Relationships in Community and Marketplace

This post is a deeper  reflection on a comment  I received in a recent post about needs assessments.  A question raised was about my use of the word ‘client’ and the comment made the point we should be aiming for active citizens and not clients (who have things done to them).


Whilst this post will clarify terminology, there is an underlying issue about the types of relationships we build either in real life community organisations and marketplaces or online.

I want to challenge the idea of community.  It is a word that apparently has over 100 meanings and in my experience its use is generally misleading.

For example, I avoid using “community” when I mean a geographical area, preferring “neighbourhood”.  “Community” implies relationships within a neighbourhood and in my experience these are often ideals projected onto a neighbourhood.  These days I prefer to substitute “marketplace” for community.  A thriving marketplace is evidence of a strong community.  If there is no unstructured place where people can naturally meet, then it is difficult to see how there can be community.

Community arises from the interactions in a marketplace and does not existing independently of it.

Active Citizens

So, active citizens are  equally those found behind the stalls in a marketplace and those setting out their stall by offering products, services or leadership to further a cause.  Voluntary or charitable activity happens in marketplaces, if only because the market is where they find support.


Perhaps at the other extreme, there is the client.  The client has no direct voice in the delivery of the service they receive.  Usually clients are the beneficiaries of services financed from elsewhere.  Accountability is to the funding body or donors.  Clients may provide feedback but changes to the service must be agreed with the funding body.  Services for clients usually collapse when the funding runs out because the clients are not organised.

Customers and Consumers

Another word used to describe relationships is customer.  This word has suffered from right-wing rhetoric.  First, it is a better word than consumer, which implies the role is to consume and requires no relationship.  Any business person knows the difference.  A customer is a relationship built over time, and a customer will return and make more purchases because they trust the business.  Consumers make one-off purchases and then disappear.  Whilst their money might be welcome, there is no ongoing relationship.

I purchased a suite (sofa plus armchair) about 20 years ago.  I still receive mailings by post from the business who produced it.  I have never responded but at the least it means I remember their name and might recommend them to others.  Presumably some people do respond to their mailings.  They see me as a customer after all these years.


Another relationship important to businesses is the prospect.  These are people who have expressed interest but have not committed to a purchase.  They can support a business they like even if they never make a purchase, by spreading the word.  The aim though is to build a relationship and hope trust will lead to the prospect becoming a customer.

Customers and prospects have a say in the business.  Their needs (and wants) are important to the business and the best businesses will respond to them.  They develop new products and services in response to feedback from customers and prospects.  This is not the same as a client relationship because there is direct interaction.  Of course the business is not a democratic organisation.  The owners make their own decisions about the products and services they develop but they depend upon their customers and prospects to inform those decisions.


Another word I use is “consultor”.  This is a particular relationship between a consultant and their customer.  Some consultants treat their customers as clients.  They will always need feedback from them but they are there to deliver expertise their customer lacks.  For non-directive consultancy, however, the starting point is the consultor has the expertise.  The role of the consultant is to help them think through their problems.  Sometimes, for example, a problem has an emotional dimension and the consultor needs someone who is not emotionally involved to help them see things in a different light.

So, some of these are roles an active citizen might choose.  They might choose to be a prospect, customer or consultor, because they need to take part in something.  They are less likely to choose the role of client or consumer, although they are roles we might take on where nothing much is at stake.

Do you use other words to describe relationships?  Let me know in the comments.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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