October’s community call recap: STEM leaders share their definitions of successful community management

This month’s community call was part of an ongoing series focusing on the role of community, and the community manager, in STEM. These conversations flowed from the 25 Community Manager Case Studies we published earlier this year, and we’ll be publishing a report to summarize our findings in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can catch up on our August (an overview of the case studies project) and September (a conversation about self-advocacy for community managers) calls on the CSCCE blog, and add our November call (which will focus on supporting and recognizing volunteers) to your calendar. 

One of the common challenges identified from the case studies is that many community managers feel that their role is poorly understood, and so people in these roles sometimes find themselves juggling disparate definitions of success. During this session, we heard from three STEM leaders — Josh Greenberg from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, John Ohab from the Hertz Foundation, and Karthik Ram from the University of California at Berkeley — about how they think about the importance and impact of communities, and the qualities they look for in a successful community. This recap describes some of the themes that emerged during this discussion, and includes the recordings of each presentation.

Community increases the impacts of individual people and projects

An attractive quality of communities, from a funder’s perspective, is that they can extend the longevity of a grant beyond the initial investment, Josh said. Funders like to see their grants act as catalysts with benefits that extend long after the money has been used up. From this perspective, how long a community persists and how many people it reaches can be meaningful metrics for measuring its success. But Josh also cautioned that these metrics often aren’t sufficient to appreciate the strengths of communities, and funders should be wary of treating community like a quick-and-easy way of making their investments appear impressive.

Watch Josh’s presentation in full: 

John introduced a similar concept that the Hertz Foundation draws on: Community is a force multiplier. When funding recipients come together, they generate ideas beyond what they could have accomplished alone. He used the example of the artificial intelligence technology Diffeo, which was created after three Hertz fellows who met through the organization came up with the idea. Community building can also act as a positive feedback loop, John said: When Hertz offers a supportive community for their fellows, the fellows go on to promote the foundation and donate financially.

Watch John’s presentation in full: 

Reaching above the low-hanging fruit

While longevity and reach are easy to measure, sometimes the biggest successes of communities are their impacts on individual members, Josh said. He and his colleagues at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation like to consider how communities have shaped the fields they serve when they think about whether they’ve been successful. Some communities have helped grow the ranks of new professions, like data scientists and research software engineers, for example. It’s hard to measure success when it comes in the form of promoting career durability or lowering attrition from new fields, but these qualities are often some of the most valuable outcomes of communities. 

Karthik extended the role of communities as catalysts for culture change to emphasize that they can support the durability of transformational ideas. Using the example of rOpenScI, which champions software peer review, he explained how some of the methods that he and others have developed have spread to other pockets of the open source community. Even if the communities from which these ideas originated cease to exist, their lasting impact is a sign of success.

Watch Karthik’s presentation in full:

Success depends on context

Not all communities take the same trajectory — nor should they — and examining their individual goals can shed light on the appropriate metrics for assessing success. Some are convened to produce measurable outputs, but for others their value lies more in the connections they forge. Similarly, longevity can sometimes be a sign of success, but not all communities need to last forever. Many either accomplish their goals and dissipate, or the technology they were built around becomes outdated, and so they evolve. The latter is important for funders to consider, Josh said. While it’s satisfying to see a project persist after a grant is finished, not all efforts need to be sustained. 

Join us next month…

On 16 November at 11am EST/4pm UTC, we’ll continue our series on challenges that communities face with a call about how to create fulfilling volunteer opportunities. We hope to see you there! Add to calendar