Taking a Sandbox Approach to Membership

Sandbox, a globally focused organization with an ambitious agenda “to co-create the world we inherit,” has rapidly grown its network of young members. For associations looking to recruit and engage the next generation, its ground-up collaboration model offers some lessons worth considering.

A few months ago, while on a leadership development trip to Israel, I encountered several young leaders from around the world who had one thing in common: They belonged to a membership organization called Sandbox.

Curious to know more, I learned that this wasn’t some type of secret club or society, but rather a membership organization geared to young people with a global mindset.

One of the “sandboxers” I met, Charles Michel, is an artist and chef who joined the organization four years ago and shortly thereafter started a hub, or chapter, in Bogotá, Colombia. He now serves as an experience designer for the organization’s global summit. In his words, Sandbox is a group of young leaders who “challenge the norms of society to build a more connected and inclusive community around the world.”

That includes world issues like “public policy, the environment, diversity and inclusion, and gender equality,” Michel says. “A huge challenge and primary motive for us is to better understand what global citizenship is, and how we can provide the tools necessary to this generation to achieve the societal shifts that are pushing us forward.”

With more than 1,400 members and with chapter hubs from San Francisco to Singapore, Sandbox has grown quickly in less than a decade. While it’s not an association, it does have a similar membership DNA that could offer lessons for organizations struggling to recruit or engage younger members.

Here are a couple of ways that Sandbox is growing its community in a rapid and scalable way.

Experimental Space

As the name implies, Sandbox is a place for community members to play. By “taking a sandbox approach,” Michel says, members can explore, test, and get messy with their ideas and increase chances of serendipitous connections.

The organization was first conceived in 2009 by five founders in Zurich, Switzerland, but it was formally established in 2014 by 1,000 members who agreed to work together to co-create the organization’s future. That’s something associations might want to give their members more room to do.

“It’s a very millennial strategy to work from the ground up,” says Erica Berger, who launched Sandbox’s Los Angeles hub and serves as the city ambassador as well as the communications lead for the organization’s global summit. “And I would guess that a lot of traditional associations and nonprofits tend to be more top-down, not bottom-up.”

At Sandbox, anyone within an idea can relay that message on to the executive team. Members are called “community builders,” and one of the organization’s guiding principles is that the one who shows up is the person for the job.

That’s how the organization created its manifesto, essentially its mission statement. The text started with a member-led workshop of 20 volunteers. Then the document underwent dozens of iterations and edits before it was approved. Even the way it was released was member-centric: In a video, Sandbox members read aloud the manifesto in their native language.

The development of the manifesto was a member-driven, consensus-building project. “My question for associations: Do you do qualitative research or outreach to members to collaboratively create the future of your organization?” Berger asks. It could help to engage younger members, she says.

Network Theory

From its earliest days, Sandbox’s growth has been based on network theory. It relies on friends-of-friends referrals that happen through online and offline communities.

The organization thrives because of open-source technology and communication tools, like Slack and WhatsApp, that connect members in daily conversation. But there is also plenty of face-to-face interaction. Sandbox members host meet-ups and retreats in dozens of city hubs spread throughout the world.

And once a year sandboxers come together at an annual summit to trigger conversation and celebrate the global community. This year’s summit in Kenya will be inspired by the emergence of intentional communities and their role within the Anthropocene, an age where humankind’s impacts are directly affecting Earth’s environment and ecosystems.

“By being part of a global citizenry, we are building a more explicit and deeper sense of community,” Michel says. “Sandbox enables us to create space where the leaders of tomorrow can meet today.”

Have you found ways to engage younger members in new ways? What has worked effectively for your organization? Post your comments in the thread below.

Leaders and attendees gather as part of Sandbox’s 2017 Global Summit in Croatia. (@KyleKesterson)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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