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Building Online Communities: Transforming Assumptions Into Success
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Benton Foundation 2001

Building Online Communities:
Transforming Assumptions Into Success

by Victoria Bernal, Community Building Associate, Benton Foundation

Creating a successful online community is one of the most sought after and elusive goals in a Web strategy. Companies budget huge sums to perfect online community strategies as they seek to build customer relationships that create loyal consumers. In a nonprofit context, the "customer" takes the form of a constituent, advocate, grantee, funder, member, board member, or citizen. And the stakes are higher because usually the nonprofit's goal is to sell not a product, but a mission. In this context, an online community can be a powerful tool to bring constituents together to share their concern for an issue.

"Online community" is the concept of convening people in virtual space and describes a range of online activities including electronic collaboration, virtual networks, Web-based discussions or electronic mailing lists.


"How Some Folks Have Tried to Describe Community," by Nancy White, compiles different views about online communities.

Nonprofits can use online communities in a variety of ways to: increase visibility about an issue of concern mobilize concerned citizens to advocate for a political agenda facilitate shared learning between constituents, staff and other like-minded individuals and organizations support fundraising efforts by connecting donors and/or members announce current events to the public recruit volunteers for the organization share lessons and discuss challenges with colleagues and peers

This article discusses common assumptions about online communities that nonprofits can overcome and then lists resources for delving further into what it takes to build and maintain effective online communities.

Four Common Assumptions of Online Communities

Many nonprofits believe that if some activity is online, "it" will be cheaper, "it" will happen faster and "it" will be easier, no matter what "it" is. This often leads to mistaken assumptions that cause nonprofits to miscalculate the amount of planning and effort needed to build and sustain an online community.

Assumption #1: Goals and expectations: Who needs them? Assumption #2: Everyone will want to participate in our online discussion. Assumption #3: Building and maintaining an online community doesn't take much time or staffing. Assumption #4: We don't need a promotional strategy for our online community.  Conclusion

Additional Web Resources for Online Communities Tips for Gaining More Experience in Online Community Building Even MORE Resources to Research

Assumption #1: Goals and expectations: Who needs them?

Many people jump into building an online community without identifying what they hope to accomplish with it. They are so eager to get people talking through an electronic mailing list or Web discussion board that they forget to set goals and expectations. The result: a waste of time and resources with very little to show.


PURPOSE: The Heart of Your Community is a chapter from Amy Jo Kim's Community Building on the Web will help you think through your goals and expectations.

Connie Hayek, Project Manager for Nebraska Network for Children and Families , manages a state-wide online community for service providers, parents of children with special needs and foster families. She cautions organizations to define clear objectives for their online community:

Simply saying, "We want to help people by providing this support" is not clear enough. At the Nebraska Network for Children and Families, we initially made this assumption. We went into this online community thinking, "We're going to help people because this will be a different kind of support group for them." Looking back, we needed to be more specific about how we wanted to see them benefit from it. And we also should have asked for their input so that they could articulate their own benefits from the online community.

Nancy White of Full Circle Associates, a communications consulting firm, concurred. "If you can't define the purpose, it will be difficult to promote your community to other people and potential partners. It will also be hard to keep people engaged." White created a virtual working group for the March of Dimes national office and its affiliates. This group used their online space to discuss relevant issues and to share documents and presentations.  

"Defining the Purpose of Your Community," created by Nancy White of Full Circle Associates, walks users through the issues an organizations needs to think to create a clear purpose for the online community.

Answers to the following questions will help you think through the goals and purpose of your online community. They are also helpful for creating guidelines for your online community. Guidelines are integral to any online environment because they introduce newcomers to the goals of the online discussions, help participants remain on-topic and provide promotional language about the community.

How will the online community advance our organization's mission? Be as specific as possible. What are reasonable expectations for the online community? What other online communities are addressing similar issues? How will ours be different? Will tapping into an already established online community address our online community-building goal? What are the topics to be discussed? How will we keep the discussion focused? What is the time frame for the discussion? Will it be a one-time event or will we host ongoing discussions? What will our organization do with the information once the discussion ends?

Assumption #2: Everyone will want to participate in our online discussion

Many nonprofits eager to create an online community assume that everyone will want to participate. When the definition of an audience is too broad, it is difficult to direct conversation that holds all participants' interests.

Carolyn P. Speranza worked with The Andy Warhol Museum to create a Web-based discussion to make the museum's Web site more interactive and to extend the Museum's Educational programs to a broader audience. Speranza discovered, however, that the people who attended the in-person education programs didn't necessarily visit the Web site or the online discussion. And feedback from the online discussions indicated that the topics were over the heads of the general Web site visitors. Next time, Speranza pledges to build a discussion more defined by the general Web site visitors' interests and needs.

"Amy Jo Kim: Common Purpose, Uncommon Woman," published in The Online Community Report ( ), features Amy Jo Kim and her views about developing successful online communities.

  In an interview published by The Online Community Report, online community expert Amy Jo Kim commented:

In any successful community, the goals of the site owner and the needs of members must intersect. Your members need a reason to come back to your community time and time again. Why should they bother? What need are you filling in their lives? They have precious little time to devote to their entire Web experience. Why should any of it, let alone the substantial amount of time it takes to be an active participant in an online community, be spent at your site? If you get this right -- if you can identify and fill a need in the lives of your community members -- you can go a long way on very little technology. If you miss this, no amount of technology is going to make you successful as an online community.

Amy Jo Kim also stresses that it is very important to be considerate of the audience's time. When asked, most people want to help kids, the environment, the arts, third world countries. The reality is that few people have the time, especially at work, to solve those complex issues through an online community. In its first year, trainers and access providers in the Benton Foundation's Open Studio program were encouraged to engage in an online discussion every day. While this was the desired outcome, most participants found it difficult to carve out time for open-ended, multi-topic and ongoing discussions. Open Studio staff modified their expectations and changed the format from on-going discussions to a program that defined specific topics and time frames for discussions. As a result, participants felt a sense of urgency to participate, could contribute in a concentrated time frame and saw immediate results. This focused approach led to greater interaction and exchange of ideas.

An audience's level of technology access and experience can also affect the activity in the community. Many nonprofits want to use an online community to provide better support to their constituents, but don't realize that the constituency might not have Internet access or even adequate computer knowledge to participate actively. In this case, alternatives for technology access should be explored, including the use of community technology centers, libraries and schools. Or not using an online community at all of the bulk of your intended audience does not have the technology capacity to participate. Building in staff time may also be necessary in order to provide technical assistance for those participants who aren't familiar with engaging in an online community. (More information on providing technical assistance to follow).


"Building Online Communities" is an edited transcript from an event sponsored by the Washington DC-based Netpreneurs. In this event, leading thinkers in the region spoke about the many facets of online communities. Read the comments of Mario Marino, founder of the Morino Institute, that explain the importance of knowing your audience.

Kim Allen, of HandsNet, an online community of human service organizations developed in 1987, and her colleague Alicia Newton, built and currently manage "Working Families Online Roundtable," an online community for direct service providers, advocacy groups, researchers, policy makers and funders. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the Roundtable brings together these participants to determine the most effective ways to help low-income working parents. "Because we were dealing with the human service constituency, not all of our participants had the same level of Internet knowledge," Careaway told us. "So we needed to make them feel comfortable enough to ask for assistance, post questions and help them register their account."

Answers to the following questions will help you better define your audience and articulate the benefits for their participation:

Have you asked members of your intended audience for their input about using an online community, and what topics are of interest to them? Do potential participants already consider themselves a group or defined community? Or are you creating one from scratch? The latter requires significantly more effort to be successful. Who makes up the community? Is there cross-over? If so, will their different perspectives and needs help or hinder the goals of the community? How much time are you asking from your audience? Have you confirmed with potential members that such an amount is reasonable to them? Does this audience have access to the necessary equipment and software to participate? Are there local access sites that the audience members can use to participate in the online community?

Assumption #3: Building and maintaining an online community doesn't take much time or staffing.

Many nonprofits fail to budget sufficient staff time and resources to build and maintain their online community. Staff members often expect the community to flourish on its own once they launch the online discussion forum. Overlooking the key role of the human facilitator is perhaps the greatest reason that online communities fail to meet the expectations of their designers.

The facilitator or moderator is responsible for the care and feeding of the online community, welcoming newcomers, encouraging silent participants ("lurkers") to speak up, seeding the conversation when necessary and connecting community members with news and resources that will keep them coming back for more. According to Sue Thomas, Project Director of the UK-based online writing community called trAce, "People respond to warm, friendly, human contact to keep the community going." In trAce, several volunteer mentors welcome newcomers to the community.

The moderator should have not only the technology skills to help participants navigate the discussion software, but the people skills required to coach participants in online protocol (or "netiquette"). Yet, it can be difficult hiring a moderator with all these qualities. One solution can be to designate these functions to more than one person based on their people and technology skills.

"The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online," written by Howard Rhinegold, offers a check list for online moderators.


The Nebraska Network for Children and Families' enlists parent volunteers to provide offline technical assistance in addition to online guidance to new and established members. NNCF recruits parent volunteers across the state to orient new participants in a one-on-one setting. Connie Hayek, the network's coordinator, reports "we are very fortunate to have parents committed to helping other parents and committed to this form of communication."

And, no matter what kind of staffing and technology you employ, always build in time and contingency plans if the forum software goes down. Nothing can stop a conversation more quickly than the unintentional pulling of the plug.

Answers to the following questions will help you think through your internal staff capacity for sustaining a vibrant online community:

Who will install the technology, moderate the conversation and provide technical assistance? Will this be one person or multiple people? How much time staff time will be needed for moderating discussions? How much staff time will be necessary for providing technical assistance to participants offline? How will technical assistance be provided (email, phone, in-person)? What additional tasks will the moderator take on, such as compiling news and resources relevant to the topic of the online community?

Assumption #4: We don't need a promotional strategy for our online community.

When an organization builds a presence on the Internet, it competes with millions of Web sites, discussion forums and other online distractions. Fortunately, once a nonprofit has defined its goals and audience and committed staff resources to growing its online community, most of the remaining work involves developing proactive strategies to promote and engage the community.

Jim Buie, an Internet consultant who helped build the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's campaign to improve end-of-life care ( ), began in 1997 by collecting e-mail addresses of prospective participants at events and conferences that he and others attended. He would then follow up by inviting them via e-mail to join an online discussion forum. Over time, this discussion has grown to more than 350 of the key players in the end-of-life movement. An additional 2,500 subscribe to a weekly e-mail newsletter.  

Jayne Cravens of Coyote Communications published these articles to help nonprofits use the Internet for promotion:

"Advertise Successfully AND Ethically on the Internet! (Communicate, Don't Inundate!) " informs nonprofits how to market on the Internet by avoiding sending unsolicited emails.

"Outreach Via the Internet for Not-for-Profit or Public Sector Organizations" explains how to use the Internet for promotion.

In addition to promoting through existing discussion lists, Sue Thomas of the trAce Writing Community sends out postcards that list her online community's Web or email address. Other promotional strategies include adding an invitation to join the community to email signatures, issuing electronic press releases to post in newsletters and other electronic discussions (when appropriate), and including links to more information on your organization's Web site.

However, Austin Haberle of Listen Up!, a network of youth media organizations, cautions against using borrowed lists of email addresses for promoting your project:

It's important to confirm with the source that they have permission to share those addresses. In the beginning, we sent our newsletter to a list of email addresses sent to us by a supporter of Listen Up. While the majority of the recipients were happy to receive it, we did annoy several people. 

Use these suggestions to promote your new online community: Collect emails from contacts at offline events so that you can send a reminder email about participating in your online community. Add a "Participate in our online conversation" to your organization's home page. Don't make visitors search for your online community. Create and post an electronic press release to electronic mailing lists that serve the intended audiences. (Be sure that the guidelines of those other online communities accept promotional material.) Add a sentence to your email signature that reads "Join our online community at" (and then provide the Web or email address).


An online community should not strike fear in the heart of nonprofits nor should it attempt to solve all the world's problems. We live in a society that is constantly bombarded with media messages that tell us to "move on Internet time," make decisions faster, publish faster and communicate faster. Yet the Internet cannot build human networks faster. In fact, the Internet cannot build these networks at all. People must build them by investing time in planning and managing. Fortunately, many brave souls have already taken the plunge into the sea of online communities, sharing their lessons learned to help other nonprofits harness technology to build a stronger and thriving nonprofit sector.

Tips for Gaining More Experience in Online Community Building

Even MORE Resources to Research

About the Author
Victoria Bernal is Community Building Associate for Open Studio: The Arts Online, a joint project of the Benton Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. Most of her online community experience comes from building a national network of Open Studio local training sites. The Open Studio network convenes through the Internet, conference calls and face-to-face meetings. Victoria drew upon many of her own lessons learned for this article.

Please let us know what you thought of this article. Last updated: 14 May 2001 mlw