What Is Community Anyway?

David M. Chavis & Kien Lee at Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Community” is so easy to say. The word itself connects us with each other. It describes an experience so common that we never really take time to explain it. It seems so simple, so natural, and so human. In the social sector, we often add it to the names of social innovations as a symbol of good intentions (for example, community mental health, community policing, community-based philanthropy, community economic development).

But the meaning of community is complex. And, unfortunately, insufficient understanding of what a community is and its role in the lives of people in diverse societies has led to the downfall of many well-intended “community” efforts.

Adding precision to our understanding of community can help funders and evaluators identify, understand, and strengthen the communities they work with. There has been a great deal of research in the social sciences about what a human community is (see for example, Chavis and Wandersman, 1990; Nesbit, 1953; Putnam, 2000). Here, we blend that research with our experience as evaluators and implementers of community change initiatives.

It’s about people.

First and foremost, community is not a place, a building, or an organization; nor is it an exchange of information over the Internet. Community is both a feeling and a set of relationships among people. People form and maintain communities to meet common needs….

People live in multiple communities.

Since meeting common needs is the driving force behind the formation of communities, most people identify and participate in several of them, often based on neighborhood, nation, faith, politics, race or ethnicity, age, gender, hobby, or sexual orientation….

Communities are nested within each other.

Just like Russian Matryoshka dolls, communities often sit within other communities. For example, in a neighborhood—a community in and of itself—there may be ethnic or racial communities, communities based on people of different ages and with different needs, and communities based on common economic interests….

Communities have formal and informal institutions.

Communities form institutions—what we usually think of as large organizations and systems such as schools, government, faith, law enforcement, or the nonprofit sector—to more effectively fulfill their needs….

Communities are organized in different ways.

Every community is organized to meet its members’ needs, but they operate differently based on the cultures, religions, and other experiences of their members. For example, while the African American church is generally understood as playing an important role in promoting health education and social justice for that community, not all faith institutions such as the mosque or Buddhist temple are organized and operate in the same way….(More)