Pondering on the Question of Community Sustainability

Posted by j.laird on 7 April 2021 - 10:30am

The Carpentries logoThis is cross-posted from The Carpentries blog here.

This post provides a summary of discussions and takeaways from the Community Sustainability session that Serah Rono and Toby Hodges facilitated at the March 2021 SORSE workshop.

The Carpentries has been around for a long while - Greg Wilson’s telling of the first ever Carpentries-style workshop dates back to July 1998 with initial discussion and ideation sessions about what is now The Carpentries starting three years prior in 1995. In 2021, this amounts to over 20 years of iterative design on The Carpentries style of teaching and lesson content, immense community collaboration and input on dozens of initiatives, peer mentoring and collective ownership of different processes — all of which have contributed to the healthy and impactful status that this community-led organisation holds in the present day.

The privilege to be part of this community for a fraction of that time and in the present day is not lost on us. The question that constantly charges at us is —what can we work on, and set in motion, to make sure that this community continues to impact others for another year, or five or twenty? As is anyone’s guess, the question of community sustainability is a layered and complex one, and we are still in the process of answering it. One way we are working to keep ourselves on course, and accountable to others, is by sharing our working definitions of the term community sustainability as we go along, and meeting with others who are pondering over the same topic.

In mid-March 2021, we had the opportunity to meet with Research Software Engineers who are interested in or currently building Research Software communities. This blog post summarises our discussion and resources shared in the Community Sustainability session.

[Update: video recordings of the workshop sessions are now available to watch on the SORSE website.]

Our Working Definition of Community Sustainability

Our working definition of community sustainability for this session was the ability for a community, online or offline, to continue serving value to its incoming and existing members over time.

We also shared some guiding questions to help attendees reflect on the subject of sustainability for their communities:

  • Is there a clear set of goals to guide community involvement? List them.
  • How does your community strategy adapt to evolving needs?
  • How are new members integrated into the community?
  • How do you keep existing members engaged over time?
  • How interdependent are community members across activities?
  • How is equity defined and upheld across all community interactions?
  • Are there defined community norms, codes of conduct and clear pathways for conflict resolution?

Meaningful Engagement as a Pathway to Sustainability

Concerns about the sustainability of community efforts often focus on the work being done by a few dedicated and well-established members of the community: think maintainers of an open source software library, or those people who present regularly at a weekly coding club. There is a recognition that a project is vulnerable if these volunteers become overburdened or need to take a break, and a desire to increase the pool of key, highly active contributors to address this. This is a common challenge to community sustainability, and certainly one that we continue to face within The Carpentries.

The temptation is to look at what can be done to invite or entice existing community members into this group, and that is an important thing to do, but this is much more likely to succeed if you are actively working to promote further engagement throughout all levels of a community. How can you attract and welcome new members to the community, who have the potential to become one of those core contributors later? How will they find new opportunities to engage with the community, and how will they find out what they need to know in order to do that?

We recommend reading the Contributor Pathways section in Mozilla’s Open Leaders framework resource as you consider ways to engage your communities more meaningfully over time. Consider adopting this Mountain of Engagement template to document and iterate on your ideas. How does a potential member first hear about your community? How do they first engage? How do they first contribute? How do they continue contributing after this first time? How do they network within the community? How do they begin to take on additional responsibility/leadership?

Tackling Community Building Challenges and Promoting Community Sustainability

In the section below is a list of community building challenges shared by workshop attendees on the first day as summarised by Daniel Nüst and Jeremy Cohen, and example approaches from other communities that address these challenges. The example approaches listed can be expanded on, and we welcome your input by way of email, commenting below, or submitting a Pull Request against this post to expand the list.

Community Building Challenges Approaches from different communities that address listed challenges

Engagement 

Keeping people engaged / workload issues, time commitment/management for contributors.

For Discovery and First Contact

Participation

Will people participate? How long for? Helping potential members recognise whether they belong in the community.

For Sustained Participation

Incentives

Online / in-person present different challenges, gaining institutional recognition for community efforts, planning strategically while relying on voluntary contributions.

Expectations

Being realistic about what a community can offer.

Communication

Keeping people engaged / informed, choosing a platform, reaching critical mass for useful discussions, accessibility.

Community Building in The Open

For our icebreaker session, participants listed communities that they admire and expounded on why. A big thank you to these communities for creating inclusive spaces that continue to inspire the set up and running of new communities around the world:

The Turing Way, UK Research Software Engineering community, BrainHack and The Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM), Wikimedia community, The Carpentries, Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement, Software Sustainability Institute’s community, RLadies and ROpenSci, FORCE11, linux.conf.au, and the Galaxy Project

Because the list above is in no way exhaustive, we would love to hear from you:

  • Which communities do you admire and why?
  • What ideas and processes are you currently working on for the long-term sustainability of your community?

We are also keen to hear from you about any specific projects you are working on that will contribute to the long-term sustainability of your community. At The Carpentries, in the second year of our strategic plan implementation, some of the community sustainability projects we will be focussing on include:

  • Maintainer onboarding and offboarding
  • Accessibility of our lesson material and other Carpentries resources
  • Setting up additional opportunities for community members to step up into leadership roles via the Community Facilitators Program
  • Instructor Trainers resourcing, continued support and leadership
  • Scaling our regional coordination efforts to support our growing community in specific regions

In our next post on community sustainability (on The Carpentries blog), we will elaborate more on the activities The Carpentries is undertaking on the subject of community sustainability, with historical context on existing work we are building on. For now, we encourage you to read The Carpentries Strategic Plan.


Want to discuss this post with us? Send us an email or contact us on Twitter @SoftwareSaved.  

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