritize the other person. At Mozilla, the QA team makes it a point to respond to volunteer contributors within a day or two. A lack of response is one of the top reasons why people leave online communities, so it’s important not to keep them hanging. It doesn’t feel good to volunteer your time on a project only to be left waiting when you ask questions or request feedback, just as it would if your partner doesn’t return your phone calls.

Be authentic

Authenticity and honesty in a relationship are the building blocks of trust. If you make a mistake, admit it and set it right. Your tone and word choice will reflect your state of mind, so be aware of it when composing a message. When you come from a place of caring and desire to do what’s right for the community, instead of a place of fear or insecurity, your words and actions will foster trust.

Be appreciative

Strong relationships are formed when both parties value and appreciate each other. It’s a great feeling when you take out the trash or do the dishes, and it’s noticed and praised. Make it a ritual to say thanks to community members who make an impact, preferably on the spot, and publicly if possible and appropriate.

Be their champion

Be prepared to go to bat for the community. I was once in a relationship with a partner who would not defend me in situations where I was being mistreated; it didn’t end well. It feels nice to be advocated for, to be championed, and it creates a strong foundation. When you discover a roadblock or grievance, take the time to investigate and talk to the people who can make it right. The community will feel heard and valued.

Empathize

The processes and programs that support community participation require an understanding of motivation. To understand motivation, you have to be able to empathize. Everyone views the world from their own unique perspectives, so it’s important to try and understand them, even if they’re different from your own. 

Set expectations

Understand your organization’s limitations, as well as your own, and communicate them. If your partner expects you to be home at a certain time and you don’t show up, the anger you encounter likely has more to do with not being told you’re going to be late, than the lateness itself.

Guidelines and rules for participation are important components as well. I once featured content from a community member and was met by an angry online mob, because although the content was great, the member hadn’t reached a certain level of status. The guidelines didn’t cover eligibility for featuring, and up until then only longer-term participants had been featured, so the community’s expectations were not met.

Not apples to apples

I would never want to get anyone in trouble by suggesting they treat their community members exactly the same as their partners. Answering emails from anyone while having dinner with your loved one is not advised. The take-away is there isn’t any mystery to interacting with a community. Many of the ingredients for a healthy community are ones found in healthy relationships, and most reassuring of all, we already know what they are.

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Cultivating Community by Working in the Open

Back when new versions of Firefox were released every year or so, many of Mozilla’s paid contributors came from the volunteer base or other open-source communities. Mozillians not only had the time, but the natural inclination to engage with volunteer contributors.

Today, new versions of Firefox are released every six weeks, and many new products exist that didn’t before; products that require working with partners historically outside of Mozilla’s comfort zone. Firefox Marketplace is one of them.

Marketplace faces several community-building challenges. Not only does it push new code every week, but release schedules are often driven by business contracts. Managers are under pressure to deliver on deadlines with limited resources, leaving very little time to engage with volunteers. Deadline-driven work is also harder for people to contribute to in their spare time.

The team’s rapid growth means former volunteer contributors are now in the minority. With fewer paid contributors from the open-source world naturally inclined to cultivate relationships with the community, and more from the business world uncertain of the community’s role in meeting deadlines, phrases like “Leverage the community,” and “Line up contributors to help,” begin cropping up in meetings.

Mozilla couldn’t have been built without the people who believe so passionately in its mission. People who code, document, translate, and evangelize—often in the free time between leaving their day jobs (or schools) and getting into bed—because they care. Because they’ve created bonds with other Mozillians. They are anything but free labor—they are partners in the mission.

So how do we continue nurturing and cultivating our community in light of our current realities? One way is to embrace a culture of working in the open.

Working in the open means structuring your work in a way that is discoverable and transparent to anyone interested in contributing. It doesn’t require a lot of extra work on top of what you do, as much as it requires a certain mindset.

If you’re a developer, are you designing your project so that it’s easy for someone to take a piece of it and work on it? If a non-technical contributor shows up looking for ways to help (as I did, in 2009), are you ready with a list of opportunities and simple steps for getting started? Are you holding public meetings and posting public status updates?

It’s about making your work inviting and accessible to people who want to join the fray. When they do jump in, making yourself available to guide them increases the likelihood that they will become engaged. Engaged contributors become leaders who will cultivate the next generation of leaders.

Working openly and transparently doesn’t take much extra effort, and it is not only essential, but a minimum requirement, to keeping our community healthy.