May 10, 2010

How to build a sustainable community

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Facilitate, share — and enlist your members for help

Amy Sample WardThis is a guest post I wrote for the Online Community Report.

Ilove my community. Whether I’m talking about my role at NetSquared, my blog, or my network of friends, I am inspired every day and find value in, and rewards for, my participation. Regardless of whether I feel like, or am trying to be, a community builder, the community always provides opportunities for others to join me. These spaces are built on distributed power and that makes the community a moving, growing, living thing that I am a part of, rather than a weight, trouble, or burden that I’m responsible for.

But, it ain’t easy. Being a Community Builder (I refuse, on principle, to use the word Manager) is a lot of work. So, how do you do it without losing sleep or sanity?

Here’s my 3×3 to Sustainable Community Building.

1. There are no shortcuts

Lead by example
Interact, use tools, and create and share content the way you want your community members to do so. Seeing you leave a comment, or share a resource, will model the desired behavior so others can see what to do (especially if they are new to social media or new to your community) and how to do it (especially if they are new to your tool or platform).

Operate in public
When it comes to “administrator” or “moderator” activity, always conduct it in public unless it requires or involves personal information. Don’t send a private welcome message – do it in public so others can benefit (they too can see, join in, and find someone new)! Don’t remove or edit contributions, but leave a comment to suggest how they can be improved. If there’s offensive or inappropriate behavior, note it in public so others can learn what’s OK and what isn’t, and feel empowered to help moderate as a community.

Ask for feedback and help
Asking for help or ideas means that 1.) you trust the community, 2.) you know that your community is valuable and smart, and 3.) you are interested in collaborating (not dictating). Don’t be shy about it – post blog entries or conversation starters, share your own feedback (operate in public), and provide places for the community to share ideas or feedback at any time (not just on specific ideas or proposals).

2. Know your community

Let the community know itself
Working in networks means that the “center” (that’s you) is no better than any of the other parts. You don’t have all the answers, all the information, all the best jokes. So, help your community know its self. Messages shouldn’t just be about you, stories shouldn’t just be about you. Find content and value from the community that you can help put the spotlight on; find stories and change-makers from the community that you can support. Make connections and introductions.

Know your role
Knowing your community means figuring out what they need from you, how they need your help, how they need you to help them to succeed. Some communities may need a “manager” to help keep everything moving along, and others may need an “operator” to make connections and recommendations. Some communities need a “friend” to share ideas and honest feedback, others may need a “champion” that can help push ideas and opportunities forward. Find your role (by asking for feedback and help!) and take pride in operating the way your community needs.

Help it grow
Part of knowing your community means recognizing when it needs new blood, a fresh wind, or a change of pace. That doesn’t always mean just one or the other. New blood = new members. If this is the case then help the community to promote itself and attract others interested in participating. Fresh wind = new topics or ideas. Sometimes, conversation can grow stagnant and ideas can fail to materialize into projects. It is your role to help find new inspiration. Change of pace = new way of operating. This may mean that the community has outgrown its facebook group and needs someone (you) to help move it onto the next platform/space where it can do more. You may need to be the one willing to say what everyone’s thinking and take on the task of making change.

3. Strive to be replaced

Encourage interaction without you
The goal of operating in public and leading by example is to enable the community to know how to operate without you. There can be interaction and exchange without your permission. There can be conversation without your moderation. Encourage the community to take control by giving them the responsibility and opportunity to do so.

Reward and spotlight leaders
Your goal should be to be replaced by other community members, as this means that you’ve created something so valuable, with members so dedicated to it, that they are willing to steer the ship and man the sails themselves. To begin nurturing those who may become the captains, start highlighting members who are contributing value. Shine the spotlight on those taking on extra responsibility. Operate in public by thanking them for their work in a way that’s visible to the whole community.

Share your toolbox
There’s no way that the community can take responsibility and contribute equally with you if you hold the key to a hidden set of tools. Open up all functionality to anyone who has proven their elevated role in the group. Share resources like strategies, best practices, and examples with the community so everyone can learn and contribute at the level you do. By sharing resources, you’ll probably find that the community has some to share back that will make your work even better, too!

But remember: all communities are unique, just like the members who comprise them. You can’t expect every group to operate the same way as others, or for one successful example to hold true in another setting. Communities are made up of people and the best approach you can have is to remain human. Organizations are buildings: they aren’t any fun, they aren’t very conversational, and they’re often made of neutral colors. You’re a human: you’re passionate, you’re interesting, and you have something to say. So even if you have different tools, different ideas, and different goals from one community to the next throughout your work, remember to stay human.

For more on my experience with community building, read Online Community Building: Gardening vs Landscaping.  To get the original post on the Online Community Report, click here.

Flickr image by grantlairdjrAmy Sample Ward connects nonprofits with new media technologies. See her business profile, contact Amy or leave a comment.

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2 thoughts on “How to build a sustainable community

  1. brilliant, Amy! Fantastic article!
    I'm completly agree with your points, specially with the 3rd group. I think that we need to find key people to get involved in community activities and let them play key roles, too.
    We've been building communities since 2004, and "roles" had been quite important in every project we start.
    I know it's CC, but I want you to let you know that I'm going to translate your article to spanish and post it in my blog today (I hope that'sOK).
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Amy!

  2. I agree with Rolando, those who have worked in the community for a number of years can sometimes act as gate keepers and creates dependency in stead of independence. Therefore it’s very mportant that we are clear in our roles in the communty that we serve – OWNERSHIP is with the people in the communty and not the staff/workers.

    Cheers Amy and all the very best.