If you’ve attended many local meet-up groups you probably intuit that there are two very different kinds of events: I call these community-led groups and company-led groups.
Two Very Different Events
Imagine you just moved to a new city, and you’re checking out the local tech scene. You attend two Ruby meetups (or your language of choice!). Both events are well-organized, have great content, and were easy to get to — but there are some weird things about each. They feel very different!
At event A, you can’t immediately tell who’s “in charge” — many people seem to be helping run the event, different people make announcements at different times. There is one person from the company whose office we’re in who mentions briefly that they have open positions, but it’s very short.
At event B, 100% of the people leading the event work at the company that’s hosting the event. You can tell because they’re wearing matching company-branded hoodies. The coworkers are having a great time, but other attendees don’t seem to be anywhere nearly as integrated. Non-host attendees aren’t talking to each other as much.
The terms I use for these are community-led (event A) and company-led (event B).
Two Types of Communities
These communities are usually a partnership between the community at-large and sponsor companies — but it’s never a perfectly even 50/50 split.
A community-run community is one where the community runs things (not a company).
A company-run community is one where the company runs things (not the community).
Both are valuable! But I do have a personal preference :)
I LOVE community-led communities. I strongly prefer participating in and supporting and developing community-led communities. These are usually (socially) warmer environments, and I’m more proud to say I’m affiliated with these.
There are some great company-led communities out there that I participate in, too! But these have a higher bar for me to even consider going, and I don’t feel nearly as much affiliation with them.
Which type is my group?
Here are some screening questions that might indicate whether a group you’re in is community-led or company-led.
- Who is listed as organizers on the website (Meetup.com etc)? Do they all work for the same company?
- Who leads events or speaks up at events? Do they all work for the same company?
- Is there one main company sponsor? Or multiple?
- If the main company sponsor (e.g. the venue host) stopped supporting this group, would the group survive?
- Do they feel like they are a true member of this group of people? Or do they feel more like they are just attending events?
- Which do attendees say more often: “Yep, I’m a part of GROUP!” or “Yep, I’ve been to GROUP’s events.”?
- Prioritization & Decision Making
- If a hard decision has to be made between company priorities or community priorities, which one will win out? (this is more a question for organizers than for potential-attendees, since attendees probably won’t have this visibility)
DC Code and Coffee Example
DC Code and Coffee is a community-led group that I helped to start many years ago.
Run by community members
Initially, we had ~4 people who wanted to start this, each working at 4 different companies. Two of us had an employer in DC willing to host the event. The sponsor companies let us use their space as our venue, and they also contributed some staff to help run/coordinate events (especially facility-related things like letting people in). These sponsor companies also knew they didn’t own the community/event — the community organizers did.
This group happened to start out as community-led and has stayed that way. Some communities change from one type to the other and back — it happens!
Frequent sponsor company turnover
The venues we’ve used have changed many times — we usually have had 2 venues at any given time, and they change every year or two. Some companies folded, some went remote, and some just had priorities and leadership changes. Thankfully, this community-led group has managed to persist despite all that company change!
Do Groups Transition?
Yes, it happens!
Baltimore Code and Coffee went from community-led to company-led back to community-led. The community lost traction at some point (probably covid!), and the main sponsor company’s employees helped run the event for a few years, keeping it alive. Lately it’s becoming more community-led again:
- Half of the recently active organizers are not affiliated with that 1st company.
- 2wk ago we had our first event at a different venue!
- And at this point I’m pretty sure it would survive even if the company stopped supporting the group.
Another common pattern I’ve seen is when a company “incubates” a community — it starts as company-led, but can eventually become community-led.
How did I settle on community-led and company-led? Lots of inspiration!
“By the people, for the people”
Both community-run and company-run communities are nominally “FOR the community” — in that the community is the audience. The difference is who who are they run BY? By the community, or by the company?
The difference may not seem super important at a glance, but the structure changes the natural incentive structures dramatically.
You can see the difference when there’s a big decision where we have to choose between having a bigger impact on the company OR the community. Which one do we choose?
A company-run community is naturally incentivized to prioritize the company’s needs over the community’s needs. Conversely, a community-run company is naturally incentivized to prioritize the community’s needs over the company’s needs.
“Build With, Not For”
I love this idea and phrasing that Cuán McCann talks about a lot: “build with, not for.” This idea is that it’s better to actively involve the people you’re trying to support when building something — as opposed to swooping in, “bringing the solution” and “fixing” things as Tech tends to do.
If a company wants to create a thriving community that the community members love? Often the best way is to actively involve the community members, giving them a voice, a seat at the table, and the power to help the community develop to best meet their needs. The strongest groups even going so far as to give ownership and leadership power to the community members themselves (as opposed to the main sponsor company).
I noticed another parallel between these structures and company structures. Most companies are a traditional structure with an owner or group of owners (parallel to ”company-led”). Some companies are owned by the people who work for the company, a worker cooperative (parallel to ”community led”).
The natural incentive structures in these are very different! One naturally prioritizes the owner’s needs (profit, etc), and the other prioritizes the employees’ needs. Owner-run companies can still treat employees well (especially if it’s a value the owner shares), but that happens despite the organizational structure, not because of it. In this article, I’m focused on the structural incentives.
On the flip side — cooperatives DO take more time and energy to set up well. There is definitely an overhead cost to these, especially upfront. If that can be overcome, these often have great outcomes for the employees and it’s because of the incentive structure. I’m excited to see these trending!
Led, Run, Owned, Operated?
There are a lot of related terms we could use: community-run, community-led, community-owned, community-operated, etc. I like community-led because it applies to a lot of examples I have in mind as I thought through this.
Community-led also emphasizes the partnership. In partner dancing (like swing, salsa, etc), there’s often a leader and a follower. Both are important roles, but the leader makes more of the higher-level decisions.
Many company-led communities masquerade as community-led communities. The term “astroturfing” means a “fake grassroots” movement. Like that time the Restaurant lobby in DC pretended to directly represent restaurant staff.
It makes sense that company-led communities would want the clout that comes with being a community-led community. This may or may not be totally intentional — the term “community” does a lot of the lifting here.
“Community” on its own implies a community-led community. My term “company-led community” still sounds weird to my ears, but it’s a thing! I would I appreciate it if more communities could be transparent about it, and a big step forward for that is having clear language around it.
Benefits and Drawbacks for Organizers
If you’re setting up a community, consider the benefits and drawbacks for each structure.
Each has benefits and drawbacks:
- Company-led communities naturally prioritize the company’s goals over the community’s goals.
- Community-led communities naturally prioritize the community’s goals over the sponsor/host company’s goals.
- Company-led communities have have stable/reliable support for as long as the company values it.
- Community-led communities have stable/reliable support for as long as the group of organizers don’t get burnt out (which happens a lot!).
- Company-led communities often have built-in monetary support, venues, etc by default.
- Community-led communities can partner with companies to get that support, but it’s an additional step for them (and so many do!!).