Monday, June 04, 2012

What would your community do for you?

In the last several years a trillion independent book stores have gone out of business. OK, that might be an exaggeration, but a lot of them have closed. Over the last decade the numbers have dropped from about 4000 to 1700 or so. Some have opened - membership in the American Booksellers Association is up by 55 over last year. The press is filled with daily stories about the demise of the press.

Two of MY (yes, I love them enough to think of them as mine) local bookstores have faced down closure in the last several years with the help of community rescues. Cover To Cover, in San Francisco, made it past their first imminent shutdown, reconfigured, moved to a smaller space, and hung on for a few more years after neighbors chipped in, covered costs, and signed on as "subscription members" (yes, to a bookstore). But it still closed.

Kepler's, in Menlo Park (20+ miles south of where I live, but still MY bookstore) also almost closed and was saved by community members. They raised money, restructured debt, helped with finances and the store is still open as a business. I go there every time I'm in town and buy a book. Like a pilgrimage - it's a community asset that I depend on and I know that my purchase matters.

So the question is, what do these organizations do that drives such loyalty and commitment? It's clearly a long term effort which crisis can make visible. It's the slow accumulation of one-to-one, meaningful interactions that become, over time, a community. 

Now Kepler's is trying something else. It has launched a drive, Kepler's 2020, to involve the community in designing and leading a transition to a community-owned bookstore and event space. In full 21c crowdfunding fashion it's raising money (donate here) to make this transition possible. These are not tax deductible donations. These are donations to a business to help it restructure as a community resource.The Kepler's 2020 project is also working on defining the bookstore of the future - not just saving itself. I first met the folks running this effort at a meeting for the Digital Public Library of America, which was wise enough to realize that it's community includes booksellers (and science museums, and ebook publishers.

Got that? Next, I'll probably tell you that people volunteer for the Department of Motor Vehicles. It's true. They do. I just came from a fantastic meeting about using technology for engagement. The techie for good community is alive and growing all over the place, working with and for cities, making things run better. There are loose networks of people in places all around the country, volunteering their time to make things better. And there are a few cities and government agencies wise enough to realize they need these people - and are welcoming their help.

We're volunteering for the DMV.
We're donating money to businesses to save and reinvent them.

If you run an institution that thinks it has a community purpose, my question for you is this - what would your community do for you?

1 comment:

Gabriela Fitz said...

Ah yes, what would "our" community do for us?

Well, my first thought was about what they have already done for us! Hundreds of nonprofits already share their knowledge with us and with the rest of the sector, while a core group has literally kept the project of IssueLab going and growing. Not unlike the local bookstore, the local gym, or the local corner store, nonprofits like ours rely on their community to keep the doors open.

But beyond this obvious fact your post really gets me thinking about how differently we each define community for ourselves (your commitment to the bookstore in menlo is a great case in point). For many of us community is hyper local, issue specific, and tied into all these other parts of our identities. So for IssueLab its been tough to get our users to even think about themselves as a community and by extension, IssueLab as a community resource.

Community support doesn't need to mean contributing financial resources, but it does mean a sense of common purpose and in the case of our work, a commonly held responsibility to sharing knowledge.

I don't think we're the only organization or business struggling with this in today's society. :)

IssueLab's community (which includes producers, publishers, and users of social sector research) could do a lot for us/themselves - most important of which is contributing its knowledge to a common pool from which it can draw freely in the future - but first, first it needs to even see itself as a community!