Lessons and Resources on Community Animation: A Few Guideposts Along a Newly-Worn Path
“Shared space” is still a relatively new way to work. Because of it’s “newness,” we just don’t have a lot of formal research or guides to show us how to do it well. At the Nonprofit Centers Network 2015 Building Opportunities Conference in June, I spoke on two panels: The first on Community Animation, where I was joined by several other “animators” from spaces across the U.S. and Canada; and the second, on branding for shared spaces. In those two talks, it became incredibly apparent to me how intertwined community animation and branding really are.
In my two years as a formal “community animator” in a shared space, I’ve learned a few lessons and come by some great resources, and I hope they might be helpful to you.
Animation is another way to say “culture building.”
Every space has a personality, whether you notice it overtly or not. As an animator, you are helping to craft that personality to be what makes the most sense for your space. You are, in fact, building your brand. Every space detail you help cultivate, every tenant or member you select to be in your building, every program you run, every staff member you hire, and every way in which you encourage activation in your space says something about you. Does what you’re saying align with the culture you’re trying to build? Does it align with your overall mission? And is what you’re saying consistent? Does being consistent even matter in your model? If it does, but you’re not doing it, you might have a harder time attracting or retaining members because they might be getting mixed messages. Jim Collins refers to this concept—all the minor acts that add up to the bigger picture—as a “flywheel.”
To that end, my two absolute best resources when it comes to culture building and branding are:
- Good to Great in the Social Sectors by Jim Collins; and,
- The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design by Marty Neumeir.
As well, here’s an additional tool that we’ve used here at the Posner Center, which was recommended to me by Katie Edwards of NCN. Our staff walked through it several months ago, and even though we’d already developed most of our branding components, it helped everyone on our team get clear about the how the types of decisions we were making spoke to our brand.
Just because you aren’t an architect, an urban planner, an interior designer, or a millionaire, doesn’t mean you can’t afford to consider your space and how it affects collaboration.
Remember how I said that everything affects your brand and your ability to animate? People will probably walk into your space before they talk to anyone who works there. Paying attention to how your space affects behavior is an important piece of the work.
How does your space affect mood?
- Is the lighting great?
- Does it make people want to spend several hours a day there?
Does it help or hinder human connection?
- Are there areas where people are encouraged to linger, like the kitchen or seating nooks?
- Is it too dark or too hot or too cold to want to talk?
Can people find and get to other areas around the building?
- Are rooms accessible for all types of people?
- Is there adequate signage or do people find themselves frustrated while navigating your space?
Is it clear what each space is meant for and how to use it?
- Do people know where they’re invited to talk to their neighbors and other spaces where it’s clear that they’re meant to be working quietly?
- Is it clear where and how to reserve certain rooms for meetings?
When any of these things (or more) aren’t working, there’s a chance you’re not only giving bad impressions, but also allowing opportunities for frustration, confusion, and lack of collaboration. My best resource for space design as it relates to facilitating collaborative environments is:
- Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration by Scott Doorley, Scott Witthoft, and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University.
I have Megan Devenport of Denver Shared Spaces to thank for this gift last year. Placemaking resources also tend to be great guides in helping to understand how “space” or built environment affects behavior, mood, connection, and engagement.
Behavior change is something you’ll have to keep preaching.
We’re asking people in our spaces to think less about competition and working in silos and more about cooperation, collaboration, and integration. This kind of “cultural” shift is one that requires shifting perspectives of the people, companies, and organizations in your space, and sometimes even the “users” or “clients” who come into your space for services.
Behavior change is integral to understanding how you might animate people in a common direction, which is often different than they’re used to, even as much as you might see this new way of working as completely logical. Know that others either aren’t familiar with it and don’t yet see its benefits, or are extremely familiar with it and actually largely against it (sometimes for good reason because collaboration isn’t always the right answer, either). We should focus on finding out when collaboration is the most meaningful and beneficial to both or all parties involved. The willingness to collaborate when it’s appropriate is an attitude that has to be fostered.
For this, one of my favorite books around a community-based approach to social marketing and behavior change is:
- Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing by Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William Smith.
We’re making progress.
Thankfully, despite the struggle we often find as staff of shared spaces around legitimizing and formalizing our roles, we are making great progress. NCN hosts the Building Opportunities conference every two years, provides access to resources around running a shared space, and hosts phone calls and projects for people and organizations within the sector. Places like Denver Shared Spaces convenes “Community Animators” in Denver at a monthly Shared Space Managers Roundtable, hosts trainings on animating spaces, and is even working to formalize position descriptions for animators. These are all great signs that indicate we are moving forward and gaining access to valuable tools. Hopefully these resources only continue to grow and gain traction in the coming years.