Last week was the 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference and not only did I have the pleasure of presenting a couple sessions, it was also my first NTC as a staffer, as I joined NTEN earlier this month. I had a really wonderful time, and the Community-Driven Social Impact session was terrific! The room was packed with enthusiastic participants and this post is designed to be shared with others who couldn’t attend in person, as well as to all those who did and asked to have resources to share with their networks.


Let’s start at the beginning: what is “community-driven social impact” anyway? All of the words probably have different meanings to each of us, but as a term, I mean programming, services, media events or campaigns that emerge from the needs, actions and involvement of the community. CDSI is not something that you thought up inside your organization, even if you thought it up with your community in mind or at heart. It means honestly that the ideas, shape and even strategy came from the community and you as the organization are the ones to support it or nurture it.

But, like many strategies or best practices, it still isn’t right for every organization. First, CDSI requires the right culture; unless your organization, board and staff are going to honor and support an idea that emerges from the community, there isn’t any point in trying to use CDSI strategies. Instead, the community will feel cheated or lied to.  It also requires capacity/staff to make connections and support the community. If there isn’t any capacity to “hear” the ideas, especially since they aren’t usually given directly, then even a well-intentioned organization won’t have what it needs to make the programs or events the community wants. Often times the community’s ideas or needs are shared in ways that require translation, of sorts—someone that can bridge the community and organization, listening to the conversations and identifying the opportunities for the organization.

What’s the foundation of CDSI? You can see CDSI in many things, and most clearly in grassroots organizing or any non-organization led action. The needs and goals of the larger community are listened to by someone or a group of people and they create opportunities for action, service, and change.  But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t real opportunity for organizations to act that part. Especially with the increased use of social media tools to help community building activity around causes or specific organizations.

So, what is that opportunity? Think of it like this:  In “Community-driven Social Impact,” the driving is up to the community; but you can act as the vehicle and event the map for those “drivers.”  Using CDSI strategies and leveraging social media, you can harness the power of the network towards your mission.


What are those strategies? Well, you’ll find that much of the work that involves your community, whether it’s building up the community, working on engagement, listening, evaluation, or anything else, involves strategy that goes in a circle. Not exactly as simply as the goldfish, but one that after a few steps feeds back to the beginning. From listening, to creating to evaluating and then back to the listening again so that you can modify and then evaluate, and so on.

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.

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!

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.

Best Practice

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.

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.

No Short Cuts

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.

Lastly, not taking short cutes 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.

Know Your Community

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.

Strive to Be Replaced

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.

Case Studies

Events: NetSquared Camps

Community Driven Social Impact strategies for events – let’s look at the NetSquared Camps pilot. NetSquared had for a few years held a global conference in donated space in Silicon Valley and invited members of the community from around the world to come together offline to learn and share and build.  It was great; the community loved it. Well, they loved the chance to get together offline and build things together, learn from each other and so on. They didn’t love when the government wouldn’t give them a visa to visit the states, or when the costs for international travel around the whole world were too expensive. So, we started listening and asking questions to learn more about what they really liked and what they didn’t need from the old model. And in collaboration with our NetSquared Local organizers, we created and launched the Camps pilot which allows Local organizers to opt-in, receive support and a bit of funding, and get all of our resources and branding to hold regional events that create the same opportunities for convening and collaborating as the global conference did, but without the high costs for travel and logistics.


350.Org is a terrific example of a CDSI campaign. When it emerged from the community, it wasn’t an organization at all but a group of people uniting under the call for 350PPM actions and legislation. Using 350 they rallied supporters around the world and it eventually became clear that longer-term “organizational” management could mean more integrated and impacting work from the community.


An example of CDSI media is connectipedia. This resource for funders, organizations and government agencies in the Pacific Northwest was created by the Meyer Memorial Trust in response to the need to capture, share, and retain knowledge from program officers and nonprofit staff that retired their experiences and knowledge with them when they retired from work.


Now for the Social by Social game! I created this game in collaboration with my Social by Social co-authors, David Wilcox and Andy Gibson. We’ve modified it and created various versions, depending on whether it was to be played within one organization or with a group (like at the NTC), in just 45 minutes or over a longer period, and so on. This is the abbreviated version and I’m happy to work with you if you’d like to explore other iterations of the game that you can use with your organization.

Step 1

Be sure everyone has a playing surface:

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!

Step 2

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.

Step 3

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.

Step 4

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.

Now, I hope that going through that exercise helps you create a framework for talking about projects and ideas, and reinforces that you can in fact discuss social media and technology tools in a strategic way – so long as you put the community and your goals first! We (those in our organizations passionate about technology) also, often, don’t have a way into conversations with people in other departments or with organizational leadership; this process can help you ensure that you can start those conversations by putting the goals and community that everyone in the organization is working towards and with at the forefront of your appeal.

Thanks again to everyone who participated at the NTC! If you’d like to use the game, just let me know and I can help you adapt it for your group!

Community-Driven Social Impact: Presentation, Case Studies, and Workshop
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  • Hi Amy,

    It’s interesting to see that we followed a similar framework for SXSWcares. The community really drove the campaign and gave us feedback on what they wanted to do and not do for it. We didn’t built it under a rock, so it was interesting to see how we were able to iterate on it while the campaign was running.

    I’d say we also partnered with other communities that had similar missions to have a greater impact.

    What do you think about adding in an additional circle in slide 13 for “what you are able to do”. Sometimes what we want to isn’t in line with our organization capacity — we bit off more than we can chew.

    -Rob Wu

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Rob! The “what we can do” bit is addressed by the roles – if we
      don’t have the roles to support the work, it won’t get accomplished. And,
      this was an abbreviated version of the game, but in longer workshops there’s
      a surprise 5 round where the budget comes in 🙂 So, the capacity used in
      step 3 have to be paid for in the budget points. People always end up
      revising and dropping things when that part comes in to play!

      I’d love to share a case study about SXSWcares – would you like to write it
      as a guest post for the readers here?

      Thanks again!

      • Cool. It’s all integrated. I was totally burnt out from SXSW so I didn’t make it to many NTC sessions 🙂

        Leigh Duncan, the real community organizer, and I will get some content to you about SXSWcares. Any format you have in mind?

        • Great! It would be great to understand how you created and co-created the
          campaign as well as what was successful, what you will change the next time
          you do it, and what factors helped at various stages. Thanks!

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