On Monday, 15 U.S. states got to witness a total solar eclipse – which was an unforgettable experience. I was on Lake Austin, surrounded by all my new friends at the annual Culturati gathering. But even more poignant was the sense of community – everyone stopped what they were doing for a few minutes and together we looked up at the sky. In addition to feeling awe and wonder, we felt community.

Community is critical to our overall well-being. We are social animals, and we find strength in numbers. Some researchers have noted that we are in a crisis of loneliness, which is associated with our social connections. Now with technology at our fingertips and remote work on the rise, there are fewer opportunities for social connections. As a result, we need to be even more intentional in our live-work-play strategies.

As we have recently noted, the role of community is trending. People are less interested in national politics and more engaged at the local level – working together to strengthen their own communities. But the discussion about how to build a stronger community always starts with these questions:

  • What makes a community a place you want to live?
  • What can a community do to promote growth – beyond investing in economic development?
  • With all the areas to work on, what is most important? How do we measure progress?


So, we wanted to share a bit more about how to define community and highlight efforts that have been promising. Two national foundations that have been researching what makes communities stronger and have research that is just as applicable today as it was when it was developed.

First, the Knight Foundation’s groundbreaking project, The Soul of the Community, asked these questions of 26 diverse communities across the United States. With assistance from Gallup, they interviewed a random representative sample of adults about 10 factors that were shown to drive community attachment. “Community attachment” is defined as a sense of belonging and is often associated with intense loyalty and passion for the community. Community attachment is important to measure because, according to The Knight Foundation’s research, there is a positive correlation between community attachment and local GDP growth. So, what factors lead to the greatest community attachment? Surprisingly, the Knight Foundation found three common characteristics across all 26 communities:

  • Social Offerings – having places to meet and engage, as well as the feeling that others care about you
  • Openness – how welcoming the community is to different types of people
  • Aesthetics – enhancing the physical beauty of the community, including green spaces


Originally published in 2008, the work of the Knight Foundation and Gallup was ahead of its time – in our Information Age, this research points to how data and analysis can help us focus on the best direction for our policy and community-building activities.

Second, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has been at the forefront of game-changing health ideas, has brought all their research together to build their latest initiative, Culture of Health. It is a great roadmap for any community. It includes four action areas focused on the outcome of “improved population health, well-being and equity.” They also have a robust framework that shares the drivers for each area as well as measurements. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is spreading the word about this framework through their Culture of Health Leaders program and their Culture of Health Prize. While still a new initiative, there are early results in cities and companies that show that these types of efforts are making a difference.



Community is more than an intangible feeling – it is now something that can be defined and measured. While it will continue to evolve, there are fundamental truths that have existed from the beginning – the importance of connection, opportunity and culture. We also know that the best solutions reach beyond silos so we can work together to help our communities become better and more prosperous places to live for everyone. We’d love to hear about how your community is feeding its soul through programs and services that enhance and strengthen it.


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