Maximizing Impact with Online Communities


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These are the slides from the 2011 National Conference on Volunteering and Service presentation from Amy Sample Ward and Laura Norvig. For more information, visit or

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  • Amy Sample Ward is the Membership Director of NTEN and blogs at amysampleward.orgLaura Norvig coordinates content and social media for the Resource Center at
  • save travel costs, meet new colleagues, network, have a permanent archive of info, share different types of documents easily, collaborate on new products or ideas
  • The first step: Who’s your community? What are they like: what are the demographics, the data, the stories? Where are they: which platforms or tools do they use and when do they use them? What kind of action and interaction already happens, and what actions or interaction are they looking to find? Whether it seems important in the moment or not, it’s really valuable to make a list or chart or picture, whatever you want, of all the information you have about your community. The more you list and share, the more you’ll start to see patterns or clear paths emerge.
  • The next step is finding the sweet spot. To do that, you first identify what your community wants to do – what it is coming together around, whether it’s an event, an action, or a movement. Next, identify what you want to do, what your organizational goals are. Those two “wants to do” will overlap and that gray area is the sweet spot. It’s important to remember that not everything your organization wants to do or achieve, matches up with with your community wants to do, and vice versa. The key is that that’s okay! Maybe you provide services, and your community doesn’t want to be providing those services, but they are happy you are doing so. And maybe the community wants to endorse a specific candidate, and your organization doesn’t. But both the community and your organization want to see certain laws passed, things improved, programs created or groups supported. That’s the sweet spot where you can count on focusing CDSI energy.[We‘ll want to modify the message here a bit – we’re talking about communities that we know want to build knowledge, share best practices, that type of thing. But I agree it’s still important to realize that the articulated goal of the sponsor of the community may not be exactly the same as the goal of the members. What is a good way to get feedback from members as to what they really want? -LN]
  • After you know who your community is and what they want to do, you probably already identified which tools they're using. You can compare the tools they are using with the goals in the sweet spot to see if any will help reach those goals or if there are more appropriate tools to start using. Don’t ever go for a new, shiny, cool social media platform or tool simply because you’ve heard others talking about. Know where your community is and what tools they want to use, and use those. At least if you plan on interacting with them![I think at some point we should go over some of the tools on the cards, so they aren’t blind-sided by them when playing the game. Not sure where that fits in the preso, though. - LN]
  • Lastly, you’ll want to identify what roles are needed. Just like throwing a party you need to have someone making food, someone pouring drinks and someone else showing people where the bathroom is. Just because your network is excited for the party and wants to come, it does not mean that the party can just happen. Someone has to host, someone has to clean up. If your organization has the capacity to do that, there’s a great chance a good party can happen – especially if you’re willing to leave the punch and party games to the community and the natural leaders that emerge, allowing for ownership of the party’s outcome to be shared with the guests, and not just your organization.
  • That’s a pretty simple four steps for being strategic in CDSI. But what are some best practices? This is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote quite a while ago that compares the roles of gardeners and landscapers in the context of community building. The idea is that as an over all best practice, you want to strive to operate in a way that supports the natural directions of the community, without trying to shape that growth. Here are 3 ways you can operate as a gardener: no short cuts, know your community, and strive to be replaced.
  • Not taking short cuts means to lead by example: interact with the community the way you want other organizations and the community members to do. It’s like the golden rule for community engagement. I like this picture for this point because often mother ducks will bring up the rear, supporting the ducklings and swimming along side them, instead of shooting ahead and expecting them to keep up.
  • Another way to not take short cutes is to operate in public. This means don't build it in secret and then "launch" it - regardless of whether it’s an online space, a program or a campaign. If it is really something that is coming from the community, you can’t just take the idea and run; you’ll want to co-create it from idea to implementation.[AC Connect FoodCorps Wikis were like this]
  • Lastly, not taking short cuts means asking for feedback and participation from the start. As I said earlier, often the ideas you have come from conversations or learning about the community and not from a specific recommendation (though you may get some of those, too!). So, you’ll want to share what you’re learning and thinking in real time back to the community so you can find out if you’re right on, or way off the path.[I think the difference between these thoughts as applied to general CDSI vs. smaller knowledge-building communities is, in the smaller communities it will really work best if EVERYONE shares in real time their experience of both thinking and learning on the topic, and thinking and learning ABOUT HOW THE COMMUNITY IS WORKING – LN.]
  • Knowing your community. Part of doing this well is letting your community know itself. That means don't take credit where it isn't yours, highlight the leaders and contributors in the community, and making connections across the network.
  • Knowing your community also means knowing your role in the ecosystem. It’s important, as I mentioned earlier in the strategy steps, to identify what your role or roles are as the organization and stick to them. Once you start spreading out, you squeeze out room for others to grow and develop or even to explore what’s possible.
  • Knowing your community also means you help it grow. Sometimes that means making mistakes. Hopefully they are tiny and harmless, and that you’re there to learn alongside the community. But, it’s just to say that you are in it just like the community is, and not everything we try in life works smoothly. Instead, design for growth and sustainability from the start with lots of room for feedback, evaluation and iterations to continue developing and redeveloping.
  • Striving to be replaced can be a tough one for most everyone. It isn’t exactly in our nature but it is key to the ethos of a community builder. One way to work on supporting your community to not need you managing the program, platform, or whatever else is to encourage interaction without you. This touches back on letting the community know itself. If you’re making connections and supporting conversations across the network, you’re helping the community create strong ties that will not require your time and energy to maintain.
  • Striving to be replaced also means rewarding and spotlighting leaders. Positive reinforcement is one of the best leadership development practices you can build into your work across the board, whether it’s online or offline, on your facebook page, newsletter, annual fundraiser or neighborhood events.
  • Lastly, the only way you can really operate in a way that prepares your community to take over for you is to share your toolbox. This is a lot like operating in public but that you are sharing the tools you use and the strategies you use. You can model behavior all you want but if no one can tell what tools you are using to be so successful, there’s no way they can jump in and help man the ship.
  • So, let’s look at a few case studies before we get to the game.Training Officer community of practice – additional support for an existing structure of monthly phone calls.FoodCorps more organic – driven by whole group needs. Note that the use of word wiki was not welcoming.LSW very organic. Tech-savvy group w/many tools avail (blog, twitter) but consistently gravitated to FF.VISTA Campus started top down but well adopted by community.Nptech very organic, wild and wooly but vibrant (i.e. successful but messy).
  • This learning community usesBasecamp combined with a monthly call to share resources and build best practices.The “Who is Your Community” was clearly defined as Training Officers, plus a few select CNCS staff. The question “What does the community want to do?” may never have been explicitly asked of the community itself, but they were periodically provided with guidance as to the general goals of COPs, especially when new members came on board.The Community was used to post Agendas, notices about when the next call would be, summary notes of the last meeting etc. It has been used to work collectively on the revision of a handbook for training officers, has provided just-in-time info for new Officers, and has shared 220 resources over the years and sparked many discussions.Although leaders from CNCS and from a TTA Provider frequently reminded the community that they were free to “make it their own” and expand on it, it seems to require periodic encouragement from these top down sources to keep it going. Not clear if the more enthusiastic users of the group were explicitly encouraged to take increasing leadership roles. It is not clear if the tool is a barrier at all (for example , having the tool be a separate place people have to “go” to can be a problem, although email messages are sent regarding new posts), or if it is natural for this community to wax and wane.
  • This was shared with the TO-COP along with a Welcome letter. Love the suggestion not to get hung up on fancy technology.
  • Idea of making wikis available to AmeriCorps programs came top down from CNCS. FoodCorps was able to leverage it for awhile. They used it in their brainstorming sessions with stakeholders in a very structured way. Would hold a call, then pose specific questions. Sent emails reminding people where the question was posted and encouraging them to post.These weren’t true “wikis” on the backend – they were actually more like discussion groups. The organizers also found that using the word “wiki” was a barrier for participants who felt they wouldn’t be comfortable using a wiki.This tool served it’s purpose well for a short time. The organizers have since moved on to other tools since it is now more a core group of colleagues working on this project. They use Google Docs, Dropbox, and Basecamp. When I spoke with them they also mentioned a tool called Manymoon which is a bit like Basecamp but it is free.
  • VISTA Campus is a good example of a community that took some time to build, but has come to have stickiness and traction and serve as a real resource for a defined community.There are about 5300 VISTAs serving at any one time.Effort was initially top down. The need was real as VISTAs go to a face-to-face “PSO” (pre-service orientation) but then go to sites where they are often quite isolated from other VISTAs.Tool: Forums in a Moodle platform. (open source but highly customized).Also a map feature.Roles: Tech Support is available for all users of this community. However, very little active “community management” is done – the community creates itself.[do I need another screenshot of forums?]
  • Within the VISTA Campus there is a separate area for VISTA Leaders. Notice bullet point three – the challenge was to create useful, evergreen materials to help other VISTA Leaders do their job well. Six teams worked on creating content for six different products. There were 3 facilitators/coaches. The materials were drafted in wikis and the end products were nicely designed PDFs.
  • Example of fast-paced interaction in real-time – how quickly people respond on a random weekday. Tools that support both synchronous and asynchronous communication well are versatile and useful for both immediate, long-term, and archived discussions.  Also, just a personal example, I posted the same thing on Facebook and it took a little longer to get responses. Concentrate your efforts to where the people you need to interact with actually “hang out”.
  • I’m really not showing all these to crow about how popular I am or how cute my son is. The point is, I have become very connected to this community. Another key point is the ease with which people can respond either in “real time” or at their leisure a day or two later. You can also see that this is an all-purpose hub for me. I archive my own tweets and bookmark things of interest to me so I can go back and reference things at any time. Because it is so versatile, and because I do have a community of friends there, that is why I spend so much time there. This becomes like a feedback loop where great interactions can happen. That wouldn’t happen on some random site that only had one purpose that I didn’t visit very often.
  • This community has NO community manager. Grew completely organically. Polices itself and resolves conflicts amongst members when they arise. Tightly knit and members interact on the platform in personal ways as well as professional. Welcoming to newcomers. Some occasionally say it’s cliquish, but all who ask work-related questions get valuable answers.Remember the Training Officer COP? Although they appreciated having the space to share and used it well, there was no compelling reason for them to spend much time there.
  • Example of some types of sharing that take place in the Library Society of the World online learning community.
  • So many things are going on here. Sharing a concrete resource so another community member doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel. Inspiring another member to schedule a face-to-face brainstorming session. I love, too, that this member affirms the value of listening to her staff and getting information from the online community.When interactions like this happen, the value of the community reveals itself organically to members and they want more so they stick around.
  • NetSquared roundupsZoetica/Beth questions on FacebookTechSoup discussion boards#nptech tag on delicious and TwitterSo, tools include Blogs, Online dashboards, Twitter, Email discussion groups (NTEN has), Wikis (WeAreMedia), Flickr, SNS (Facebook). Slideshare, YouTube(add a few slides to show quickly w/Amy’s dashboard, a blog, WeAreMedia? )
  • This circles us back to some of the best practices Amy touched on. Some of these were missing from
  • For more information about specific resources or groups mentioned, follow these links. If you leave your business card at the end, I can be sure you get an email with all the links as well.[make a handout with some specific references to specific resources such as ?]
  • Here are the photo credits.
  • How’s everybody doing? Ready for some conversation? Hopefully this game will let you think and share about what you’ve learned from the presentation but also about what you might want to do when you get back to work next week!
  • We are going to start in the top left of your grid. You’re going to have about 5-10 minutes for this section so don’t feel rushed. Write down anything and everything you can about your community. As people start to finish at your table, start sharing what you wrote with each other as you’ll probably start to think of more things to add!
  • Great! Now, let’s work on finding the sweet spot! Use the upper right corner of your handout to start identifying the goals shared by you and your community. Again, I’ll ask that you share these with each other as you start to finish.
  • This next part is where it gets fun. I’m handing out cards to each table and you’ll need to share around. These are just to get you thinking so if there is a tool you want to use, you’ll see there are blank cards too. The numbers represent the level of capacity needed to use the tool, and for the use in this game, I’m going to ask that you use 10 or less so that it’s realistic. Again, feel free to discuss at the table both if you have questions about the tools and which ones you’re choosing.[Should we take a moment and let the whole group ask questions as they look over the cards, so that everyone can benefit from the answers? -LN]
  • The last section of the grid is for roles. I’m passing out another set of cards to help get you thinking about the roles you may need but note there are always options for other ideas.
  • Thanks to everyone for participating; I hope it was a useful exercise and you’ll be able to leave the session with some great ideas to share with your team and your community. Is there anyone that wants to share with everyone what they came up with?
  • Maximizing Impact with Online Communities

    1. 1. Maximizing Impact with Online Communities<br />
    2. 2. Amy Sample Ward, NTENLaura Norvig, NSRT<br />
    3. 3. Tell Us About YOU!<br />Why did you come? What do you want to learn in this session?<br />If you are already working within a learning community/community of practice what is it about?<br />What are some successes or challenges you have had with a community you have started or are part of?<br />Where in your work have you seen a need for a learning community/community of practice where none exists?<br />
    4. 4. Building Knowledge Sharing Networks<br />Picture of house building in progress<br />
    6. 6. Who's your community?<br />
    7. 7.
    8. 8. Where's the sweet spot?<br />
    9. 9. Which tools can help?<br />
    10. 10. What roles are needed?<br />
    11. 11. BEST PRACTICE<br /> Operate like a gardener, not a landscaper:<br /> “The Gardener creates an ecosystem open to change, available to new groups, and full of fresh opportunities to emerge naturally.  The approach is focused on organic collaboration and growth for the entire community.  The gardener is simply there to help, cultivate, and clear the weeds if/when they poke up.”<br /> Operate like a gardener, not a landscaper:<br /> “The Gardener creates an ecosystem open to change, available to new groups, and full of fresh opportunities to emerge naturally.  The approach is focused on organic collaboration and growth for the entire community.  The gardener is simply there to help, cultivate, and clear the weeds if/when they poke up.”<br />
    12. 12. No short cuts.<br />
    13. 13. No short cuts.<br />
    14. 14. No short cuts.<br />
    15. 15. Know your community.<br />
    16. 16. Know your community.<br />
    17. 17. Know your community.<br />
    18. 18. Strive to be replaced.<br />
    19. 19. Strive to be replaced.<br />
    20. 20. Strive to be replaced.<br />
    21. 21. CASE STUDIES<br />Small, closed, few tools: <br /><ul><li>Training Officer COP
    22. 22. FoodCorps Wikis</li></ul>Medium, semi-open, few tools: <br /><ul><li>VISTA Campus
    23. 23. Library Society of the World (LSW)</li></ul>Large, open, many tools<br /><ul><li>Nptech community</li></li></ul><li>
    24. 24.
    25. 25.
    26. 26.<br />
    27. 27.
    28. 28.
    29. 29. 3 min<br />3 min.<br />
    30. 30. 2 hrs<br />
    31. 31. One day<br />
    32. 32. Knowledge Building in a Community is FUN!!<br />
    33. 33. Just-in-time /practical<br />Policy / legal knowledge /interpretations<br />Professional development advice<br />Humor<br />
    34. 34. Document Sharing<br />
    35. 35. NPTech Community<br />
    36. 36. Best Practices Summary<br />No Shortcuts<br />Lead by example<br />Operate in public<br />Use feedback loops<br />Know your community<br />Highlight leaders/contributors and make connections<br />Stick to your defined role, give others space to grow<br />Make mistakes, evaluate, iterate<br />Strive to be replaced<br />Encourage interaction that doesn’t rely on you<br />Reward and spotlight leaders<br />Explicitly share your tools and strategy so others can replicate<br />
    37. 37. RESOURCES<br />Links from this presentation:<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
    38. 38. CREDITS<br />Slide 4:<br />Slide 5:<br />Slide 6:<br />Slide 9:<br />Slide 10:<br />Slide 11:<br />Slide 13:<br />Slide 14:<br />Slide 15:<br />Slide 16:<br />Slide 17:<br />Slide 18:<br />Slide 19:<br />Slide 20:<br />Slide 43:<br />
    39. 39. GAME<br />Playing the Social by Social game for<br />Community-Centered Strategy<br />Circle up in groups<br />4-part grid<br />Lots of questions and conversation<br />Sharing with the whole room<br />
    40. 40. Who's your community? <br />
    41. 41. What is the sweet spot?<br />
    42. 42. Which tools could help?<br />
    43. 43. Tools<br /><ul><li>Flickr
    44. 44. Video and audio
    45. 45. Project management online (e.g. Basecamp)
    46. 46. Project blog
    47. 47. Online Voting
    48. 48. Online maps
    49. 49. Online community (e.g. Ning)
    50. 50. Mobile messaging
    51. 51. Social networking sites (e.g. Facebook)
    52. 52. Your idea</li></ul>Email discussion group<br />Email newsletter<br />Twitter<br />Google apps<br />Delicious<br />Skype<br />Online dashboard (e.g. netvibes)<br />Wiki<br />
    53. 53. What roles are needed?<br />
    54. 54. Roles<br />Social media strategist<br />Project manager<br />Community manager<br />Admin support<br />Social reporter<br />Tech mentor<br />Tech developer<br />Key contributors<br />Your idea<br />
    55. 55. Share!<br />
    56. 56. Thanks - Keep in touch!<br />Amy Sample Ward<br /><br />@amyrsward<br /><br /><br />Laura Norvig<br />@lnorvig and @serviceresource<br /><br />