Exploring community scaffolding using the house party metaphor

Over the coming months we’ll be exploring a number of metaphors about community management that can support conversations about specific concepts and common challenges in a creative and free-flowing manner.

You can read more about the series in our overview post. For each metaphor, there will be a blog post describing the metaphor and several additional posts applying it to specific scenarios. This post is the second in a series of four posts dissecting the house party metaphor.

We hope you’ll join us on Wednesday, 22 November at 11am EST / 4pm UTC when we’ll be discussing the house party metaphor on our monthly community call! 

What is scaffolding – and why does it matter?

“The best house parties seem to happen seamlessly – the refreshments are replenished before you realize they have run low, the activities are engaging but not overwhelming, you meet a lot of interesting people, you feel safe and welcome in the space – and you can even find key facilities such as the restrooms! This is very likely because your host put a lot of thought into all the supporting structures ahead of time – what we refer to as scaffolding.”

Reference: Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2022) The CSCCE Community Participation Model – Scaffolding to lower barriers to participation in STEM communities. Woodley, Pratt, and Santistevan doi: 10.5281/zenodo.6078934

Vector cartoon illustration of the process of the construction of buildings with construction crane and scaffolding.
Image by vectorpocket on Freepik

Scaffolding is “the supportive information, activities, and processes that address barriers to member participation and ensure that all members can access and engage in community programming” (see our guidebook for more details). 

In the house party metaphor, scaffolding might include: 

  • requesting information about dietary restrictions as part of the RSVP process
  • providing information related to accessibility such as parking availability, access to elevators 
  • placing balloons outside the door to indicate that the guests are in the correct location
  • creating name badges for attendees with options for them to self-disclose pronouns or other personal information
  • greeting guests at the door and introducing them to at least one other attendee they don’t already know
  • adding a sign on the wall indicating the location of the toilets
  • posting food allergy information next to items at the buffet

Each of these examples serves to make it easier, safer, and more comfortable for all attendees to get what they need while attending the event – whether that’s avoiding food that might make them sick, feeling reassured that they’re in the right place, or able to easily meet others that they don’t yet know without feeling isolated or awkward. 

Another way of thinking about scaffolding at a party is that it enables guests to get what they need more independently from the host while the event is in place. If you can find your own way to the rest rooms, then the host is free to lead a toast or introduce a game. 

Examples of community scaffolding

While every community is different, there are some key places in the lifecycle of a community and your members’ experiences where scaffolding is particularly important:

  • Onboarding new members – In the metaphor, this is how you welcome your guests to the party. Community onboarding scaffolding might look like tip sheets or welcome videos that orient a new member to the platform you use to connect, a community directory or welcome thread so that they can find out more about other members, or the offer of a coffee chat to help them get started. 
  • Setting expectations and resolving conflict – For everyone to have a good time at the party, they all need to agree on what it means to behave appropriately in the house. Putting in place community participation guidelines or a code of conduct, and making clear the process for addressing any violations, is a key piece of scaffolding for any community, which we’ll talk about more in a later blog post. 
  • Supporting the growth of your community – As more people show up to the party, you’ll need to rely on your guests to help make them feel welcome. Creating resources that help your members explain the goals and norms of your community, like a one-pager or brochure, and then making sure they can find them by posting them on your website or on your community platform, is one way of supporting these “community champions.”

Getting support with creating your scaffolding

One truth about scaffolding is that it may involve significant “less visible labor” on the part of the host. The signs and other thoughtful touches at the party are great – but how many attendees think about what it took to make them? That extra work, combined with the lack of appreciation, can lead a host to burn out over time – especially when the size of the party grows as word of mouth spreads about how great the events are.

A growing community can also mean that the host doesn’t have time to connect in any meaningful way as they may arrive with friends and bypass being met at the front door. The host may both miss the excitement of meeting new people AND have to contend with inadequate onboarding of new arrivals, resulting in confusion and lots of spontaneous questions that could have been addressed during onboarding. 

So, while this growth in the number of attendees may be generally desirable, it creates a need to share the load of providing the scaffolding with those who are spreading the word about the party. This could look like assigning specific roles – as greeters or room hosts – and providing the accompanying training so that they can, for example, work the music system or oven, depending on the room they’re in. This is where a champions program can help – with the added impact of reducing burnout in the host, in addition to ensuring the growing number of guests continue to know how and where they can join in with the party activities. 

When should you create community scaffolding? 

Creating a lot of scaffolding all at once can sound intimidating, but may not be necessary. Typically, the best places to start are areas where you know there’s a crucial need, e.g., addressing expectations about behavior (creating community participation guidelines) and making members feel safe. 

You’ll likely also find that needs for new scaffolding arise organically. In the metaphor, imagine that a guest points out that the latest group to arrive brought pizza. That was super generous of them, but they didn’t make clear which pizza had meat and which was vegetarian. This might prompt you as the host to have a quiet word with the pizza bearers, encouraging them to share the food info. As a community manager, that could look like creating guidelines and/or templates for how you expect sub-groups to convene. You’re not trying to quash the organic enthusiasm and activities, but you are thinking about how to instill the notion of community care and distribute the tasks associated with caring for one another.

How do you know if it’s time to take down old scaffolding, or put up something new? 

Some scaffolding is evergreen, some will need to be updated over time. For example, if you’ve created a tip sheet to help your members navigate your community platform, you’ll need to note whether any technical updates to the platform impact its contents. 

You can also track usage or download metrics of your scaffolding and see if your members are using it. If not, maybe it’s time to retire or rethink the purpose of that particular piece of  scaffolding. 

Coming up in our next blog post

Next Tuesday, we’ll continue our exploration of the house party metaphor for community management and how it can be helpful when describing the configuration of your community. If your community has many sub-groups or projects and you’re struggling to see how they fit together, this post is for you! 

Additional reading / Resources