Green Views

The Challenges of Building and Maintaining a Community

Sep 20, 2021

By Li Seng


3 min


Li Seng leading an Eco-enzymes Workshop (photo taken pre-pandemic)

When Green Nudge first started, we were able to find people who could support us through informal gatherings and community cleanups. Each time we held an activity, as the organiser, I was able to introduce myself to the participants and at least speak to a large majority on a personal basis.

Whether you are making small talks through picking up trash, or seeing familiar faces when you come back to support making marathons sustainable, it was really about just saying hi, and getting to know people who in turn became your friends.

And perhaps because such informal interactions are increasingly uncommon, especially among the young (who are used to digital engagements), we often find people we spoke to returning to join us for other sessions.

This in turn built up the familiarity with each other and after a while, one can observe that it was not the activity but the bonds that people return to support.

Such shared experiences invited people to support each other, and indirectly contributed to the goals that I had set up Green Nudge for.

Li Seng conducting a Learning Journey (photo taken pre-pandemic); During our Learning Journeys, participants get to explore an area or neighbourhood while learning about themes such as sustainability, plastic or fabric waste

Our Strength also Became Our Weakness

However, as Green Nudge grew, it was increasingly challenging to remain accessible. For one, as we received more enquiries and carried out more engagements, we could no longer spend as much time as before to interact with our friends and partners. Instead of informal meetups, we had to schedule more formal meetings in our calendar which in turn gave a more business-like feel.

More importantly, as we became a social enterprise i.e. a business with social impact in mind, we needed to ensure we had some income to ensure business viability. Thus, we were not able to keep accepting activities for free, and had to charge in order to ensure that the work remains financially sustainable. Conceptually, it was hard to change the mindset that we had to be engaged in order to speak, and this turns relationships into transactions.

Li Seng conducting a short sharing at a beach cleanup (photo taken pre-pandemic)

The Tradeoffs between Growing and Maintaining a Community

I struggle constantly (till now) between maintaining relationships or accepting new collaborations which could boost the revenue which we dearly need. But I realised this in turn created a cycle where I have less time for existing partners. And more importantly, this distorted my definition of ‘community’.

For sure, we can constantly create “communities” by creating new groups on digital media, through Facebook, through WhatsApp or Telegram groups. Yet, a community does not automatically form when we celebrate the number of followers on social media. Rather, whether a community or group lasts isn’t by name, but by shared experiences or challenges. And while we can have fancy websites, banners, shirts or engagements, I remind myself that that is not the main goal. The goal is that when someone needs help, the community can step forward to help and support each other on their own.

I don’t have a solution to this tension that I am experiencing. And it’s certainly not just me who has felt this way. To fellow community builders or people who are keen to start initiatives and movements, or who might feel this way, I just want to acknowledge the tradeoff — the challenge of building and maintaining relationships with people versus scaling up the work to create greater impact.

Sustained Community Impact comes from Sustained Community Engagement

The initial sensation of building a community may be of novelty and fun. Certainly, building up something from scratch can be quite romantic. But if one was in this for the long haul (months or years), then perhaps one must realise that the building of movements is not as linear as one may think it may be.

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