How to design, nourish, and grow a global community
If you can’t find the community you wish existed, create it.
Two years ago, I started Side Project Sessions in Melbourne because I knew how beneficial passion projects can be for your sense of wellbeing and career, but also how challenging they are to prioritize. The event took off almost instantly. People identified with the problem of creative work falling to the bottom of their to-do list, and felt that having time, space and quiet could provide an antidote. Within a few months of launching, I received multiple emails from people wanting to bring the sessions to their city.
The prospect of bringing my event to a global audience was exciting, but I soon discovered that creating an event because I wanted it to exist for my own community was very different from running the growth of an international branded event series.
In expanding Side Project Sessions I’ve experimented a lot and made plenty of mistakes while I grapple with questions like, “How do you find a sustainable model both as a creator and for a community? How do you maintain consistency as something expands? And how do you make space for things evolve, especially in a virtual space?”
But I’ve also experienced many rewarding surprises. During the process of figuring it all out, I looked to other global communities for advice and insights, including CreativeMornings, Ladies Wine Design, Silent Book Club, and the Bullet Journal. This guide will be ideal for someone who has already formed a community around an event series or method, and is now in the process of figuring out how to expand to other locations while keeping it sustainable. The guide explores the pros and cons of going global with your event, various models for expanding your community, how to get the right people on board, ensuring consistency, and learning to evolve and let go.
– Madeleine Dore
How to determine if you're ready to go global
The best indicator of whether your existing event series has the potential to go global is whether or not people are asking for that to happen.
Five years ago, designer Jessica Walsh of &Walsh gathered a few women together to drink wine and talk about design, business, and creative leadership in her living room. After posting about the intimate soiree on Instagram, she was inundated with interest from people wanting to bring the event to their community—and now the non-profit is in 285 cities across the globe.
Expanding by request can happen slowly, or all at once. For Laura Gluhanich and Guinevere De La Mare, co-founders of Silent Book Club, bicoastal meetups only started happening after a friend from their original location in San Francisco moved to Brooklyn. Then, the success of the new chapter inspired the creation of an online community, including a website, Instagram, and Facebook group to spread the idea to other locations. Social media and word of mouth were the primary drivers of new chapters until years later, when the events were featured in Oprah Magazine and NPR, which led to a quick expansion all over the world.
The trajectory was similar for Tina Roth Eisenberg, who started CreativeMornings over a decade ago because it’s what she felt was missing when she first moved to New York City and didn’t know anybody. After running CreativeMornings solo for the first two years, she hosted a pop-up when she was visiting family in Switzerland, and then people started writing in and asking if they, too, could bring it to their city.
If you’re also getting requests to bring your event to more locations, before you decide whether or not to go for it, Tina suggests asking yourself two deceptively simple questions:
Do I want it to grow?
Should it grow?
Exercise: A pros and cons lists
To help you reflect on those two important questions, consider: What are the pros of taking your project to a global audience, and when might it be fine to not go global?
Here’s an example from Silent Book Club:
Pros: “It’s really gratifying to see the groups meeting up all over the world, and to hear their stories.”
Cons: “The cons can be the amount of time it requires to manage the central operations—updating websites, for example. Even just adding and removing chapters on a weekly basis can take a couple hours, and that adds up”
Embrace "good enough"
It took about nine months from receiving the first expression of interest from someone wanting to bring Side Project Sessions to their city, to figuring out a license agreement and how-to guide that would enable it to happen.
As a perfectionist, I agonized over creating the perfect system, used personal savings to hire a lawyer to draft up an agreement, created onboarding processes, had a designer create branding guidelines, created email templates for new hosts to find venue sponsors, and more. The perfectionism proved futile, given the only way I could really test the model was by diving in and adapting it as I went.. I now keep in mind that done is better than perfect, as things will inevitably keep changing along the way.
To simplify the process of expanding your community, begin with some “non-negotiables” for what other versions of your event must include (more on this below), and test them with a trusted first chapter or two—perhaps hosted by a previous attendee who has moved interstate, or an enthusiastic volunteer—and leave room to experiment.
Some examples of non-negotiables for new versions of your event:
– Timing, eg: all events must happen the same weekend every month
– Environment, eg: the events must be in accessible venues, open spaces, or have a certain type of atmosphere
– Ticket cost, eg: is it a free event, or ticketed?
– What’s included, eg: will there be wine, free breakfast, or coffee?
Decide if you want your event free or ticketed
I first launched Side Project Sessions as a free event and found a venue that was happy to donate the space, at least during the early stages. At that point, I hadn’t yet realized how many hidden costs there would be as the community grew: mailing list fees, design updates, catering, venue fees to cover the cost of an expanded audience, printing and equipment rentals, as well as countless hours of my own time invested in spreading the word, organizing, and hosting the events.
To make Side Project Sessions more sustainable as it grew, I experimented first with by-donation tickets, and then more firm ticket pricing. As the series started to scale with hosts in other cities, I realized that there was potential for individual chapters to cover their own costs if they were also ticketed.
While a free event may enable faster expansion, it relies on hosts volunteering their time to bring your series to life in their community. Paid ticketing allows hosts to cover the cost of their time and expenses; however, it’s worth pointing out that when money is introduced, it often requires more set-up behind the scenes.
Finding a sustainable model to scale
Early on, clarify whether your community is a passion project that should be fun for you as the creator; a business that you expect to earn some money from; or a not-for-profit where the community’s ability to help others is most important.
For example, Side Project Sessions is a passion project that’s powered off of my own steam, without business objectives or funding beyond ticket sales. Silent Book Club is similar, since both founders have other full-time jobs, meaning their support of the community has to happen on evenings and weekends.
Whether your community is a self-funded side project, sponsorship-driven, or a not-for-profit, there are various options for sustaining your chapter models. Here is a deep dive into some options to sustain and nurture your global community.
1. License agreement model
A license agreement enables chapters to use the brand and format of your event in their local “territory’’ or city for a specified period. To explore this model, I had the assistance of a lawyer to help draft the agreement for Side Project Sessions, but you could look into creating your own “code of conduct” to use instead of a more official license agreement.
To support the production of onboarding documents, branding assets, newsletters, website costs, and ongoing support and updates, I charged a licensing fee. The one-on-one onboarding session and ongoing support was also provided and covered in an additional fee.
The license agreement model of scaling your event differs from the open-access model in that the growth of the community can support the operations of the community, rather than forcing you (as the creator) to be solely responsible for its funding.
Here’s how an example license agreement model breaks down:
Chapter hosts sign a license agreement that gives them access to using the name and brand, as well as support in setting up their chapter.
Hosts agree to run and promote at least one event per month, use the global ticketing system to create events and take registrations, reach out to media and networks to market the events, coordinate with venues, and follow the event format.
They then charge for tickets to the events they host, and keep that money to support the running of their events.
Some license models also ask for a % of the ticket sales, but I found this to be an additional administration step that wasn’t really worthwhile in the early stages of growing an event.
2. Self-funded model or not-for-profit model
If you have access to funds, self-funding your series can give you a lot of freedom and allow you to start growing quickly. While this works to a certain point, it depends largely on the sustainability of your own passion and resources, and the same of your chapter hosts.
As an example, Jessica Walsh from Ladies Wine & Design was able to donate time and money to her events when it was just in NYC, and receive in-kind donations of wine. As the events grew, the team at Jessica’s studio &Walsh began to help out with website design, Instagram management, and photo shoots. Now, with the series’ immense growth over a short period of time, it became too difficult to sustain the self-funded, volunteer-driven model.
Now, Ladies Wine & Design is looking to move to a sponsorship model (more on this next), and Jessica wishes she started to look for sponsors sooner. “To grow LW&D as a proper non-profit, we will need to run like one – this last year we have really pushed our limits, putting in way too much of the agency’s time and juggling many volunteers. I want LW&D to be something that is a labor of love, and that requires making sure we are properly staffed and in a healthy financial position,” says Jessica.
3. Partnership and sponsorship model
CreativeMornings is a great example of how to successfully transition from a self-funded model to a sponsorship model. As a free event, the series is what Tina calls an “engine of generosity”—venues are donated, speakers don’t collect a fee, and breakfast is often donated or paid for by sponsorship support.
“The whole model is built on non-transactional giving. People leave our events filled up, often baffled at how this is even possible. On paper it makes no sense. But from the lens of an idealistic, generous, big-hearted human, it very much does,” says Tina.
So at this point, how is the team able to offer free events worldwide? When the events were small, Tina would pay for breakfast herself, but about five months into running the events, she received an email from the co-founder of Mailchimp, Ben Chestnut, asking if he could support the series in some way, and they started by paying for breakfast.
Eleven years on, Mailchimp has been supporting the growing event series without interruption, and is now one of the global partners (alongside Wordpress and Basecamp).
The now-extensive “global partnership” packages cover the cost of CreativeMornings HQ and help to grow the organization globally. In return, global partners get mentioned by hosts at every event around the world and receive content partnership exposure on social channels, as well as recognition on the CreativeMornings website.
There’s also a strong sense of shared values, adds Tina. “As we grow, the exposure of our partners grows. Sponsoring our events comes with a brand awareness and good juju injection of epic proportions. As a brand, you’re sending a signal that you believe in the importance of this community meeting up.”
4. Open-access(ish) model
Silent Book Club is a good example of this type of model. To start your own Silent Book Club, you can simply gather a few friends, meet at a local café or bar, and read together. It’s an open-access format in that anyone can freely create their own version of the event, anywhere.
If you’d like to be added to the chapter map on the Silent Book Club website as an official chapter, there are a few more steps to ensure brand consistency; however, most new chapters get added within a week of applying.
To support this model financially, Silent Book Club has sponsors (such as giveaways and contests, author book tours, author interviews on the blog, social media promotion, and newsletter advertisement placements) and an online store to cover basic operational costs, with all other funds coming from the founders Laura and Guinevere’s savings.
This model has the pro of a lot less stress and pressure to make a community your main source of income, but a potential con can be that bootstrapping is required to cover costs.
My most recent experiment for Side Project Sessions has been a variation of this open-access approach. Hosting the sessions virtually during the pandemic helped me see that what is at the heart of the events is a method—and one that can be done anytime, anywhere. People from all over the world can now visit the website for a quick overview of how to run a deep work session, or download the complete workbook for a detailed, do-it-yourself session along with tips on how to host their own group in your home or a cafe.
Getting passionate people on board
Growing a global community requires passionate people who are willing to dedicate time and energy to the event series. Since people determine the heart of a community, having a few things in place to determine the right fit can set your community up for success.
Define your values and create a manifesto
Defining your values and purpose can help align the right people to your community, but also help you maintain consistency as the series grows.
CreativeMornings wrote their manifesto in their sixth year, and now see it as a reminder of their north-star. It clearly states their values, and is read at every event to set the tone and remind attendees why the series exists.
Now that Side Project Sessions has shifted to a do-it-yourself model, it’s been important to share the guiding principles of the method to both inspire and set the tone as people conduct the events themselves.
For new hosts, create an “expression of interest” process
It’s an exciting feeling when someone approaches you to bring your event series to their local community. However, before you jump headlong into working with someone you’ve never met, it can be helpful to collaborate on something smaller first to ensure the working relationship will be fruitful for both parties
For CreativeMornings, an “expressions of interest” process helps to make sure new hosts are prepared for what they’re getting into, and a good fit for the opportunity.
Despite not being as established as CreativeMornings when exploring the chapter model, I found this process to be one of the most important parts of scaling up, as even in my early stages I’ve found people are the heartbeat of a community and can make the process of expanding either delightful, or daunting.
It’s equally important to ensure potential hosts can determine what’s in it for them, too. Creating an information pack with testimonials, types of professional development opportunities, expected remuneration or benefits, and the type of support they will receive along with the values of your community can set both parties up for success.
Hone your interview questions
Over time, CreativeMornings has been able to determine the qualities successful hosts need. “We have learned that the ideal CreativeMornings host is low in ego, big hearted, generous, and really cares about serving the local creative community.” Now, the team tailors interview questions accordingly to ensure new hosts are in it for the right reasons.
Create an onboarding process
An onboarding process can be as detailed or simple as your community and model requires.
For Side Project Sessions, the onboarding document covered information on the principles, the responsibilities of hosting, venue or space set-up, marketing, the structure, ticket pricing, and set-up costs. It also covered things like event day welcome speeches, email templates for chapters to use in reaching out to potential venue sponsors, get press, and attract local sponsors. Now that the open-access model is designed for personal use, the workbook has been streamlined to include inspiration, tips and pragmatic insights on how to host a session yourself.
For Ladies Wine & Design, each chapter is given their own website that mirrors the layout of the main website. Hosts also receive brand guidelines, a variety of image assets, Instagram templates, and other branding materials.
In addition to an FAQ document, Silent Book Club also has an organizer-only Google group where folks share tips and best practices.
Explore collaborations of all shapes and sizes
Beyond working with people as chapter hosts, an event series can also benefit from other types of partnerships. For example, one important element of the in person Side Project Sessions events was having free coffee—not just for the caffeine boost but for a gathering point for people to connect and chat during breaks.
It might sound simple, but even having a coffee sponsor on board has expanded the community by bringing in more supporters of what we’re doing, and expanding our reach.
How to maintain consistency as a series grows
One of the pillars of growing a community specifically around an event series is ensuring consistency for all attendees.
A brand is a consistent experience
This is where an understanding of what a brand actually is can be helpful. For example, working with people in deep, focused work sessions is a concept that can manifest in various iterations, but Side Project Sessions as a brand is upheld by a* *consistent event experience be it online or in person, the trademark and the design aesthetic.
Similarly, while “reading in silence” is a concept, the experience of being part of Silent Book Club is held together by the brand. The co-founders said that brand guidelines have helped create a consistent experience, so that people can attend a meetup in Indonesia, Sweden, or Texas and the format and feeling would be the same.
Managing admin so it doesn’t spiral
It’s important to come up with systems so that administration doesn’t spiral for you as the creator, or morph into micromanagement. This is where you must be comfortable with iterating and testing. For example, Silent Book Club had a calendar featuring all chapter events, but when they reached more than 50 chapters, that became a significant time investment to keep up, so they made the switch to a simpler map as the primary chapter discovery tool on their website.
Something to watch for is over-administration, which doesn’t serve anybody well – it can disempower hosts, while also creating resentment for you as the creator. Setting clear boundaries on what types of support hosts will receive can help establish community boundaries and keep the workload in check. This can be one benefit of sharing a method as it allows people to make it their own, more on that below.
Advice for adapting and letting go
Be it an event series, a product, or a book, any creation will have at least two lives, explains Ryder Carroll, creator of the Bullet Journal.
“There is the life that you give it – the creation process and thought behind the work—but as soon as something is released, it gets its second life.”
The Bullet Journaling method has spawned a huge global community that has expanded beyond his own expectations—and in many ways, his control.
It can be challenging how different that second life can be from your own intention, Ryder says, but that is part of the agreement you have to make early on: is this for you, or is this for others?
“The only time something has one life is if you create something for yourself,” says Ryder. “If you are creating something for other people, you have to understand the second life is not only something you have to tolerate; it’s actually a wonderful thing because the second life happens only under the condition that what you create adds value to another person.”
While it can be difficult for creators to let go of an idea or expectation, it’s the greatest sign that something has value when people adopt it to their own life.
Adapting is at the heart of many successful global communities. This proved true for CreativeMornings as the events shifted online in response to the pandemic. CreativeMornings organizers from around the world hung out virtually to talk, ask questions and share ideas on how the community could stay connected during these times. Similar shifts online also took place with Ladies Wine & Design, and Silent Book Club made it possible for their community to log onto any online event around the world, proving a global community can exist and flourish virtually.
A final thought on support
There are infinite ways to design and grow an event series, especially as events explore virtual iterations during this time, but all of the examples I’ve looked to for guidance have one thing in common: they began because one person wanted something to exist, and others joined them.
This experience is both exciting and fulfilling, but it’s also a lot of (often uncompensated) administrative and logistical work. An overcrowded to-do list can be a root cause of burnout, as can spending time on tasks that drain you, or take away too much time from the things you’re passionate about.
After two years of running the event series and experimenting with various approaches, I was met with burnout. The very event series I created to help me make time, space and quiet for my creative work was depleting the resources and energy I had for my own personal projects. During the sessions I would work on admin for the sessions, rather than the side projects I’d created them for! I could see it was time to let go of the chapter model and the administration that came along with it, and share the method more openly.
As a friend and longstanding attendee of the sessions said, a balloon can only float so high when you’re holding on—when you let go, the heights are limitless. So, with an open heart, I decided to release a bunch of beautiful balloons: one being time, one space, and another quiet, to watch and see how high they can float.
Exercise: Spot the warning signs of community burnout
Resentment towards the day-to-day upkeep
Unable to find a way to fill up your own well of inspiration
The joy of hosting is lost
Impatience regarding growth of community
Feeling removed from why you started
Anything we create will have difficult components, and the answer isn’t always to let go. Another salve can be asking for help and support.
As Ladies Wine & Design grew, Jessica knew she needed help and it was her mom who offered to volunteer her time and use her business skills to coordinate communications, set up chapters, and keep everything running smoothly.
Similarly, inviting your community in to help can be empowering for the community itself – the key is to ask for what you need. Be it support with administration, finding volunteers, or taking turns, a community requires multiple hearts to beat, so make sure they’re all nourished and filled. “I might be the founder of CreativeMornings, but I never stop learning and being inspired by our community of hosts and volunteers,” says Tina.
Lastly, remember: as the creator, you must always find the balance between holding space for others, and filling your own well.
Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and the creator of Extraordinary Routines, a project featuring interviews, life-experiments, articles, and the new podcast Routines & Ruts, which explore daily rhythms and the inevitable stumbles in our creative lives. She has contributed columns and features to 99u, BBC, Sunday Life, ArtsHub, Womankind, Kill Your Darlings, The Design Files, ABC Life, and more, and created the method Side Project Sessions to help people find time, accountability, and quiet to work on whatever they’re putting off.