Part 2: The Rise of IRL Member Communities
Communities are creating happiness by filling gaps, and making money.
In Part 1, Why Now?, we discussed the unhealthy side effects of our rapid shift from church to chatroom. But a wave of entrepreneurs, and the communities they are building, might offer the cure.
How We Gather, written by Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile while at Harvard Divinity School, points to the rise of non-secular institutions that serve some of functions that organized religion once served: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability.
They highlight ten organizations that each fill three of six such functions. For example:
SoulCycle provides community, personal transformation, and creativity.
CTZNWELL provides personal transformation, purpose finding, and social transformation.
U.S. Department of Arts & Culture provides community, social transformation, and creativity.
Since the release of How We Gather in 2015, IRL Member Communities specifically focused on community building are exploding.
These clubs break down into Identity-based, Interest-based, and General, with some overlap across the categories. Many have dedicated clubhouses, while others focus on connecting people and enabling them to meet up in a variety of locations.
The "No Clubhouse but IRL" group is worth a separate exploration, as they are addressing similar needs as we have discussed and are riding some of the same macro trends. Today, though, we are focusing on IRL Member Communities with a Clubhouse, the group above the line in the graphic.
Identity-based clubs focus on bringing together groups based on shared demographics. In this group are clubs for women (The Wing, Chief), for people of color (Ethel's Club, The Gathering Spot), for parents (The Wonder), for people 45 and up (The Joss Collective), and for Boomer women (Revel, no Clubhouse yet but have said one is coming).
Interest-based clubs focus on creating a shared space for people who share particular passions. There are interest-based clubs for athletes (The Fieldhouse), for creatives (Soho House, NeueHouse, Spring Place, Norwood Club, H Club), for techies (South Park Commons, betaworks studios), for writers (Center for Fiction), and for wellness-seekers (The Assembly, The Well).
General clubs bring together people across identities and interests (although generally within the same socioeconomic range). These have generally sprung up in smaller cities, like Union Social Club in Durham, NC, Fitler Club in Philadelphia, PA, Switchyards in Atlanta, GA, or Battery in SF.
What is consistent across all of these categories and vintages is that they offer place, programming, and a real sense of community and belonging to a generation of members who largely grew up on the internet. We are tribal, and these clubs allow us to be with our tribes.
Like a gentrifying neighborhood, creatives flocked to IRL members clubs first, and others are following. Soho House, Spring Place, H Club, Norwood Club, and Neue House, all interest-based clubs catering to creative types, are the relative old guard in this nascent industry. These clubs have brought together the types of trendsetters who are excited to try new things.
Over the past three years, a new breed of IRL Members Communities have launched, providing a deeper sense of connection to and among members through intentional community-building.
These communities offer more than space. They offer opportunities for their members to interact, to grow, to find meaning, and to build together. They provide the opportunity to go deep on a passion surrounded by likeminded people, or to find people like us who can help us advance. They offer fulfillment in a way that only face-to-face, IRL communities can.
Let's look at three, and how they provide the functions highlighted in How We Gather.
In its first 7 months, Chief, a "private network focused on connecting and supporting women leaders," has amassed a membership of 1,200 women in New York City, with another 7,500 on the waitlist, all without any paid marketing efforts. Chief is modeled after YPO with three key differences: 1) it allows VP-level members instead of just C-suite, 2) it is for women only, and 3) it has a physical clubhouse in TriBeCa, with a flagship in Flatiron coming soon.
Unlike The Wing, Chief facilitates meaningful interaction among its members by splitting them into Core Groups - peer groups of 10 career contemporaries who meet monthly in-person at Chief's clubhouse to work through challenges together, guided by an experienced leadership development professional. When they're not together in-person, Core Groups stay connected via Chief's digital platform, which has eye-popping usage statistics.
By focusing on providing access to like-minded peers, support, tools, development, programming, and place to a highly-specific growing but underserved group, Chief is able to build strong community among its members while providing each individual personal transformation and accountability.
Ethel's Club, which launches its first location in Brooklyn in November, is in its own words, "Redefining what it means to be brown and gather." The message is resonating. When Ethel's Club applications went live, hopeful community members crashed the website within seven minutes.
If founder, Naj Austin, hasn't read How We Gather, she's certainly picked up on the needs that it speaks to. Check out Ethel's Club's Culture page:
Ethel's Club is providing more than just space. It will offer its members personal transformation, community, and creativity through tailored programming around the arts, wellness, and therapy - designed by POC to uplift POC.
South Park Commons
The New York Times called South Park Commons "the tech world's answer to the French salon." In reality, SPC is creating a new category, a space for "pre-ideation exploration" that brings together smart people in tech who might want to build their next big thing. They provide a safe space for creativity and purpose finding, where no idea is too half-baked and where comfort and community come from being in a judgment-free zone with people going through the same journey.
The way SPC runs itself also fosters community. Members can volunteer to be Directly Responsible Individuals, chairing progress on the community's culture, membership, events, marketing, and alumni relations.
By asking members to contribute to the community's evolution and by asking for participation, SPC provides accountability and forms an even deeper bond with and among its members than it would by simply asking them to show up.
Chief, Ethel's Club, South Park Commons, and their contemporaries are all pushing the boundaries of what the new breed of IRL Member Communities can do to foster belonging, connection, personal development, creativity, and growth. All three will grow - to new locations, new offerings, and new ways of connecting.
In order for this movement to gain widespread adoption and have a nationwide impact, they will need to figure out how to make the benefits of IRL Member Communities more broadly accessible across socioeconomic lines, which we will touch on in Parts 3 and 4.
More broadly, they represent the early stages of a bifurcation. Increasingly, we are spending our time and money on goods and information online, and on experiences, services, and community IRL.
This community of community-builders has the vibe of the tech community a decade ago - excited, open, and willing to help each other out in the service of building something transformative. They’re getting help from the macro environment, as well.
In Part 3, we will look at three of the main factors that will carry the IRL Member Community trend past the early stages and into the mainstream: The Death of Retail, The Experience Economy, and Work’s New Job.