Our focus is on networks capturing the collaboration between scientists and the calls between mobile phone users. We find that large groups persist for longer if they are capable of dynamically altering their membership, suggesting that an ability to change the group composition results in better adaptability. The behaviour of small groups displays the opposite tendency—the condition for stability is that their composition remains unchanged. We also show that knowledge of the time commitment of members to a given community can be used for estimating the community’s lifetime. These findings offer insight into the fundamental differences between the dynamics of small groups and large institutions.