(Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash)

Online communities need to be seeded at the right time in the right soil then watered, weeded, pruned, and nurtured with care to ensure they thrive and produce good fruit. 

These insights were gathered when the National Digital Roundtable brought together a group of nonprofit and association experts to trade their secrets to the success of their diverse online communities on public and private platforms.

Landscaping — a clear purpose

It’s a fad — it seems like everyone wants to start a community because it’s the thing to do! But unless an online community has a clear, common purpose, it will soon wilt. It’s not enough for the target population to share common characteristics. Too often, we fall into the trap of “wouldn’t it be nice to have a group of women in a certain profession or minorities in a trade come together to share experiences” 

Such groups may form and even get some subscribers in the initial wave of excitement but soon languish.

It’s far more important to ask what problem we are trying to solve or interests we are trying to nurture for the proposed members of a community. And it’s best if the problems or interests are defined by the proposed community users themselves; the entity that starts the community must be able to listen well and help meet the need.

Nurturing — terms of engagement

Decisions about whether a group should be housed on social media or an in-house platform and whether it should be private or open should be based solely on user preferences. 

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation has run an engaging Facebook community for caregivers in military families for a number of years, the Cancer Support Community offers private Facebook-like pages for cancer patients to share treatment updates with friends and family, and ASAE provides association professionals a rich community platform, which it customized from an out-of-the-box product. 

What do they have in common? Each one is thriving, but the platform it uses is secondary.

What’s critical is to help the members of a community feel valued,

It’s important to have a good process for community engagement and to sustain momentum, said Jennifer Mackinday, who runs the Hidden Heroes Caregiver Community Program for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. The conversational aspect is most important, but it needs to be supplemented with curated news and content, resources, events, and activities that offer value to participants.

Ted Miller, the Senior Vice President of Development and External Affairs for the Cancer Support Community, said it offers a multilingual support line among many other resources for patients and caregivers. The organization has been creative in identifying needs in the community and answering them. For example, a partnership with Airbnb offers caregivers affordable places to stay when their loved ones are in hospital for treatment.

At ASAE, chief information and engagement officer Reggie Henry reiterated the mantra that “the community belongs to the community:” You can’t use it to build the organization’s brand or to host content. You have to listen, not transact.

Highly engaged online communities can also be a powerful medium for grassroots advocacy. The National Association of Community Health Centers engages its advocates virtually throughout the year across multiple channels – even Spotify. Curated playlists for national call-in days, featuring songs such as Adele’s “Hello,” keep the community motivated. Organizations sometimes invite the community to comment on proposed legislation and use the collective input to advance a common agenda in policy-making circles. Facebook’s Town Hall feature should be an inspiration to associations trying to make the public’s views known to elected leaders, points out Kristin St. John from the National Association of Community Health Centers. 

Weeding and pruning — the need for moderation

A gardener (moderator) plays a valuable role:  fertilizing the discussions and pulling weeds. Many groups have found that a community that initially requires moderation can become more self-sustaining and will self-police, especially if some super-users and champions are taught the process and protocols early on. 

An online community needs to be seen as a safe, comfortable space to share, and this only happens when the interactions are user-driven rather than top-down. 

The entity facilitating the community would miss out if it did not use the community as a listening platform to understand what’s keeping the subscribers or members up at night. 

“Listen carefully and you’ll hear people asking the tough questions we need to be asking ourselves,” Henry said.

Cross pollinating — connecting the dots

Communities cannot be an isolated offering. It’s important to connect the dots between communities and the many other services associations and nonprofits offer — like meetings, education, research, advocacy, and publications. Solutions to problems the community identifies must flow seamlessly across programs and departments. A discussion on the community forum could become the topic for a conference session and vice versa. Silos result in lost opportunities and keep an organization from delivering a holistic experience to participants.

Harvesting the crop — considering the ROI

What’s the ROI on running online communities? The payoff is usually not direct in terms of subscribers paying to be part of the community. But it usually increases member/subscriber stickiness and establishes the organization running the community as a valuable go-to source. The return in terms of member retention and engagement is priceless.

“I always ask what’s the RONI — the return on NOT investing,” notedHenry. 

If an association or nonprofit occupying a niche does not offer a robust community, then someone else will. Competition is rampant, especially from for-profits. 

As Rudyard Kipling said, “Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.” So, too, do online communities need constant nurture, evolution, and listening.

Meena is an advocate of change because it moves missions. She has been on the executive team in trade associations since 2005 and spearheaded strategic planning and partnerships, media and communications, marketing, public education, conferences, and member services. She is solutions-focused and an evangelist of great ideas. At the American Public Power Association, she has helped members across the country raise public awareness of their contributions as community-owned energy providers. She supports strategic planning for the association and is an advocate of data-informed decision making. Meena is intensely creative and enjoys unleashing that gift in others. She has convened Associations Catalyzing Entrepreneurship, an evolving cross-functional group of association leaders and stakeholders who think outside the association box about survival and success. Through ACE, she is collaborating to develop a creative, nimble, bottom-line focused approach to association futures.
All of Meena’s articles are listed on a dedicated page for ACE content.

Chief Strategy Officer & Co-Founder at

Anthony Shop is cofounder and chief strategy officer at Social Driver, and chairman of the National Digital Roundtable. His views on digital thinking and trends have been featured by the BBC, CBS, Bloomberg, and Al Hurra, and at conferences across the globe. In 2011, Anthony co-founded Social Driver, a digital services firm, to help companies and non-profits establish winning strategies with social media, websites, content, and advertising. Social Driver has earned its place as the trusted partner time and again by delivering game-changing results for Honda, Cigna, Sprint, Goodwill, ADA, and more. Prior to founding Social Driver, Anthony served as press secretary for a top U.S. congressional race and as a journalist. He earned his MBA from The George Washington University School of Business, where he teaches as an adjunct lecturer, and his BA from William Jewell College as a Truman Scholar.

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