Sunday, February 3, 2008

Creating Your Own Online Community Online - Non-Profits

A few weeks ago, Liz wrote about how in order to be successful and both retain and gain new donors, non-profits need to have a community for their donors. I find this a fascinating topic, and believe it's true. Non-profits typically have events ranging from casual teas to galas, send regular mail, and call their donors in an effort to create and maintain this community.

Much research has been done on why we like communities, and what we're looking to get out of them. Essentially, once our basic needs are met (shelter, substinence, and safety), we look to fulfill our emotional needs, which include affection, understanding, participation, recreation, creation, identity, and freedom (Source: Max-Neef, Fundamental Human Needs). Communities help us fill all these needs, from the basic to the more abstract.

New research from Communispace posits that those more abstract needs can be met by small, highly focused, online communities. Of course, because Communispace is in the business of providing businesses with the software and technical know-how to create their own online communities, so they're no doubt biased.

However, I think they correct. By providing individuals with the opportunities to connect to people who are similar to themselves, share information, and form long lasting relationships, businesses and non-profits are moving above and beyond their traditional role. They are integrating themselves into people's lives - a marketer's dream!

Non-profits do not take advantage of this often enough. Even when researching for this blog post, I had a hard time finding examples. The AARP has message boards (and a strong community), but that's not exactly where I would hang out online. Some non-profits (like us! or Interplast, which helps impoverished people get much needed surgeries) have blogs, which are a step in the right direction... but usually fall short on fulfilling the affiliation/sense of community needs as blogs are more about putting out information, and less about receiving.

So. If you're a non-profit, where do you start if you want an online community?

First, determine what it is you want to get out of the online community. Is it member retention? Donations? New members? Industry recognition?

Next, assess the demographic you are trying to attract. It may make more sense to create a community within another community that has already been set up (Facebook or Bebo, for example) than to create your own. Or, perhaps your demographic is not as comfortable in online communities, and it might be good to start with an email campaign to "warm up"
your audience before launching the community.

Thirdly, list out the necessary resources. Do you need to recruit some IT help - perhaps an intern? Make sure the infrastructure is easy to update, and that you will have access to help in the future.

Fourth - Launch the community internally. Work out all the bugs. Make sure your web analytics system is working correctly. Get some content up there.

Fifth - It's time to set that community free! Launch to all your members. Connect with them in the community - engage them. Interact. You will have to get the ball rolling.

Sixth - Promote the heck out of it. If your goal is to attract people outside of your current donor network, participate in other online communities. Make sure you're adding value to the community, not just spamming them with your promotions, though. Invite noted people in your field to guest post. Discuss events that you attended, and invite those people who attended with you to view the post.

Seventh - Never stop trying. It's not easy. Even a blog takes a lot of effort. But at the very least, in the process you will learn more about your audience, and more about the people you work/volunteer with. I think the OYFP team has gotten more out of this blog than our readers have - our online community was/is intended to engage our members, but has had the side effect of engaging us more fully in OYFP itself, and making us even more dedicated to our cause.

Best of luck out there - your online community is just waiting to be formed.

Related Posts: Non-profit networking Aug 13; Who is Happier?; Eyes Wide Shut

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