How to be successful with your nonprofit online community
The major point we’d like to make about selecting the right online community platform is this: your success is likely not contingent on the platform you select.
There are several good products available to meet a variety of needs. Clearly there is some differentiation between those products—we’ve highlighted at least four compelling online community software options. But the reality is that nonprofits have had successes and failures with each of the leading products. It is how you go about developing and maintaining an online community that makes the difference.
If you want to be successful with your online community, regardless of how that community is defined or what technology supports it, you need to ask yourself three important questions:
- What are the outcomes we want from this community?
- What inputs will be necessary to get the outcomes we desire?
- What resources must we commit to create the inputs?
What are the outcomes we want? (How will we know when it’s time to party?)
If the online community users (donors, volunteers, members, staff, etc.) don’t know what your community is for, you are in trouble. Users must clearly understand what your online community is intended to accomplish.
If your users become fuzzy about how their participation is contributing to outcomes that clearly benefit both them and the organization’s mission, the community will start to run out of steam and will eventually cease to produce the outcomes you desire.
Think carefully about the contents of the preceding paragraph. It isn’t just about benefiting the mission. Participants in your online community will be seeking some emotional and intellectual benefit from their participation. Learning what they want is critical. It is not just about what the organization wants to get done, but also about what the individuals want to get done and how they feel about doing it.
What do we need to put into this community?
You get out what you put in. Your nonprofit will succeed with your online community if you do these three things.
- Learn what you need to “put in” to make the community a success
- Make a promise to the community about what you are going to do
- Follow through on the promise that you’ve made
An online community need a certain critical volume of effort/activity to make it successful. The expectation should never be “If you build it, they will come,” nor should you expect the community will become totally self-sustaining in the long term.
It often takes an initial period of intense effort to develop a critical level of activity and goodwill among users in the community, to the point where the community starts to support itself. This is because you are asking your constituents (the system users) to change their habits. Three simple examples:
- Before, they weren’t coming to your community. You need to get them into the habit of accessing the community—including the login process, if it is a private community.
- Before, they weren’t reading content in your community. You need to orient them to the available content and be proactive in bringing valuable content directly to their attention. You need to get them in the habit of checking the community regularly for new content.
- Before, they weren’t sharing their thoughts within the community. You need to get them in the habit of sharing their thoughts—remembering to bring their ideas into your community space.
Building new habits requires a lot of repetition. But keeping those habits over a long period requires reinforcement and some general upkeep. Maybe a community member gets distracted by life’s events and doesn’t visit the community for a while. How will you pull them back in? Maybe a segment of the community doesn’t feel you are delivering some of the value they were expecting within the community. How will you learn about this, and what course corrections you will take?
What resources will we need to create those inputs?
Time. Each nonprofit must define what level of effort it will take to start, grow, and maintain the online community. A common reason for community failure is that the nonprofit didn’t start with the right level of time commitment and/or didn’t maintain that commitment. You must make the right decisions regarding time commitment for the community to be successful.
Talent. To successfully start and manage an online community, you may need to incorporate the following roles (depending on your community purpose). In no particular order:
- Executive sponsorship (leadership)
- Project management
- System administration
- Technical support
- Community management
- Subject matter expertise
- Social media management
- Graphic design
Money. Plan your budget carefully to make sure you don’t run out of money during the implementation process. Organizations can be overly optimistic about the time and talent they have available internally to sustain an online community, leading to under-budgeting (lacking the funds to fill gaps through outsourcing).
Final thoughts: organizational strategy and alignment
So much of your organization’s success with an online community depends on how aligned you are organizationally around the outcomes the online community is supposed to produce. Developing a clear picture of those outcomes often requires clear strategies regarding organizational information strategy, constituent relationship management, and digital engagement.
If your organization lacks these strategies, it might be best to back up the train a bit before moving forward with an online community. Information about how to build these strategies is available on this website. If you have any difficulty finding the right resources, or need someone to guide you through the process of creating these strategies, feel free to contact us.
This is the last post in a series. To start at the beginning, see the introductory post: “Driving Nonprofit Impact Through Online Communities”