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Lessons From My Grandfather for Social Business


While community can feel like the “new shiny” catch phrase I like to remember that everything we know about community has already been learned. Our biggest challenge is translating what we already know on building, growing and sustaining thriving and healthy communities to reach our organization’s goals.

Recently, my family celebrated my grandfather’s 80th birthday. He was a postman and delivered mail in his local community for most of his life. When I was a child, he was well into retirement, but I remember riding around town and finding it peculiar that everyone seemed to know him. There were hugs, handshakes, and quick laughs as we navigated the bank or grocery store; he was asked about his family and he would inquire about theirs. His relationships in the community ran so deep that last year at my grandmother’s wake we had to extend calling hours and some people waited for over three hours to express their condolences to him. It was a strong reminder about the connection between deep community relationships and loyalty.

I’ve asked him about his experiences as a community builder and he responds to the tune of, “It was a different time: Doors were open, people offered me afternoon tea and snacks, and sometimes I’d stop to shoot a few hoops with the neighborhood kids. It was a tight knit community.”

In my lifetime our mail (wo)men were friendly enough, but they’ve never known my name and quite frankly I’ve never invited them in. And so I’ve decided it wasn’t the occupation that built his community, but rather how my grandfather chose to behave and engage given the opportunity to spend time with people everyday.

Communities of my grandfather’s day haven’t disappeared but they have changed. Instead of lemonade on the front porch, it might be catching up at soccer practice or checking in with friends on Facebook after dinner. Older generations like to tell stories about a better time when neighbors relied on each other and block parties were common. But I don’t believe we’ve lost those communities, instead we’ve changed the way we find and participate in them.

What hasn’t changed is the value that grows as a result of investing time, resources and energy into people who have gathered around a common interest. Had my grandfather kept his eyes down instead of making it a point to say “hello,” had he declined the invitation to learn about the people he served, those community relationships wouldn’t have existed and thus he would have lost the reward of being part of a loyal, active and enthusiastic community.

So how do we translate community lessons like these? After all, my grandfather was not a company and his investment in community was not about meeting business goals. This may be why we are experiencing a community strategist squeeze. There are people like my grandfather who are great community builders but not business leaders and there are people who understand business inside and out, but do not see the need to humanize it and there are far fewer that are experienced and good at doing both.

And so the challenge is on. Those of us coming from traditional business roles must step back and humanize, remember that the basic tenants of community are all around us and we know them already. It’s so obvious it’s easy to overlook. Look beyond the numbers and see the people. Invest the time and slow down.  Try to figure out what the modern equivalent of lemonade on the front porch or coffee  hour after church may be.

And those of us who are enthusiastic and natural community builders need to get business savvy, learn the ropes and figure out how to tie what you know about building passionate and wildly loyal community into organization strategy and business goals.

What do you think?  Can we translate the lessons of yesterday’s mailman to today’s social business?


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