8 Touchstones of Community Building

Eight Touchstones of Community Building. Part 1: Community is not a noun, it’s a verb

Here comes another blog series; get ready for nine in a row this time. From next week on, each week I will share some reflections on one of – what we at Nurture Development have dubbed – the eight touchstones of asset-based community building at street level.

No room for rose tinted glasses: Looking back to Look forward

One of the challenges that this series addresses squarely is the charge made by some that ABCD enthusiasts look at the past through rose tinted glasses. What we have seen through our work in communities is something very different and far more nuanced. In a very real sense when doing community building work, folks are working both in the present tense: the community ‘as is right now’, and future tense: the community ‘as will be/could be in the future’. Respect is also given to the past tense: the community ‘as was’, especially where that history and heritage has shaped the current culture(s) of the place, ‘the way things are done around here’. If community building was a language it might sound grammatically incorrect, there’s a dynamic tension between what is, what was and yet may be.

That said the work of community building is not about searching around in the embers of the past for the phoenix of community nor denying the challenges of the past. Whatever is built by the communities that we are learning most from tends to respect the past, but not be trapped by or enthrall to it.

The only way to sustain that effort is to start by recognizing that the job of building a community of place primarily resides with the people who live there. Which begs the question how do you grow a community from inside out? That is one of the primary questions underpinning this blog series.

The importance of the vernacular

Another feature of this blog series is the hyper local and particular nature of the community building effort that are featured throughout. Community building, as noted above is not grammatically correct it works in the vernacular and tends to make little sense when translated into the Queen’s English, or any other national language for that matter. It’s iterative and emergent nature abjures generalisations and the attempt to standardize and bring to scale.

I hope you will be as inspired as I am by the tremendous power in the small and idiosyncratic relationship building and change making efforts that will be shared over the next two-months. However, if your questions are about service redesign, efficiency, measurability and scalability, these blogs, I anticipate, will frustrate no end.

“How on earth can we scale this, measure it, control it?” you’ll ask. And the next eight blogs will offer you an authentic answer, informed by the experience of thousands of local residents in hundreds of communities around the world, and the answer is “you can’t, and you ought not even try”.

Over, and over again, we have seen the importance of the vernacular shine through in the efforts of local residents to make things better together, what they are doing is neither a programme, nor is it a service. What you will see in the examples shared throughout this series is that for all their particularity and localness, they remain incredibly impactful, and this is most evident for those who have being marginalized or have limited social capital:

  • most children,
  • many senior citizens,
  • fulltime carers,
  • breast feeding mothers, and mothers (and fathers) of young children in general, but especially families under stress,
  • people on low income with little social mobility,
  • people who have been labelled.


For most folks in these circumstances there is a paradox, at the very time they most need community, they are most disconnected from it. In part because their more socially mobile neighbours are busy in the marketplace, hence not sufficiently available to their neighbours. And in the absence of interdependency in community life, for the folks left behind it is almost inevitable that dependency on institutional programmes and services will increase, or that isolation will become their lot. The stories I’ll share in this series are about outlier communities who are actively disrupting this modern malaise and scripting a new story. Not by recreating a romantic version of the past, but by working out together how they can find ways that work in today’s world to reweave their associational life. I will draw on their experiences, lessons and moments of revelation as to what needs to happen to ensure that everyone’s gifts are discovered and received.

Introducing the 8 Touchstones

Having spent over 20 years learning at the feet of citizens I have come to noticed eight recurring practices, there are not present in all instances, and they are not a set of steps, but they keep cropping up. So I thought an effective way of sharing the various stories that have inspired my I’d use this touchstones as a way to offer a lite structure/framework to work. Here are the eight touchstones I plan to reflect on:

  • Discover and connect an initiating group of local residents
  • Recruit a Community Animator
  • Host community conversations to discover what people care about enough and the assets they require to address shared priorities with their neighbours.
  • Connect and explore with community groups and associations: what have they done? What else would they like to do?
  • Build connections through social interaction and shareable opportunities
  • Support residents to develop their shared vision
  • Support resident led implementation for change (doing and reviewing)
  • Fostering celebration


At risk of laboring the point, I don’t offer these reflections as a how to guide, but rather as a ‘how others have tried and are still figuring out’ guide, it may be that in their efforts you might find the bread crumbs that lead you home or onto new lands and adventures.

I hope you’ll join me and share some of your own stories and experiences along the way.

Happy New Year.

Cormac Russell

Click here for the complete series: The Eight Touchstones of Community Building


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  • Jeanette Pritchard

    As a member of a community group ready to go on the journey of broadening engagement in the community these these insights will be of tremendous value and I am very much looking forward to learning more.

    January 12, 2018 at 11:30 pm
  • Mick Ward

    Interesting comment re people looking back at communities with ‘rose tinted glasses’.
    Whilst I have occasionally come across people who think we are harking back to a golden age of when every bodies doors were un locked and no one was lonely (of course myths for much of the time), what I almost unviserally have found about ABCD is that it is based on looking forward – people recognising the potential of a community.
    certainly it is that which keeps me enthused – as I look at the community I live in, and those other communities I see in Leeds and elsewhere

    January 15, 2018 at 9:13 am
  • Regarding Mick Wards comments: I lived through those times of doors being left unlocked it was certainly not a myth, our front door had a key on a string so you just put your fingers through the letter box and pulled the key out to open the door.
    . My mother used to send me to a neighbour to borrow a cup of sugar or some butter until payday. My mother also used to do Granny Smith’s shopping for her because she was confined to bed.
    People were much more social minded then that we are today, we need to re-build that community spirit to give people the support they need.

    February 7, 2018 at 10:10 am

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