Are You Living in a Community or a Network?

The difference matters, and your favorite charitable organization should be helping make it.

Brett and Kate McKay have written something at The Art of Manliness that everyone should read: “Communities vs. Networks: To Which Do You Belong?” In great detail, they explore the many differences between networks (like your professional contacts) and real communities (that take care of their own). Brett and Kate observe that “In our modern age, intimate, face-to-face communities are hard to come by; while exceptions exist, networks have almost completely taken over how Americans socially organize themselves.”

Brett and Kate recognize that most of the time, you can’t magically conjure up old-school community overnight. So they offer some very practical takeaways for how to make your networks more like communities. (Which you should read. Now. Seriously.)

I want to offer a few additional thoughts on how this touches the topic of giving. In the face of the decline of community, there seems to be a slide of lowering standards in how we understand our group relationships.

  • TV show characters refer to their team at work, or their group of close friends (e.g. “Friends” or “New Girl”) as their “family” (but it’s not; no shared DNA here, and no hard-and-fast obligations you can’t get out of).
  • Politicians and civic leaders refer to the people who live in the same geographical area as “the community” (but it’s often not; it’s just many thousands of people who sleep near each other and take no ownership whatsoever of their theoretical shared existence).
  • As Brett and Kate point out, corporations like Apple operate with the structure of religious organizations and build cultish followings that capitalize on people’s innate desire for them (without, you know, the whole God thing).

And even our charitable organizations, which ought to be expressions of, and adhering forces for, community, have bought wholesale into the network mentality—they care about you as a pair of hands to ladle soup, or as a checkbook, not as a person.

It shouldn’t be that way. If anything in modern life ought to promote community and operate like one, it’s how we help each other.

You see, communities depend on what Penn professor Adam Grant calls “givers,” that is, people who take ownership of the group, who put others’ needs on par with their own. But they find (and shape) those people by providing institutions, rules, incentives, habit-forming activities, and social pressure to induce people to take ownership. That works best when people know someone cares about them, as whole human beings—not when they’re just using one aspect of people to accomplish something. And when organizations do it right, people are loads happier and their communities (and yes, networks) accomplish loads more than they would have otherwise (I recommend Grant’s book on this). In short: healthy communities are immensely effective both at solving their problems and at furthering the well-being of people on both ends of a giving relationship.

As you think about how to use your limited time, energy, and resources for “the greater good” (whatever that might be), I recommend you look for outlets that allow you to take ownership, and that care about you as a whole person. If it’s too big, too impersonal, too professionalized, too far away, your involvement won’t be as rewarding and you won’t do as much good for whatever cause you care about. If you can’t find an organization like that, find a small one you wish was like that, and start pressuring them to change. Increasing numbers of people are starting to do so, and dollars talk very loudly to nonprofits!

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