Effective community building for social change

NOTE: Eric is talking about the non-profit sector, but these rules apply seamlessly to for-profit operations, personal brands, and enthusiasts.

There are currently around 1.5 million non-profits registered in the US alone, with total contributions amounting to just under $300 billion. But while many charitable organizations do spend more than 66% of a donation on their actual mission, it is a rare case. Perhaps more importantly, donors have very little control over their money and how it gets used, or to what end. This paints a simple picture of a society at large that does care a great deal about changing the world and making it a better place. But it seems that there is something broken in this system both as inefficient, and as non-sustainable from a member engagement standpoint. I think the answer to this problem lies somewhere in the current tech startup buzzword of “community”.

There is some sort of magic in community if it is utilized correctly. Especially around passionate projects, a strong community can create more sustained momentum and impact. But most people and companies have a poor understanding of what makes community tick, let alone how to measure or track its success.

Typically, Community Managers look for engagement of some sort, and this metric changes for each community. But there is always a specific type of behavior that a Community Manager/Organizer is attempting to boost up which has an impact on a bottom line business KPI (Key Performance Indicator). So let’s establish a few criteria for what makes an effective community that motivates its constituents towards any desired behavior.

1. Education
Community Managers are often distanced from content strategy. This is a terrible mistake; content still remains king. A community can be viewed as marketing behavior as opposed to marketing product. People will only engage with what stimulates their interest and passion over time. For this to happen, the content put in front of the member must be expert and educational in nature and requires some dedicated resources and continual sustained work!

2. Participation
Once members find value in the content (and not really before), the job of the Organizer is to gently move them into active participation. This can be volunteering, posting, asking questions, answering questions, etc. But this behavior is what really creates a psychological feeling of belonging and loyalty.

3. Influence
The final piece of a truly successful community is for members to start being able to impact the direction of the community at large. This is the stage where a community can take on a life of it’s own and have huge impact on the world around it.

Successful non-profits do in fact exhibit some of these characteristics, but not on a large enough scale to be considered strong communities. They provide an abundance of education and content to the masses, as well as targeted information campaigns about specific missions and causes. They also manage to inspire a volunteer force. But this is where the problems begin to show up. The vast majority of active “members” in these non-profit communities are simply financial donors. And even with a huge volunteer army, this will always represent a tiny contingent of the overall base. Meanwhile, those backers have very little incentive to actively participate. They have fulfilled the “good feeling” requirement of helping.

More importantly, almost none of these people, volunteers or backers, have any influence. When backers who only have one mode of participation cannot even impact where and how their dollars get spent, they will stop being as actively engaged as a strong community requires. The same occurs with volunteers where only the dedicated few (who usually do feel they are making an impact and have influence) actually stick around, while the majority burnout.

So let’s take the model of a strong community and apply it to a specific socially impactful project: Urbsly, which is attempting to create an alternative option for farmers and gardeners caught in the vicious dependency loop created by Monsanto and big agriculture. The vision is that when all the disparate seed data on varieties and traits becomes centralized in an open and accessible free dataset / market, consumers and growers alike can easily access other options besides those promoted by Monsanto.

My current company openfi.re creates a platform that applies these principles of community to helping these projects be successful. Here is our approach which you can apply to your own community driven endeavors. In order to build a community around Urbsly, we first need to educate potential “members” on the issue. This requires a place to start educating users from, a PR engine, and most importantly a way to keep users up to date on progress, answer questions, etc to keep the knowledge incentive growing. As stated before, this requires some dedicated resources, true domain expertise, and an influential media contact base.

Secondly, there needs to be a way for members to participate with the project. People need to be encouraged and enabled to contribute in some way. Just like any good non-profit has taught us, the most basic level of interaction is funding. By doing this on a crowd-funding platform, we begin to leverage other interactions for people passionate about where control of seeds and food ends up, like sharing, checking in, and gamification and rewards. But more importantly, if a community is actually going to sustain itself, there needs to be ways for people to utilize their other skills, integrating code via github into an API and other apps, promoting stories to press contacts in the industry, helping with legal services, and donor matching to name a few . The more that these participatory events and activities become formalized and promoted, the more valuable the community will become in helping Urbsly grow.

The trickiest part of this community is how to give members the ability to actually influence the project. On the most basic level, crowdfunding towards small, achievable goals like an open seed catalog allows for backers to be confident in how their money is being used, and for exactly what purpose, creating a feeling of ownership unique to this model. Those same members also must be provided the ability to be involved in deciding the trajectory of the next set of goals. Finally those members who are the most involved can become part of the project team, contributing time, resources, and ideas beyond the scope any large organization currently enables.

I believe that a well thought-out community driven approach to social problems can create a whole new paradigm for the way progress happens, and what can and should be expected from social entrepreneurs and visionaries. While openfi.re is just getting started on this venture, and has built a platform to accomplish some of this, the long term vision remains intact for all of the above. Please check it out, and help us support and join in the community we are building around Urbsly here: http://openfi.re/projects/urbsly.

Eric Shaw is the co-founder of openfi.re, a community building and crowdfunding platform for long term socially valuable projects. Follow him @shawea for tech ramblings, interesting social projects, and rants on frisbee and philosophy.

  • Alice

    Good article..education, participation, influence are all important criteria for what makes an effective community project successful.

    http://www.sundayfriends.org