Expanding the contributor base for your project is no small feat. It requires a blend of dedication, relationship-building, and strategic planning to bring all the best, cute, furry monster contributors together. Genuine community growth isn’t about quick fixes; it’s a journey of nurturing relationships and consistent dedication. While the solution to such a complex challenge often rests on the ambiguous phrase, “it depends,” this post will help you frame some of these challenges with practical advice and questions.
After reading this post, you’ll be able to better prioritize your community strategy through the lens of these main ideas:
- Broadening the Definition of Contribution
- Strengthening Contributor Relationships
- Crafting a Conducive Environment for Growth
- Cultivating Trust Among Contributors
What Makes a Contribution?
Recognize and value contributions beyond code. Documentation, design, support, marketing, and other contributions are crucial for a project’s success. Do you know when people mention your project on social media? Are you doing regular keyword checks on the web? Are you or your teammates listening to all the relevant channels? Contributions can take the form of a feature request, a bug report, a YouTube review, a tutorial, an article mentioning your project, a discussion on social media, and more! Consider these broader definitions of contributions and the people behind them and this will help drive growth for the project.
Deepening Relationships and Engagement
How should we engage in contributions? How can you acknowledge and build relationships with the people contributing?
Are you actively building relationships with key people related to your project? Do you know all the key people? How can you and your team deepen those relationships?
Get to know the people who show enthusiasm for your project. Private and personalized messages are where the magic happens. Reach out to them with questions driven by your genuine curiosity. Get people’s perspective instead of guessing it. “Did you find any good candidates with that job posting you made in the community forum? Why do you think so many people were interested in this job?”
Be polite and show respect wherever possible. Please, thank you, and apologize when you are wrong. Little notes of recognition and gratitude go a long way. Make people feel seen and heard.
Create opportunities for others to express who they are. Encourage open dialogue and recognize that there will always be diverse opinions. Belonging is not something that happens overnight, if people can’t be themselves, connection can be elusive.
Creating the Space for Growth
Is there a designated ‘space’ where community members can congregate, collaborate, and express themselves? Do they want to hop into voice calls, stream content, text chat, or get together IRL somewhere? Consider the space a product in itself. The space be it virtual, physical, or somewhere in between. It should bring utility and value to the people there and create compelling reasons to gather. It could be a GitHub discussion forum, a community center, a Discord server, or a combination of all those things.
Keep iterating and improving on that space, empower members to change it as they need, and involve them as much as you can so they feel ownership over it. Identify rituals and patterns of how the space is used and adapt it based on what you and the most active members/leaders find useful. Change anything that isn’t working with the help of your members and make them a part of the change.
Building Trust with Contributors
The speed at which your community or team can deliver quality responses is often important. It sends a signal to people who engage with you that you care. Blender, a free and open-source 3D creation suite, made “How quickly do users get an issue fixed?” a priority metric. Blender has seen a huge amount of growth in the past years due to several factors relating to their contributors, but building trust with the people they engage with has certainly played a large role. Respond quickly to show you care and model your response for the community so members can help you do the same.
Understanding the Motivations of Contributors
Recognize why members participate. It could be because they have a business interest in the project, maybe it helps lower coordination costs, gives them status in the community, the experience to launch a career, etc. Are there ways you can facilitate giving them some skin in the game? Don’t guess at others’ motivations, ask them! Catering to these motivations where you can will greatly enhance engagement and growth in your community.
Identify Long-Term Contributors
Look for members displaying pro-social behaviors. Who are the ones who have the knowledge and share it? Who do people look up to in the group, who are the ‘influencers’? Those who are frequently sought out for reviews or answers often have the potential to be long-term contributors or even community leaders. These are the champions fueling the engagement and generating the content. As you consider how to allocate your time to contributor growth, make getting to know your champions a priority.
None of my advice is prescriptive. Take what resonates with you and let me know what works. Seriously! I would love to hear from you. I didn’t exactly plan this career path, but in a sense, I’ve been on it my whole life. Personality tests of all sorts have long labeled me a “cornerstone of the community”. Yet, I’ve often felt like I don’t really belong or fit in perfectly anywhere so helping facilate places where people might find belonging is my aspiration.
As you navigate the challenges of building your contributor base and fostering genuine connections, remember the power of authenticity. Don’t just share what you feel; share why you feel that way. Your personal narrative, intertwined with those of your contributors, will be the cornerstone of a thriving, resonant community.
Favorite Books on this Subject
(The books I borrowed many ideas from to shape this post)
Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software
Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides
The Business of Belonging: How to Make Community Your Competitive Advantage
Get Together: How to Build a Community With Your People
Open Source Collective: “Growing your Contributors”
MIT Technology Review: “The Future of Open Source is very Much in Flux”