Yesterday, I had a very fun time presenting with my friend and colleague Debra Askanase at the 2011 National Conference on Volunteering and Service. We focused on principles for community building and community organizing, as well as examples of both short-term and long-term engagement. Here are the slides! Would love to hear if you have examples or tips to share!

Principles of Community Organizing

There are many proven practices and strategies for engaging with communities and building up participation, whether around an event, a campaign, or a cause. Here are the five core principles as we see them from our work:

1. Focus on Shared Goals and Shared Ownership

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 focusing your calls to action and community engagement.

2. Transparency

Be transparent with everything: in goals, activities, membership, successes, challenges, issues within the community, and so on.

This also 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.

Be sure you 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.

3. Go Where the People Are

Different platforms have different users – be sure to do your homework by reviewing statistics and reports from various social media tools to know who’s really using them, and ask your community where they want to engage with you.

Being active in the community leads to organizational engagement, creates community, builds followers. If you know your followers are into LBS, then be in that community and reward their activity in unique ways, such as check in 3 times and get an unique BK Art Star Badge.

Leverage the power of the online communities and networks, such as with Tweetsgiving. Highlight the work of the community on the home page of the campaign or website.

4. Cultivate Leaders

Leadership development is incredibly important. You don’t actually want to be the one maintaining the engagement forever – if the community can take over your role, it’s a sign it’s not just sustainable but thriving!

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, be active in sharing your toolbox. 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.

5. Know 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. It also means letting community members connect directly with one another, without going through you.

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. Not to mention create far more for yourself!

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. The best time to fail is early and openly – that way you can learn and build to move forward.

Case Studies

Check out the slides below to examine four case studies of these principles in action:


Resources & Links

Community Building begins with Community Organizing
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