The garden metaphor for community management: Tending to the many different plants in your garden

This post is part of an ongoing series 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 – and the accompanying community calls 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 third in a series of four posts dissecting the garden metaphor. Previously, we described the house party metaphor and we subsequently published that series as a free-to-download booklet.

It’s rare for a garden to only contain one type of plant – in fact, if it did, we probably wouldn’t call it a garden, it would be an orchard, a rose bed, or even a field! And the same is true of communities. People with varied backgrounds and skill sets come together in a community over a shared purpose, but they don’t all have the exact same interests or availability. Some of their skill sets might overlap, and they might share similar schedules (e.g., members in a community of teachers might all share the same holidays), but it’s important as community managers that we appreciate our members’ differences and offer programming and activities to meet them where they are. After all – some people enjoy visiting a garden as a secluded space for a picnic, others appreciate marking the change of seasons with a box of veggies every couple of weeks, and you can tailor your programming to match. 

A illustration of a collection of varied house plants, each with it's own unique appearance and planted in a range of different pots.
Image by pch.vector on Freepik

Getting to know your members

Whether you’ve been head gardener for some time or you’re the newest assistant, it can be helpful to stop and smell the roses once in a while. What plants in your garden are thriving? Which could use a little extra support? And is it time to encourage some new plants to grow or dig a new flower bed? 

As a community manager, taking the time to explore who is in your community is a key first step in creating a successful engagement plan. After all – if you don’t know who you’re working with, how can you create programming that’s meaningful to them? Depending on how your community works, you might be able to use internal data to gain a better understanding of your community. For example, you might know from your database where in the world your members are based and therefore be able to schedule programming that caters to their general availability. Or maybe you collect information about the career stage of your members, and from this information you can infer the kinds of topics they’d be interested in or resources they might need. 

Grouping your members in this way can help you start to identify their motivations for being in the community, and from there, ways that you might be able to support them as members. In the metaphorical sense, knowing which plants you have in your garden tells you when to water and when to fertilize, and also, when to leave your blooms alone.

Creating multi-modal programming

We created the CSCCE Community Participation Model as a way of aligning the needs of different member types with existing and hypothetical content and programming. It describes four different modes of engagement: CONVEY/CONSUME, CONTRIBUTE, COLLABORATION, and CO-CREATE; and one meta-mode, CHAMPION. The figure below highlights the key features, and we explore it in detail in this guidebook

The CSCCE Community Participation Model describes four modes of community member participation, CONVEY/CONSUME, CONTRIBUTE, COLLABORATE, and CO-CREATE, as well as a fifth “super user” mode, the CHAMPION mode. Member activities are generally convened or scaffolded by a community manager, who usually represents an organization or institution.
This figure, The CSCCE Community Participation Model, is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license, and may only be reused in its original form (which includes the CSCCE logo). Use of this image requires attribution to the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. For questions related to reuse of this image or to request additional permissions, please contact

In the metaphor, you might imagine that plants in the CONVEY/CONSUME mode are those that appreciate that you made the space for them, and they’re doing just fine so long as you water them and occasionally prune the neighboring rose bushes. In other words, your newsletters and community resources are appreciated and sufficient for them. 

Those in CONTRIBUTE might be the plants that are telling you something about the garden. Their brown leaves might remind you that it hasn’t rained much lately and it’s time to water, or by creeping onto the path they alert you that it’s time to get out the pruning shears. In your community, these might be the members who respond to surveys or drop you an email to share their feedback. 

Your botanical COLLABORATORS are those who use the supports you provide to connect. They’re the roses and clematis that climb your trellises, or the peas, beans, and tomatoes that populate your vegetable plot. Your role here is not to prescribe the colors of the flowers your plants produce, or how big of a crop they yield, but instead to make sure that their soil is adequately prepared and the supports are sound. Similarly, you might suggest the format of a co-authored tip sheet, and organize regular co-working sessions, but it is up to your members to populate the document with content, suggest figures or illustrations, and/or crowdsource additional resources. 

And the plants in CO-CREATE are the ones that are starting to interact with others in a significant way, and with much less direction from you. These might be the apple trees you planted and carefully tended through their first winters, but that now contentedly cross-pollinate and fruit generously. Their work might naturally lead to an evolution of the community – in the metaphor, a glut of apples might lead the gardener to diversify and start a small-batch cider enterprise. Or in a community, the results of co-creation might lead to the creation of new working groups, the establishment of new channels in an online platform, or the expansion of the community into new domains or disciplines. 

[We’ll return to the CHAMPION mode in our next post.]

Supporting participation

In planning your garden, you need to consider what you hope to cultivate while holding open the possibility that it won’t turn out exactly as planned. An early frost might damage your apple blossoms, a storm might knock over your rose trellis, or you might discover that the petunias you planted are pink, not purple. But, while you can’t control the weather, you can ensure that you’re creating multiple ways for the plants in your garden to succeed, and for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. 

By strategically fertilizing the ground, repairing loose paving slabs, and researching the needs of your different plants, you can set them up for success. Extending this idea to your community members, by creating opportunities and scaffolding that supports them in different modes of the CPM, you ensure that they can participate in the community when and how they can. 

And as for the weather? While you can’t control it, you can make predictions about the seasons and how they affect your members. Their availability, for example, might ebb and flow depending on grant deadlines, teaching commitments, or field seasons, which in turn might influence you to schedule community calls on a semester-by-semester basis.  

Want to dig deeper? 

We hope you’ll join us for our next community call, during which we’ll explore the garden metaphor in more detail: 

And, during our foundational training course, Scientific Community Engagement Fundamentals, we explore the importance of aligning member needs with content and programming using the CPM, as well as additional core frameworks and concepts related to community management in STEM. Registration is open for our fall cohort! 

Additional reading / Resources