Stanford Social Innovation Review : Informing and inspiring leaders of social change


Online Community Building: Gardening vs Landscaping

My current job title includes the term “Community Builder” and I get asked nearly every day just what that means: how do you build community? where is the community you want to build? how can I be a community builder online? Tips, secrets, ideas?!  I want to take a break from all the hard work building community (does that get a wink?) to share some of what I believe is the core of successful community building (on or offline).

“Community building” is about a lot of things.  Some people define it as organizing, especially around specific events, campaigns, legislation, or fundraising.  Others see it as specifically applying to online community spaces, like a social networking site.  I believe that community exists everywhere, really.  That the Internet is a huge community of people looking to connect with others like them to form smaller, more specific communities.  Those of us in positions to support those connections and collaborations are some of the luckiest people in the global network, acting as the email or Twitter post or blog reference that helps individuals make networked jumps to where they really want to be.

Gardening vs Landscaping
So, what’s the secret to successful community building? You guessed it: be a great gardener and avoid the temptation to landscape.  Here’s what that means:

  • A gardener only takes out the weeds; a landscaper takes out everything that isn’t part of the design.  Think about the number of beautiful plants or trees that have sprung up in parks, your yard, or even out in nature that weren’t “intended” to be there but quickly grew to be a valuable part of the ecosystem.
  • A gardener isn’t afraid to mix things around; a landscaper plans and plots and plants.  Sometimes you can’t know ahead of time just which plants will respond well or want more sun or shade so you need to be flexible.
  • When a storm hits, a gardener can remain open to planting anew and rejuvenating others; a landscaper may just order more of the same.  Sometimes it takes a storm to realize which plants just weren’t going to make it or which were able to stick it out.
  • When in doubt, a gardener will try more plants or kinds of plants and see which take root; a landscaper may default to less.  What about the plants you had never used before to know about and how they took root, flowered, and bolted up right before your eyes?

Clearly, this is all very metaphorical here with the back yard options.  It is, though, meant to paint a picture:

The Gardener creates an ecosystem open to change, available to new groups, and full of fresh opportunities to emerge naturally.  The approach is focused on organic collaboration and growth for the entire community.  The gardener is simply there to help, cultivate, and clear the weeds if/when they poke up.

The Landscaper creates an ecosystem that matches a preconceived design or pattern.  The approach is focused on executing a preconceived environment, regardless of how natural or organic it may be for the larger area.  The landscaper is there to ensure that everything stays just as planned.

Your Community
How can you apply these ideas to your community building? The first question I always ask myself when considering a new tool or functionality online, a new project or campaign, or even new partnerships or members is: “Is this something the Community wants or something I want?”  It doesn’t matter what I want, really.  It matters what the Community wants.  And how do you know if or what they are interested in? ASK!  Be sure to always provide opportunities for your community members or those who come across your work to share their ideas about what they would like to see, how they’d like to connect with each other and how they would like to work with you.  And when considering anything new, ask for feedback and share your ideas and plans ahead of time.  You may be surprised, but your Community often has even better ideas than you!

What do you think? Do you have other ideas about successful community building? Have a great example or case study you want to share?  Looking forward to more!

imageAmy Sample Ward’s passion for nonprofit technology has lead her to involvement with NTEN, NetSquared, and a host of other organizations. She shares many of her thoughts on nonprofit technology news and evolutions on her blog.



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  • BY Nancy Iannone

    ON August 6, 2009 07:54 AM

    Amy -

    I love your examples of gardening vs. landscaping.  Gardening really does leave a community open to possibility and the wisdom of shared ideas. 

    Thank you for a great start to the day.


  • BY Naava Frank

    ON August 7, 2009 01:13 AM


    I am a community builder and thank you for this post.  I have been watching the first, one and only, tomato growing in my city garden and experiencing such joy as I check on it every few days and notice how it slowly grows in size and begins to ripen.  And I had been thinking about how gardening (and community building) invite you to pay attention to and celebrate small incremental changes.  Over time these small changes add up to the whole complex and fascinating environment of a garden or community.


  • BY Hildy Gottlieb

    ON August 7, 2009 07:41 AM

    I am smiling, Amy - As a gardener and a community builder, I have seen the analogy with gardening myself over the years. I think you will enjoy this: “Community Engagement as Gardening in the Front Yard.”

    Thanks for a perfect gift this morning. I think I’ll get out in the garden and see my neighbors before heading into the office!

  • What an interesting comparison. I am thinking about ways I can use my skills to build community and create change and I go back and forth between the gardener and the landscaper ideas. You can read some of my thoughts at Thank you for spelling it out so clearly.

  • BY Amy Sample Ward

    ON August 7, 2009 10:09 AM

    Nancy - Thanks so much!  I love your image that gardening leaves the environment open to the wisdom of the crowds, or maybe seeds? smile

    Naava - What a terrific example!  Gave me goosebumps of excitement, to be honest.  You are exactly right, too!  A community builder has the opportunity to know the community as a whole network, but also as a group of individual members and individual contributions.  And to celebrate all of the growth, small or large!

    Hildy - Thank you so much; I’m in tears.  It gives me such pride and pleasure to serve so many communities as a supporter and builder.  Your post hit such a chord with me!  It really is about helping communities, or gardens, grow to their fullest: both as plants themselves as healthy as possible but in size and reach and spirit.  The goal I always encourage other Community Builders to focus on is to support a community in a way that it grows to sustain itself without you.  A wonderful natural garden smile

    Rebecca - I think all of us flip flop between the two, feeling our way through the process of building community.  Thanks for sharing the link as well!

  • Rikke Glahn's avatar

    BY Rikke Glahn

    ON August 7, 2009 02:54 PM

    Hi Amy

    Nice point you have there. I also found your final comment “You may be surprised, but your Community often has even better ideas than you!” most interesting. It is ever so true and once again leads my thoughts to the importance and learning potential of user driven innovation.


  • BY Lalia Helmer

    ON February 19, 2010 05:39 PM

    Hi Amy,
    Love your imagery and point of view. A friend of mind, a local community builder, just sent me the link to the SSIR’s favorite blogs.
    Your metaphor for gardening as community building is one that everyone involved in a community can readily identify with. Your point about asking the community what it wants is much like checking the soil for signs of what nutrients it needs, essential to building a healthy, thriving community or garden. One step further, however, would be to not only ask the community what it wants but to involve the community in building and maintaining of the garden. How is this done? By bringing in all stakeholders to a table to share in the visioning and planning of the “garden”. A great example of this was a summit last summer in Cleveland, Sustainable Cleveland 2019, where 700 people, members of every sector of the city met for three days to create a new future for the city. I was privileged to attend a presentation about this event and it was very moving.
    Hopefully more people like yourself can bring across these kinds of concepts to communities everywhere.

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