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  • Toby Sinclair

Summary: The Art of Community by Charles Vogl

⭐ Rating: 7/10 - Recommended For: Leaders

3 Big Ideas from The Art of Community by Charles Vogl 💡

  1. Purpose-Driven: A community needs to have a clear purpose that its members believe in and are willing to work towards. This purpose should be communicated clearly and consistently.

  2. Relationships First: Relationships are the cornerstone of a strong community. Members should feel connected to one another and be able to trust and support each other.

  3. Continuous Improvement: A community should always be looking for ways to improve, both for the individual members and for the community as a whole. This involves regularly evaluating progress and making changes as needed to stay aligned with the community's purpose.

2 Best Quotes from The Art of Community by Charles Vogl 💬

"A community is not a product that can be manufactured, but a relationship that must be cultivated."
"The true measure of a community's success is not the size of its membership, but the depth of its relationships and the strength of its shared purpose."

Art of Community Summary Image

Tobys Top Takeaway

I don't belong here.

When someone in your organization feels this way, it's hard to turn things around.

Worst case, they never express this feeling and leave.

Best case, they do express this feeling. But now what?

I've been in this situation, uncertain how to respond.

Only making things worse.

At the time I wish I'd read The Art of Community

It shares 7 principles, that help create belonging.

I've used it to reflect upon what's missing when people feel like they don't belong.

You can use them too.

Ask these questions:

  1. What is the boundary to belong in this community?

  2. How was the person initiated (if at all) upon joining the community?

  3. How involved is the person in the community rituals? (e.g. invites to meetings and opportunities to speak)

  4. How accessible is the temple? (read the full summary for an explanation)

  5. What are the person's values and how do they align with the communities?

  6. What physical token does the person have to remind them of this community?

  7. How clear are the inner rings to this person? (read the full summary for an explanation)

These questions are super useful for any community. Which Charles Vogl describes as:

"When at least two people begin to feel concern for each other’s welfare."

So that could be your team, your wider organization, or your family.

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Big Ideas Expanded

What is a community?

Communities are created when at least two people begin to feel concern for each other’s welfare.

Communities are part of a larger Tribe. Tribes want to be connected. They want to be around people who understand them. For example, there are many people in the world who value building confidence and courage in girls and are willing to take action. They create a tribe even if they haven’t come together in a formal community like the Girl Scouts organization. The people who bring a tribe together to create a community are tribal leaders.

To create something that others want to join and support, we have to remember a core tenet: communities function best and are most durable when they’re helping members to be more successful in some way in a connected and dynamic world.

Communities are distinct from a group whose members may share ideas, interests, proximity, or any number of things but lack concern for one another. Such groups can have huge memberships, like the Museum of Modern Art, the American Medical Association, or Greenpeace, but their members do not share any strong social connectedness.

Community Values

A community is defined by at least one or more values (maybe something as simple as valuing bicycling or living on your block).

A community’s values evolve as time and people change. Your community almost certainly values something more than outsiders do. It’s not important that on the first day, you can recognize and name the ultimate values for your community. In fact, it may take some time to understand what things you value more than others. Moreover, as time passes and culture changes, it’s imperative that the community values also change. This is how you stay relevant in a dynamic world.

Formalization can destroy a community if values are ignored. When efforts arise to formalize or corporatize a community, there’s often understandable concern that the effort could destroy the very community it seeks to grow. This is why it’s so important to recognize both the explicit and the implicit values that attract and keep members connected.

Because members share values, the community helps answer three important questions for members in some way:

  • Who am I?

  • How should I act?

  • What do I believe?

To grow a tight community, it’s essential to articulate the community’s core values clearly, at least for yourself. Not every value needs to be articulated, just the most important ones: those that tie the community’s members together.

  • What and whom do we protect?

  • What is intolerable?

  • What do we share?

  • With whom do we share?

  • Whom do we respect?

  • How do we show respect?

One of the great pleasures of being part of a community is that we don’t have to explain ourselves. We want to feel seen and understood without explaining the parts that outsiders don’t get.


Recently my friend Kari returned home to Oregon and gathered with friends who have a long history of playing jazz together. One musician came with a friend who was a musician but not a jazz musician, and who hadn’t brought an instrument. She didn’t share the jazz tradition, so she politely sat to the side as the group of six played. Kari told me that instead of playing for two to three hours, as they had in the past, they played for only thirty minutes, largely because they were uncomfortable playing with an outsider sitting idly by who didn’t appreciate jazz very much. While everyone had good intentions, inviting an outsider who had neither the technical knowledge nor the musical interest for this special time changed the space and eroded the intimacy of the community time.

Seven Principles for Belonging

1. Boundary: The line between members and outsiders.

2. Initiation: The activities that mark a new member.

3. Rituals: The things we do that have meaning.

4. Temple: A place set aside to find our community.

5. Stories: What we share that allows others and ourselves to know our values.

6. Symbols: The things that represent ideas that are important to us.

7. Inner Rings: A path to growth as we participate.

The Boundary Principle

Members want to know who’s in the community and shares their values. Visitors want to know a safe way to explore without committing themselves. Novices prefer to know at what point they’ve joined a community. A boundary is the recognized demarcation between insiders (members) and outsiders. This boundary should be more about making the inside space safe for insiders than about keeping outsiders out. Where there’s a boundary, insiders feel more confident that they share values and that they understand one another better than outsiders.

Without a boundary, you’ll face an everything–nothing conundrum. Some communities want to be open to anyone and everyone. This arises from a generous instinct: making a community open for all sounds welcoming. Most leaders, even if they claim to “welcome everyone,” actually mean something a bit more restrictive. If everything in the universe is good (and nothing is not good), then good things can never be differentiated from anything else in the universe. Good then identifies no (particular) thing because all things are good. Likewise, if everyone in the world belongs to your community, this can mean your community cannot be distinguished from no community.

The boundary can be poorly protected in two ways. First, it can be overly inclusive, if people with mismatched values are permitted inside. In this case, members will feel unsafe. It will be difficult or impossible for them to share vulnerability and deep connections when members don’t trust that all the other participants in the community share their core values. Second, it can be overly exclusive, if shared-values participants are excluded. In this case, questions will be raised as to what the true community values are and, even more specifically, where the authority really lies.

Gatekeepers are important for helping visitors across the boundary. They’re the people who can give newcomers access to the community. Whether officially or unofficially, gatekeepers evaluate whether an interested newcomer should be welcomed across the boundary and into the community. They may be the same as or different from those who can exclude.

For example, imagine a choir that has a strong community (perceived concern for one another’s welfare). It may be that anyone in the choir can invite people to audition, introduce them to leaders, and include them in social events (outer ring), while there may be only one or a few insiders who have the (informal or formal) authority to keep someone away. The gatekeeper here is the choirmaster, who will decide if this newcomer has the potential to be a strong singing voice and is welcomed to inner ring practices and performances.

The Initiation Principle

An initiation is a kind of ritual, and the best rituals come with symbols and tokens.

First, even with a simple initiation, it’s clear to all that individuals remain, explorers until they choose to cross the boundary. This can set visitors at ease because they know that they’re participating without any requirement to adopt the values and beliefs of members if they’re not ready to take that step. Second, it’s difficult for all participants to understand clearly who’s on the inside (and who isn’t). There may be a general sense of who the core members are, but less active or new members may wonder about their own status. They may wonder what privileges they have and feel anxious about exactly what constitutes insider status.

The Rituals Principle

The psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a four-hundred-person survey to distinguish happiness and meaningfulness. His research indicates that “meaningfulness” involves understanding our own lives beyond the present time and place. It comes when we reflect on what came before and how we’re connected to the future. Meaningfulness comes when we integrate now with the future and past. Our health, wealth, and relationships change. Meaning creates a feeling of stability in the midst of change. Rituals are a tool to bring meaning into our lives.

Remember: feeling connected, trusted, appreciated, and welcome is all in the realm of emotion.

Ritual silence can be very powerful. Simply keeping silence together can be a powerful part or a whole ritual. It can mean that the relationship is so close that not everything needs to be said aloud and not every moment needs to be entertaining. In a world where every second is filled with talk, music, or alerts, creating the space for silence can be the most powerful time together possible. In my experience, almost every community appreciates a silence ritual when there’s painful loss.

Silence together can be the most powerful time.

Play rituals are very important. Communities must have an opportunity to play together. My favorite play ritual is eating together. When meals are ritualized, they become a feast. Virtually every community feasts together in some way. In the United States, Thanksgiving has become the most important feasting ritual for many families and friends. Hosting the feast has become a rite of passage for many young family members and new Americans.

The Temple Principle

We all want a place where our community gathers and we can do things that we long for in our everyday lives. A temple is simply a place where people with shared values enact their community’s rituals. Members know that it’s where they’ll find their community.

It’s a “sacred space,” a place set aside for a particular use.

The Stories Principle

Stories are the most powerful way we humans learn. Every community, like every person, is full of stories. Sharing certain stories deepens a community’s connections. If people don’t know (or can’t learn) your stories, they don’t know or understand your community.

Origin Stories Among the most important stories are origin stories. By definition, these stories explain how something started, i.e., its origin.

Origin stories are often considered true if they share factual, emotional, or ideological truth. They are strongest if all three are represented.

The Symbols Principle

Symbols are powerful tools in building community because they quickly remind us of our values, identity, and commitment in a community. Using symbols is a way to make communities stronger. Symbols represent a set of ideas and values, which is to say, they often represent many things at once. They can conveniently stand in for many words.

The Inner Rings Principle

A typical progression will look something like this, with different labels:

  1. Visitors

  2. Novices

  3. Members

  4. Elders or senior members

  5. Principal elders and skilled masters

It’s not important that each member pursue inner rings. It’s perfectly fine for a member to find a preferred level and remain there.

Strong communities offer a journey (progression) into successive inner rings. While some members may choose to stay at a particular level, mature communities provide opportunities to progress in their series of inner rings.

Mature and strong communities give members opportunities to learn how to succeed in some way. Strong communities teach members how to succeed in ways they cannot achieve on their own. So, in a strong community, members must know how to access the knowledge held by others.


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