From the rehearsal to the annual meeting: What can scientific community managers learn from collective organizing in other situations?

In this guest blog, CEFP 2019 Fellow Arielle Bennett-Lovell considers how her community organizing efforts outside science help her in her day job as Coordinator for the Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

What do a local campaign to save libraries, shared allotments, extinction rebellion protests, and a society of learned individuals all have in common? All of these are groups of people brought together by a shared goal, often with the intention of using collective discussions and engagement from members to push forward a set of ideas or principles using a variety of different initiatives.

A mature scientific community, which is co-creating its programming and future direction as part of a member-led exercise, or advocating for larger societal change on key issues in broader society, shares a lot of organisational parallels with an active community outside of science. However, as community managers, we sometimes don’t see these connections and miss the opportunity to use a breadth of examples in our own organisations.

We can, and should, examine the experiences of other communities, bringing them back into our own as examples of collective organising. This can enrich planning and programming for our scientists, students, and stakeholders. I’ve been lucky to be a part of a number of different campaigns and communities outside of my day job, and in this piece, I’ve outlined some of the key aspects of collective organising I’ve picked up from outside science.

A community garden. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

Tying the individual to the collective vision or goal

Finding a way to connect individual members to the overall mission is an incredibly powerful mechanism for building a collective vision of your goals.

One of the most powerful aspects of being part of a community is the opportunity to listen and share the stories of other members. Linking individual stories and impacts to broader, shared goals is a key tactic for developing empathy between stakeholders and community members alike, regardless of context.

Being able to turn abstract demands or plans into concrete examples for those unfamiliar with your community or campaign can have a dramatic effect on their views and support. It’s no different than when scientific community managers share publication outcomes from initiatives, or have members introduce themselves and their hopes for participation in a community or endeavour. We all seek connection on a human level and remembering to begin there when attempting to engage people in collective storytelling can have a powerful effect on outcomes (whether it’s getting people onboard with a new strategic direction or explaining why they should write a letter to their local newspaper in support of a campaign).

Recognising different levels of participation

Providing a variety of actions to community members to contribute to an initiative helps broaden the number of members likely to take part.

As scientific community managers or collective organisers, it’s important to identify (and communicate) multiple ways for people to show they’re a part of a community or movement – and its aims. Few people who are not already active in the community will dive straight into activities like ambassadorships without being encouraged in that direction via smaller actions. Offering a variety of different ways to contribute, including low effort/low stakes options, is critical for gathering support and momentum for your initiative or community and helps to ease people towards undertaking bigger actions.

As you gear up for large events, it’s worth putting together a starter pack of ways to get involved to encourage members along the participation curve. These could be things like Twitter or Facebook banners, surveys to send round, posters to put up on notice boards, or sign up rotas for partial shifts at an event. When you’re putting this together, consider the inclusiveness of your suggested actions – are there barriers to participation you might be able to remove?

For example, can you ask people to commit to shorter periods of volunteering, offer support for people with different accessibility requirements, or set up financial support for participants?

Building a bank of meaningful ways to participate allows people to feel part of the community, even if they’re not able to jump right in to fully participating. This can help build a sense of connection over the longer term, and hopefully offers a base from which you can work to increase engagement over time.

The importance of onboarding

As established members of a community, it’s easy to forget how confusing or intimidating it can feel when joining a new space. Being thoughtful about onboarding (and not assuming everyone is as well versed in the community as you are) can be a huge factor in building and maintaining engagement from new members.

Onboarding of new members is critical regardless of whether you’re running a scientific community, organising a fundraiser, or coordinating a campaign. Decoding jargon, laying out the different activities available or help needed, and offering a firm grounding in the principles you’re working from are all important to help newer members engage with the group but also feel empowered to join in.

Schemes such as drop-in meetings to answer questions, new member handbooks (such as some of the community playbooks CEFP fellows are working on), even explainer videos can all help to support new members and make them feel part of the community. It’s always worth remembering that ramping up a new member’s involvement is likely to take time (and, as I previously mentioned, that different people will want to contribute in different ways – not everyone will want to be on the organising committee!).

In some of the communities I help to organise outside of science, this onboarding process can mean one-off emails, in-person meetings directly aimed at new members, or even one-to-one coffee chats. Online FAQs directly communicated to members can also help by answering basic questions and giving them the confidence to show up to events or participate in discussions.

Looking at alternative programming opportunities

Different arenas offer a chance to explore different methods of programming and event organisation beyond lectures or debates. Looking beyond “typical” event programming can help invigorate a community and offer insights that might get lost in other formats.

Unconferences, Teach Outs, and public assemblies are all successful formats that offer a different view of how communities, organisers, and even the public can communicate around a topic and build a collective identity together. Straying outside of the confines of traditional set ups opens new ways of relating to people across the community, brings different ideas to the surface, and can spark surprising directions for future initiatives and goals.

Stepping outside of one-way or limited conversation, which is often seen with lectures or panels, provides space for those who may not have otherwise contributed. If you are working towards co-creation with your community, different event formats can also help develop communication in that direction, by providing a new forum for voices with less in-built hierarchy vs. other formats.

Every community needs a shake up in its format from time to time, so consider running an unconference, starting a program of Teach Outs, or kick off your annual meeting with a public event. The exact type of event you run will depend on what you’re hoping to get out of it, but getting your community to relate to each other in a different context can be a catalyst for bold new ideas.

How good it feels to be part of a massive project all pulling in the same direction!

Participating in big projects or events can build solid bonds between those who take part, which can then be translated into increased involvement in the community over a longer timeframe.

I won’t lie, there is a special sense of camaraderie which develops when you’re standing in the dark of the morning, handing out soggy leaflets in a waterproof while “Power in a Union” blares from the PA system. The same goes for helping to organise large events or participating in cross-community projects, the feeling of connection and togetherness which often develops when working on a larger project is one of the key goals all types of collective organising should be working towards.

People like to feel part of something, we enjoy doing our bit for causes or organisations we support, and having big projects that people can get involved in simultaneously reinforces and strengthens the bonds between community members. Ask anyone who has performed in a play, gone on an adventure weekend, or worked on a field research trip, a shared experience builds ties which continue and can help really develop a sense of community.

I’m not saying you need to put on a play or create a huge project purely for this purpose, but giving members an opportunity to work together, support each other and build something can be a powerful thing for your community, and it’s worth keeping an eye out for these opportunities so that you can maximise the benefits for as many members are possible (see above regarding a variety of accessible actions).

Diverse organising experiences enhance scientific communities

Collective organising, whether as part of an allotment association, charity ball committee, or scientific community, offers a lot of parallel learnings which can be applied in different situations. As community managers we should be embracing this diversity in experience and taking what we learn in other areas of our lives back to our communities to enhance member engagement. From onboarding members properly, to better communicating how people can get involved, and exploring different formats to bring people together, there’s much we can learn to support vibrant, interesting communities that our members are proud to be an active part of.

Stepping outside of the confines of our jobs brings new perspectives and understanding to our roles. Collective organising takes many different forms, across different communities, and as community managers we should be reflecting on where we can help to cross-pollinate ideas to build movements which effect real change for their members.


Arielle Bennett-Lovell is the Coordinator for the Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge and a CEFP2019 CSCCE Fellow. She’s interested in open science, community building, biotech, and supporting scientists across academia and industry to do bolder and better research. You can find her tweeting occasionally at @biotechchat.