The first reason we still exist is because the community was set up the right way. Once upon a time, we identified a gap: there was no community to connect human rights funders across Europe. That meant that siloed efforts fatigued individuals which led to less and less impact.
Strengthening and protecting human rights was and is a sensitive topic in the European context.
Key to actually making it happen was,
1) a funder who had a uniting vision and the trust from key players through a background in human rights;
2) a niche focus when identifying the first members and exerting lots of energy to convince our first members to join us and;
3) strong funding organisations that provided core funding to be flexible in fundraising efforts at the start and;
4) slowly starting to scale and build-out out from very focused activities.
Second, we decided to establish an online community as well as multiple geographic communities. A coordinator was in place to maintain connections but geographically bound opportunities were also set up. I believe the sense of community would have been less deep if our community had been online only. We never wanted to control the sub-groups. There is always someone from the core team involved in each sub-community to ensure they are playing within the rules, but otherwise, this person is a silent contributor and the community moderator is in charge. We see that the offline community drives the online community. To bridge the various sub-communities and sustain the overall commitment to the online community, we host two larger events for all countries with about 100 members a year. Key to those meetings adding value is to cap the maximum number of participants–more members would be interesting but we would lose the intimacy. Creating the right atmosphere, warmth, safety, friendship, family, fun, and values requires a smaller number of participants. In the early days, we selected discussion topics but now, the members pick the topics and this improves the intersectionality.
Our third key to success are the people that help steer the community. All moderators of sub-communities come from a funding background so they understand the language, needs, drivers and limitations and this gives them credibility. They also have what we call “a network brain” meaning they are naturally good at making connections. They simply know when to nudge, when to step away, when to push, when to pull, when to charm or let go. Having them as support makes the work of the core team much easier. Further, we have an advisory group to reflect on the areas where the members are growing. We identify five or six members with a certain reach, level of respect within the community, and diversity of the countries who are invited to represent the needs of the members. They basically function like a trustee group to oversee budget, oversee governance, co-create the strategy.
Lastly, we have proven our value over time. We started from scratch and now span across 23 countries. For 10-years we have consistently provided support for the members, assisted in initiative development, and produced reports with relevant knowledge for members. Our members value this support and the feeling of belonging to something bigger. Funders have realised their lack of impact as individuals players and now understand the impact of networks. When we started we were ahead of the game! Now everyone recognises the need for connection.
Our platform is not very up to date. It is a whitelabel website that functions similar to Facebook with a central landing page which is controlled by the core team (news, events, etc.), interest groups which can be set up by members (country or country, private or public). 10-years ago when we launched we had a shiny new toy. Now, our technology needs upgrading but the maintenance costs are quite high. This is a challenge because we want to address this but choosing a new platform carefully is important. We do identify this as a potential risk for the future. Maintaining online connections is just as important as offline connections. If everything goes offline, we end up in the silos again and would need to start fresh and the effort to get people to be active on the platform would start all over.
Changes in community coordinators is also a challenge because community building very much correlates to trust in individuals. When people leave it is hard to take over someone else’s work and regain the trust from the community. It does get easier if there is a general trust in the core team to hire the right people.
For every community, there exists a threat that local sub-communities will lose the online connection to the larger network causing new silos emerge. It is crucial to ensure local groups are well connected and intertwined with the larger regional or global group. This is especially important in light of the recent rise in populism in some countries. Community managers must remember that the local realities require more attention. A place-based approach is often required but community builder must ensure that there is a balance between the inward focus and outward connectivity.
Sustainability is always a challenge. Our funding model has voluntary membership contributions as one pillar but it is not enough to do the level of work required to remain relevant as a community. Core-funding is required and it is interesting to see that the network model doesn’t really allow itself to be sustainable. Project funding is not enough to cover core costs. It is and always will be a challenging situation. We have been operating at a high-quality level for many years and members expect this of us. But what do you do with funding constraints? I think this is a question for all communities.
- Make time to connect with your membership to find out what they want from you.
- Encourage decentralised ownership of content, events but connect to find out what is emerging.
- Look beyond your community to see where the changes and new ideas are, and bring them into your community if you can.
- Cross-pollinate as much as possible.
- Listen to the negative feedback because it will help you improve.
- Be agile in responding to emerging themes and requests.
- Build your identity as a community manager and don’t be afraid to be yourself.