Exploring the Many Roles of Ecosystem Building

By Enoch Elwell, CO.STARTERS Founder & Visionary

As the ecosystem building approach to economic and community development gains interest and credibility, the title of “ecosystem builder” has emerged to represent a specific type of community leader. This title signifies important distinctions in the intended outcomes as well as the type of economic development activities a leader pursues. Ecosystem building as an activity is founded on emerging principles of our future economy: a shift toward valuing collaboration over competition, an emphasis on the network over the nodes, and a mindset of abundance over scarcity. 

While the emergence of the term “ecosystem builder” has helped to clarify these foundational principles and distinctions, there is a need to develop a much richer and more nuanced understanding of what it means to be an ecosystem builder and what activities should be done by someone in this role. 

Through CO.STARTERS’ work with communities over the past decade, some themes have emerged around local community leadership roles, which have been very useful to us in developing a deeper understanding of what it means to be an ecosystem builder. Our “Community Roles in Ecosystem Building” model highlights the key roles we observed operating in ecosystems around the United States and overseas:

  • The COMMUNITY CHAMPION is a visionary leader and relationship builder who identifies the rallying flag and unifies everyone around it.
  • The RESOURCE MAPPER gathers, organizes, and maintains access to community resources.
  • The STORYTELLER finds and shares stories that establish the narrative around the rallying flag. 
  • The GATE OPENER creates accessible entry points for all, connecting marginalized groups into the wider community.
  • The MAD SCIENTIST is willing to lead implementation of risky experiments that have significant potential for positive community impact but are not proven yet.
  • The ACTION DRIVER keeps momentum building, moving the community from inspiration to action.
  • The RAINMAKER has the credibility and ability to engage funders.
  • The SUPERHERO is a serial entrepreneur or widely recognized icon with wider connections who is a reminder and source of hope that it is possible to achieve big dreams. 

Why do these leadership roles matter? When we shared these roles at the 2019 ESHIP Summit, we used a light-hearted vocabulary to ask a serious question: “What’s your ecosystem building superpower?”

We see this set of roles as a tool for a more rigorous understanding of how this new thing called “ecosystem building” actually works, and for helping ecosystem builders to do their work better and more sustainably.

Ecosystem Building Thrives on Multiple Leadership Roles

One of the most important characteristics of ecosystem building is that all activity is interconnected and done through community. One institution, organization, or individual cannot define, lead, or represent the whole of the ecosystem building activities in a community. In reality, the diversity of experiences, skill sets, and activities required to build a strong ecosystem exist across a wide set of community leaders. 

It seems natural to point to some person as symbolic of a community effort or a philosophy or an idea. While that can be helpful to rally people together around a shared vision, it can also put undue pressure, expectations, and the weight of responsibility on that individual. (Many of us out of a desire to help our communities even put those unrealistic expectations on ourselves!)  

In some ways, this is a holdover from industrial age thinking, which was often based on one leader at the top of the org chart: a CEO or board chair giving orders to everyone else. But a different model is needed for this moment in history. Looking to nature, we can see that a healthy ecosystem thrives as an adaptive network of multiple strong nodes, each utilizing their specific skills, position, and connections in a highly integrated fashion, building a density of focused energy that is truly powerful and transformative. As our CO.STARTERS community has worked together in hundreds of local contexts with teams of grassroots leaders, we have consistently found the same community building ecosystem roles that are essential for this kind of transformation. Differentiating and defining the way these separate roles work together has helped clarify an actionable ecosystem building leadership approach. 

Improving Succession Planning and Reducing Burnout

When grassroots leaders see the scale of the work in front of them and see how finite their time and abilities actually are, that gives them the freedom to focus. They can be satisfied in doing their part exceptionally well, and put their weight behind identifying, supporting, and championing other established and emerging leaders in the community to bring their diverse skills, connections, and experiences to the ecosystem building roles needed for community success. Rather than waiting to think about succession planning until they are overextended, leaders can proactively engage others from the beginning to learn to lead alongside them, which creates a much richer and more powerful experience for all involved. 

Achieving this kind of clarity also helps to set realistic internal and external expectations for leaders in one of these ecosystem building roles.

When leaders can see that it is unrealistic and counterproductive to attempt to do all of the ecosystem building activities needed for a community to thrive, they can let go of the excessive pressure and burden they often feel to be responsible for everything. 

By believing in the fundamental value of a diverse leadership team and proactively establishing a leadership structure that builds toward more distributed roles, ecosystem builders can set up individual and community activities for long-term success and make significant progress in preventing burnout, which is far too common. 

Looking Beyond Institutions to Individuals

Another helpful shift in perspective we hope this model can provide is to move beyond the traditional community asset mapping approach. In practice, this approach often results in a list of usual suspects, for example, identifying the local newspaper, radio, or visitor’s bureau as “communication assets.” While these institutions are very important and should be considered in any engagement model, they are not the sum total of all possible communications engagement that exists in a community. Using these community roles to ask who plays a “Storyteller” role in the community, a whole new set of valuable and typically under leveraged resources can emerge. Storytellers could include a local podcaster, someone with a highly engaged Facebook audience, the pastor of a church, a 4-H leader, or a community organizer of a social justice movement. 

The Community Roles in Ecosystem Building framework intentionally uses language designed to help shift our thinking from institutions to individuals.

This approach has been very helpful for finding people with hidden or latent talents that do not correspond conventionally to an organization’s structure or to traditional institutional models. By engaging these individuals or grassroots leaders, we’ve found that they typically have an outsized impact. We’ve seen major returns on investment of time, money, and energy when these nontraditional roles are recognized and mobilized.

We have been refining our understanding of these roles over a decade of interaction with hundreds of communities around the world, but we know this is really only the beginning of building a more robust and well-defined set of roles. We see this framework as a starting point to help the wider field organize and rally together to create more clarity, granularity, and focus on what activities ecosystem building actually involves and how ecosystem builders can bring together the local complementary skills that exist in all communities in a way that makes a true difference without burning out any one individual. 

Please use this model in your community organizing efforts. Let us know how we can continue to improve the framework to help more sustainable, scalable, transformative ecosystem building work happen in our communities regionally, nationally, and locally… for better people, better communities, and a better world.

Download the Community Roles in Ecosystem Building framework.