The Community Connection: Extending Mission and Resources through Online Networks

Portions of this article printed in N.C. Center for Nonprofits' Common Ground

In January 2009, a small education nonprofit in Hillsborough, North Carolina fielded a request from the U.S. Department of Education seeking input from a cross‐section of the nation's most accomplished teachers around a number of major policy debates. They needed a report in five working days. How could nine full‐time staff in small‐town NC, already weighed down with multiple responsibilities, fulfill this request?

The answer: the power of community. With its vibrant and engaged online communities, growing since 2003, the organization reached out to thousands of expert teachers with a mouse click. Announcements were sent, participants eagerly volunteered, and an online networking platform was deployed for the conversation. Rich policy insights rolled in, and the organization made a giant leap forward in its mission to put expert teachers at the center of educational policy in America.

As a web development firm specializing in values‐led organizations, we've seen a growing number of nonprofits, associations and higher education facilities seeking to harness the possibilities of online communities. However, even by standards of constantly evolving web best practices, very little information is available about how organizations can actually initiate, nurture and grow online communities.

The questions below, generated from hard‐won experience, including some missteps, are critical to consider before launching an online community. Answering these questions could involve some organizational soul searching, but thoughtful consideration and planning upfront can save tremendous time and resources.

What's your passion piece?

Imagine your target community members – the populations you serve, volunteers, donors. What are they passionate about? What can't they stop talking about? For an online community to thrive, it must reflect the interests of its members. Make the community's passion its guiding vision and you will keep members motivated and engaged.

Is there an existing online home for your target members?

Once you've defined your passion piece, search online to see if any web groups already exist dedicated to this same vision. You may find independent communities, organization‐sponsored groups, or communities on LinkedIn or other social networking sites. If you do find other like‐minded cohorts, don't reinvent the wheel. Guiding your stakeholders toward these existing groups and establishing an organizational presence there could deliver many benefits of extending your mission through online community.

Do you have the resources to nurture an online community?

If you don't find another venue for your community, consider launching your own. The growing availability and variety of content management systems like Drupal, Wordpress, Ning and others put this possibility within the technological grasp of even small, resource‐strapped organizations. However, thinking that you've built a community just because you've used a tool is like thinking you've constructed your dream house because you bought the hammer.

We've seen two major misconceptions derail otherwise promising community development efforts. First: a belief that "if we build it, they will come." People don't change their habits without a compelling reason. Early communities can benefit greatly from real‐time activities like an expert Q&A session or an online tour of community features. This can help members get into the habit of visiting the online community and altering their daily or weekly web rituals.

Secondly, online communities can suffer from the belief that everything on the web happens faster. Relationship building takes time, whether online or off. There are no shortcuts. Communities thrive based on trust and knowledge built over time. Careful attention to community moderation early on – prompting engagement of members, encouraging individuals to elaborate on their thinking, pushing discussions deeper – can create a solid foundation for lasting and meaningful relationships.

The good news: this resource outlay does not need to be indefinite. Once a solid foundation is built, distributing community leadership to active members is an excellent way to both increase levels of accountability and engagement and free up organizational resources.