What Do Emotions, Personal Needs and Influence have to do with Community?

My reinterpretation of a Social Science tool from the 80s teaches us what we need to build a lasting community.

Marianna Gose Martinelli
6 min readJul 15, 2021
Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

Community professionals are often drawn to the industry because we consider ourselves to be “people people.” Empathy and understanding for the people in your community are valuable skills while demonstrating and defining success for your community work can be a more daunting challenge. I’ve uncovered a framework that helps demonstrate community value, shape strategy and is easily understood by executives, data, finance and creatives alike.

It’s called the Sense of Community Index. It was first published in 1986 by McMillan and Chavis as a pre-Internet social science tool used to measure the connectedness and satisfaction within communities like neighborhoods. What strikes me about this method is that even decades later, the key components of the theory remain relevant. In the index’s purest form, it’s a 24 question survey that measures levels of satisfaction across four pillars — Membership, Influence, Meeting Needs and Shared Emotional Connection.

In my work, I use these pillars as guideposts to inventory and interpret a community experience.

I’ll take you through my understanding of each pillar and how it might help you within your community organization.

Take what works and leave the rest!


The pillar of Membership is all about identity, recognition, trust and belonging.

The Girls Scouts exemplify this pillar in action. When you see a Girl Scout out in the world — you know they are a Girl Scout from what you can see! The cookies, the uniform and the badges. You also might recognize that historically, the Girl Scouts’ experience has been designed for young girls and led by trained parents and caregivers.

Girl Scouts have successfully defined and communicated the boundaries for participation in their world. So, you understand who it is for, and who it is not for. In other words, you understand this experience is intended for and who it is not!

Thought Starters:

  • Does your organization have an external way of demonstrating membership? Could it be digital badges for members to share on LinkedIn? Could it be T-shirts or tote bags or a signet ring that help folks recognize each other out in the world? A secret handshake?
  • Have you defined the boundaries of membership? It’s not intended to be exclusionary, just clear and focused. Remember if you’re making something for everyone-it may end up being for no one! This is also a facet in beginning to establish trust and a sense of belonging.
  • Is a vetting process or membership application appropriate for your organization?


The pillar of Influence is about connection, leadership and earning recognition.

Reddit’s pathway to group creation and management demonstrates influence in action. Group moderators have clear roles, are expected to demonstrate leadership within their group, get to be recognized as an authority and are also beholden to the oversight of Reddit’s company leadership. This could also look like the old-school version of FourSquare — remember when you could earn royalty status from visiting a location over and over again? That status had to be earned and your title was the ultimate recognition.

I imagine Reddit accessed user data to inform the creation of this leadership process. Assuming you’re building a smaller community than Reddit is, you will want to look for the super-enthusiastic members who keep showing up online and in-person to engage with your community. Having a path to growth as a goal or something to earn can be exciting, incentivizing and a way to create deep, sustained meaning within your community.

Thought Starters:

  • Is there an opportunity to decentralize leadership or some decision making power within your community? Can you conceptualize handing over the keys?
  • Can you think of three or four people off the top of your head who are very passionate about your community? When was the last time you talked to them to understand their wants, needs or even their desire to dedicate time to the organization?
  • How can you spotlight or celebrate the people of your community in a public forum? Could you help tell their story on your social channels? Celebrate their wins over Slack?

Meeting Needs

The pillar of Meeting Needs is all about values alignment, maintaining trust, gathering feedback and taking strategic actions.

Externally demonstrating this pillar is complex — this work tends to be internal and personal. To illustrate, I’ll use an amalgam of challenges my clients have faced. Let’s say this is a community of well-established, senior leaders in finance. These members joined a community to enhance their leadership skills. Yet, attendance of events and participation in the digital experience is low. I got curious about how safe these people felt to share about vulnerable or uncomfortable things within the group — especially if competition was ever a part of their shared history.

Psychological safety is a hot buzz word that fits nicely into this pillar. If your community members aren’t interacting with your offering — you might want to dig in here. Perhaps your community values are unclearly defined, maybe they mean different things to different types of members! Also, if your community members don’t feel safe or “allowed” to share openly, they may be feeling uncomfortable, anxious or out of place.

Thought Starters:

  • Have you experimented with leading by example within the group? Meaning, if you hope your members will ask and engage with personal and professional questions, have you seeded the content with the “right” kind of response for your organization?
  • How do you begin and end meetings or gatherings? Is there an opportunity for softer or more clear language to be used to reinforce the values of your group?
  • Could you experiment with a variety of methods to gather feedback? Conversations, feedback forms, surveys, etc?

Shared Emotional Connection

This pillar is about creating meaningful moments, rituals and spaces for deeper connection to occur.

Full disclosure, this pillar is my personal favorite and what I believe is the glue to a successful community. People might come for the product or your resources, etc.. but, they will remember and stick around based on how it felt for them!

Twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon are excellent examples of shared emotional connection in action. No matter how old you are, where you choose to attend a meeting or whether it’s your first or 500th, there is an expected and repeatable formula of these meetings that invites emotional connection.

AA as a community is an integral part of the lives of many of its members. The shared history and similar past or present experiences of members can create deep and lasting bonds. Spiritual bonds created within the construct of this pillar can be hard to conceptualize without the other three pillars to bring this one to life!

What you can think about for your organization:

  • What rituals can you experiment with incorporating into your community? Ex: “Every Monday 5pm EST we share on Slack the highs and lows of our day.
  • How are new members welcomed into your community experience? Have you considered that moment? Will they walk in the door unnoticed? Or will they be asked to introduce themselves in a way that is special to your community?
  • How do you celebrate and/ or memorialize big, recurring moments in your community? Do you ring a bell? Have a pizza party? Take the day off?

Discovering the Sense of Community Index and experimenting with what the pillars can teach us has been instrumental in grounding my work. My hope is that it might do the same for you!



Marianna Gose Martinelli

Community Builder and Strategist. Thinking a lot about community, belonging, parenting and where they intersect. Texan. Brooklynite. Parent and Partner.