Should you create an online community for your non-profit? How do you do it effectively?

The story of the online community with no participating community members… and how to avoid it.

Over the years I have been asked to consult on the technical design of many online databases, directories and discussion forums. These tools are well marketed and can be very appealing as a place to build virtual community and share information to targetted groups of people. Specific information could be shared with select subgroups, and the organization could count and track engagement.

Online communities often form organically out of existing connections. Groups of people who are already in connection use tools to extend or deepen their connections and if that process goes well and meets everyone’s needs, others will want to be included. If those new members contribute and all goes well the group expands and deepens. However, these types of groups are very difficult to build and foster on purpose except where a workplace or educational organization requires it.

If not implemented in the right way, sponsoring organizations run the risk of building a beautiful, well constructed online forum, directory, app or community tool that is essentially a large, echoing, empty virtual room, with a low number of members who show up briefly, see that no-one else is there and then leave.

Have you added in ‘online engagement’ to an existing educational project? Are you now looking for the best tools to make that happen?

I recommend beginning taking a step back from looking at tools, process and feasability and turning to the results you want to achieve and the most effective way to get there. Just like the old story of the person who climbs to the top of the ladder and finds out it was leaning against the wrong wall, many online networking efforts can fall flat if their purpose is not well thought through.

How to do it right

Many of my non-profit clients wish to build ongoing connections with clients or stakeholders online and consult with me on how to implement an online community platform or tool. While I am always happy to consult with my clients about how to implement what they have in mind, I also want to ensure their projects are a success. To do this, I ask the other important questions – Why, Who and What.  Why are they wanting to create connections – to what purpose? Who are they wanting to connect with specifically, and what do those people want in turn? and most importantly, What do they want them to do as a result?

Know your target audience

One of the best ways to determine what kinds of online engagement are best for your target audience is to look at how they are already spending their time. Do you want people to engage with your information during their work hours? Is so, does their employer or role support this activity or is it a lower priority task?

What are the preferences of your population around technology and information? What tools does the demographic you are trying to reach already use? How would it solve their existing problems or meet their needs (from their perspectives) to interact with you or your information? 

If they do engage, how will you measure success? How will people find out about your community?

The responses to these questions will provide an important filter to put any proposed community generating ideas through.

Strategy #1: Assist or improve on something that is already happening

Let’s say you want to reach out to physiotherapists to provide educational materials on the latest in research and best practices for treating a specific condition. You would love it if they participated in the development of those materials sometimes by giving feedback and by telling their colleagues about them as well. You need to tell the body funding your project that you have this engagement with physiotherapists to validate that the resources are useful.

Because these types of networks often form organically and take time and motivation, the fastest, simplest and most effective way to create this kind of engagement is to contribute to an already existing network.

Find out whether and how physiotherapists already share information with one another. Does the professional association hold lunch and learns? Do they send out monthly emails with tips and resources? Is there a facebook, slack, reddit or other group where physiotherapists already share ideas and tools? A twitter hashtag or influencer who recommends resources to this population and is trusted and followed?

Where existing networks exist, see if you can assist or augment those resources in the service of your own goals as well as theirs.

Can you provide a speaker? An article for their enewsletter? Post links to your engagement asks or content in these existing streams? Contribute your money or time to enhance their operations in exchange for logo recognition on their existing tools? Sometimes the overtly simple strategies like this are the most effective and sophisticated way to engage.

Strategy #2: Mandate Involvement or Embed into Mandated Tools

If you are in a position of authority over your ideal participants, or are distributing a resource that they absolutely require, you can tie participation in your online community in to employment, membership or access to a needed resource. For example, logging into an online course platform may be well tolerated when providing a course that is required for continuing education or certification and where access needs to be restricted or tracked individually.

However, consider how strictly you absolutely need to control access. If you want the information to be not full public access, but available to a set group of people and those they choose to share with, sending out an email containing a link to the resource which contains an embedded password in it (preventing the need for the user to log in) may be simpler and easier for everyone.  Similarly, adding features or content to tools or platforms your audience is already are required to actively use will be more easily adopted and reduce ‘new tool’ fatigue. The fewer layers of effort between your target group and the content you wish them to interact with the better.

Strategy #3 Help them do their existing job: demonstrate value on their own terms

Sometimes the resources you might have to offer will enhance a target popluation’s expertise or upgrade their skills. However if their plate is already full with their regular duties, they likely won’t see the value in pushing something else to the side to digest your content. If you build in features that fit their existing core job description and help them get their existing tasks done faster or easier, then you will have built in motivation to engage with your content. If that is not possible, then making the content an enjoyable or helpful break from routine will also serve, such as lunch and learns that serve as a relaxing respite from regular duties while offering educational value or certification their employers will value enough to spare their time. If you are a non-profit that wants to increase evidence based knowledge of an issue, condition or strategy among a target audience, see if you can find a theme in your content, like a musical ‘hook’ that ties into something your target audience already sees as a high priority goal or which addresses what they will immediately recognize as an existing need.

But what about online communities?

If a lower barrier tool isn’t the best fit, and involvement or access needs to be private, restricted or tracked closely, then online communities can work well. In general, if you can demonstrate high, role-relevant value that solves a problem that the target audience already sees as a problem, and reduce the barriers to involvement to the lowest levels permissible, then you stand a better chance of fostering engagement with these tools. Online communities are a niche tool to use when the value from the perspective of the user outweighs their effort. Make sure you ‘seed’ this community with users who already interact with one another or wish to, and who promise to actively interact on the tool for several months to prevent the big empty room effect. Be very good to thes early adopters. Internet involvement is asynchronous – while getting 10 people to show up to a party at a fixed place and time may feel like you have a good turnout and give the attendees a good range of people to talk to, if only one of them show up a week over 10 weeks, each will have the experience of the big empty room and no interaction worth ‘attending’ for. It is often a good practice designate project staff to greet and interact with guests as part of their duties, which may be necessary indefinitely in order to keep the ‘conversation’ going.  On the other hand, being able to show up whenever schedule permits is one of the benefits of these kinds of platforms, so when managed well these tools can facilitate communication across time zones and among busy individuals.

Sophia Kelly is a web developer and project manager with 20+ years experience in helping businesses and non-profits do good things, better. She makes you look like a hero while making your work easier. Contact her at 604-813-7674

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