The Meaning of Community

Community -- be it the one we serve or the one we form -- is an evolving state. While the essence of community hasn’t changed, elements of it certainly have.

What is community?

Community—be it the one we serve or the one we form—is an evolving state. But it is so central to our world, that it makes sense to reflect on its meaning and understand what has changed, and what remains constant, in the meaning of community.

The literal definition provides a starting point. Look in the dictionary for "community" and you'll find two definitions: (1) a group of people living in the same locality and under the same government or (2) a group of people having a common interest. The common thread between these two descriptions is people. And because people are constantly evolving in their needs and behaviors, so to is the meaning of community, both to those who are members, and those who seek to serve and enhance a community's experience.

What has changed?
The most significant development is that communities of like-minded individuals are no longer constrained by geographic borders. In fact, they now extend beyond a single neighborhood, state, country, or even continent. The impact has been significant for all communities of interest and has had a particular influence on the philanthropic community, says Joe Breiteneicher, president of The Philanthropic Initiative. The results: a new community of engaged, involved donors who may be joined in focus and purpose, while not physically close together.

"The concept of community is continuing to grow and be creatively redefined, generating a compelling force that holds great promise to forever change the artful practice of philanthropy,” says Breiteneicher. What might these changes include? Breiteneicher suggests we might see global variations on the community foundation theme or new virtual donor communities organized around “thematic passions.” For example, this could mean bringing individual donors or organizations together to address children in poverty across the nation or even in other countries.

What Remains the Same
But while Breiteneicher notes a change in the meaning of community, he also touches on the element that remains intact: that of place. Curtis Johnson, president of CitiStates, takes that a step further. Not only has sense of place remained a critical notion in the meaning of community, for some it has taken on deeper importance, even in the face of technological change.

"There really is a renaissance in recognizing how important places are," he says. Johnson points out that during the explosion of virtual communication in the 90s, individuals gravitated to the physical places that embodied the new spirit, such as Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas and New York City. Even in the midst of the cyber experience, he says, place had its place. "The physical place is reasserting itself in the meaning of community," he says. “It won't be rubbed out by technological change.”

Indeed, human beings are social creatures and virtual communication will never be sufficient to fully satisfy peoples’ need for interaction. It is no surprise that book clubs—which required people to meet in person—became popular just as e-mail and the Internet became ubiquitous. Despite the convenience of virtual learning, most students still prefer to meet in classrooms to exchange ideas. For their part, philanthropists are likely to continue donating time and money to their physical “hometowns,” even as they consider needs that are farther away.

An evolving definition
What does this mean? Essentially, that the meaning of community has become more layered, more complex, as legacy definitions join with the new connectors afforded by technology. All these bonds form living, working communities entitled to recognition and support.

“Community” philanthropy, once defined only by geographic ties, is increasingly embracing for new bonds to form via technology to like-minded people outside its original circle. "At the end of the day, it is this 'lens of community' which should be how we judge the work of philanthropy," writes Alan Broadbent, venture capitalist and chair of the Maytree Foundation in Toronto in his 2002 essay "Curing Philanthropy's Ills". To serve a community well, varying forms of community - both traditional and virtual - must be recognized and appreciated.

Caroline Heine

Posted at 1:00 AM, Dec 01, 2008 in Arts and Culture | Intergenerational | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comment