How do I achieve impact with an online community?
Members need a clear understanding of your community’s purpose and how their participation contributes to that purpose. Communities can also have an enormous impact on their members through the relationships built in the community and through the support and knowledge sharing between members.

A common purpose builds a strong foundation for achieving impact as a community. To achieve collective impact, your community must have a common purpose that defines the social or environmental change it hopes to make.

Activities that serve your common community purpose can be grounded in one of two ways:

  1. Impact on your members including the value-add you create by helping them to be together, grow, connect, and co-create.
  2. Impact on the wicked problem you want to tackle, and setting a clear goal that motivates members to invest time, energy, and resources into solving that problem. (See key answer 2 for more.)

Impact on your members

The value you create for your members is important but in many cases, that value does not directly address the wicked problem your community aims to solve.

There are generally two key member impacts that fall outside of the wicked problem:

  1. Connections and personal relationships
  2. Knowledge-sharing and skills-building

Members who are already working on a societal or environmental problem may be better equipped to tackle wicked problems than members who are new and not yet active.

The power of relationships

Initially, people may be attracted to your community’s purpose, but this is rarely what drives members to continue participating. Strong relationships within a community are at the core of its overall success. The strongest collaborations typically happen with people that we trust. Virtual communities are uniquely positioned to engage in activities that create change because bonds between members tend to be very strong.

For members, building strong relationships with peers creates value and the feeling of being a part of something. However, building strong relationships and trust takes time and commitment. Virtual communities should give members time and space to reflect and slow down so relationships can form.

Examples impact created between connecting members 

  • Joint initiative projects and businesses tackling a wicked problem. At Impact Hub Berlin, for example, members created a joint project to create sustainably produced beds in their city. Together, they created a social enterprise called Kiezbett to fill a gap (lack of sustainable mattress) locally.
  • Partnerships or collaborations between organisations, and leverage potential synergies between each others’ work.
  • Empower each other by opening doors, making connections, offering time to help out, and collaborate in brainstorming to overcome challenges.
  • Mentorship, moral support and friendships. Sometimes, members build their own network from strong individual relationships that began in a virtual community.

As a community manager or builder, you are cultivating growth and change by creating opportunities for members to connect at events. Part of your role during events is to introduce or connect members who would benefit from one-on-one relationships. As the person who knows your members well and understands their skills, overlapping interests, and personalities, you are positioned to facilitate meaningful and productive connections between them.

Organise gatherings 

It is very powerful when virtual community members share a meaningful experience that builds group trust. The College of the Extraordinary Experiences, for example, hosts a community gathering in an ancient castle in Poland. The event offers activities like fire shows, magicians, music, treasure hunts, and dancing. These kinds of special and shared experiences create stronger ties among members.

Host calls

Schedule a call or arrange a local in-person meeting that is designed to build connections and trust among members. This is especially important for new members who need to feel they belong as community members.

Share news and updates 

Keep your network up-to-date by sharing information about the community and its activities to create a feeling of liveliness and inclusivity. Newsletters are a great tool to keep community members informed about conversations, projects, and events.

To help members connect face-to-face, include a section on your platform where members can share their travel itineraries and schedule meet-ups.

“People join to have an impact. They stay for the relationships and that’s where they have the biggest impact.”

Fabian Pfortmüller, Community Canvas

The power of knowledge

Communities with connections to a specific theme, for example, climate action, typically bring together many experts who are committed to that theme. The collective knowledge in a community can incredibly rich, but it can be difficult to find an effective way to unleash members’ knowledge and potential. Develop a small learning agenda that gives your members a chance to flex their expertise and plan them into your community activities throughout the year.

For more information, check out the question about building learnings agenda for your community?

As a community builder, you may not see how the personal bonds you facilitate between members have an impact. Do not be discouraged. Connections between your members will happen in time.

The experience you create for members motivates them to co-create and have a positive impact on people and the planet. Learn to organise activities that allow members to share ideas that can be brought to life by working or sprint groups.

Impact on wicked problems

Communities for impact are driven by the desire to contribute to solving a problem they are passionate about and to create a more sustainable world. The Sustainable Development Goals by the UN help us to find a common language to describe and tackle wicked problems. For example:

Aligning for the future

The first step towards joint action is discussing the future you are working towards with your community. Talk openly about your vision and make sure everyone is in general agreement. During this process, asking specific questions can guide you in creating a joint narrative about the change you hope to make as a community. Answering these questions is especially relevant when taking on a new challenge or launching sub-communities and new action-related work-groups.

  1. What is the urgent challenge we face as a community?
  2. What change does this community hope for and why?
  3. What would thefuture look like if the change is not made?
  4. What choices are we asking people to make and why now?

Use impact logic (also called theory of change) tools in your discussion about the impact you hope to have. You can change the terms to suit your needs and use these tools to transition from input to outputs, to outcomes, impact, and system change.

The approach can be used for organisations and communities of all shapes and sizes. A preliminary theory of change is often represented in a diagram or chart, but a full theory of change process is a larger project. Use these tools to consider and articulate the assumptions and enablers that surround your work, and to explain why you think your activities will lead to your desired outcome.

Developing ideas for action 

Depending on your community’s stage of development, create and support opportunities for members to come together virtually or in-person to develop strategies for tackling the challenge or wicked problem. These opportunities will either be primed by you as a community manager or, if members have started to take ownership already, they may create those opportunities more independently. There are a few things to keep in mind when setting up opportunities for your community.

  • The challenge area must be connected to the purpose of your community, and the theme must be relevant to members.
  • Members need to see how their participation contributes to achieving impact.
  • Acknowledge members who take the lead and create incentives such as rewards.
  • Put clear and collective decision-making processes in place to guide how initiatives are developed within your community.

Create spaces for interactions and build a playground-like place where members can co-create. Ensure it is a safe space for people to share even their craziest ideas.

Idea boards

Allow community members to pin down their ideas for projects that can be implemented together. Community builders must ensure members regularly look at the board and tag others who might be interested in collaborating.

Brainstorming calls

Use the idea development process to address challenges put forward during a group call. At the end of the call, identify members who may want to expand or take ownership of certain ideas that serve the community’s purpose.

Open Project Nights

During these events, members present projects they are considering. Presenters have the opportunity to explain their idea and talk about what resources are needed to develop it. In breakout groups, members provide feedback on each others’ projects and may also decide to collaborate.

Establish a process for translating ideas into projects and tasks 

For smaller, well-resourced projects, simply let members run with it independently. Check-in from time to time to ensure the work remains aligned with the overall mission of the community. Ideas that require more substantial effort by the community will require a structured decision-making process that empowers the community to choose if they want to commit the work.

Ideally, proposed projects and activities should be strategic and include measurable results and benchmarks for progress.

Strengthen your community by attracting and engaging new people to increase the group’s capacity to work together for change. Develop individuals by building leadership, skills, and capacity of your constituency.

The sweet spot for impactful community projects is found where these three areas overlap. The next step is to find a format and space to collaborate, develop, and implement the idea. As a community builder, it may be appropriate for you to offer some initial support while ensuring that the ownership stays with the group.

Empowering work-groups to form

Enable virtual working groups

Enspiral, for example, uses working groups to complete community projects. The working group for the Code of Conduct / Harassment / Conflict Resolution completed by a virtual group that has never meet in person. And yet, they produced a document that was then introduced to the community.

Create work packages for your community members to take on

Select an action or project for impact that is of interest to your community and ask members to form a group to complete the work. Be sure to provide clear guidance and instruction including:

  • What needs to be done
  • What skills are needed
  • Timeframes

Identify a project lead, a facilitator, and a note-taker, and decide how much decision-making power the group has. Then, you step back into a supporting role.

Borderland work-groups containers can be expended quite a bit from what we imagine. Every year a festival sustained by co-creators rather than spectators with a cap of 1,500 people allowed. The space and basic amenities are provided, but otherwise, all the activities are community-led. There are no tickets. Members simply register, pay a small fee, and come to the event with a co-creation mindset.

Setting up sprints 

Sprints rally excitement and get people involved in a single project for a shorter period of time. It is important to pick a task that can actually be achieved in a short amount of time and within the time that members have available.

Using a tool like Todoist or Clickup, sprint tasks are outlined and shared between sprint participants. Two to three times a week, participants have short “stand-up” calls to make sure they’re on track and have everything they need to get to work. WWF has used sprints to design or implement projects with remote teams across the world. The topics vary from animal protection to policy design.

Create processes for the community to get active 

  • The College of Extraordinary Experiences is a community of experienced designers focused on impact. Their Order of the Wild Process was created to help members offer their skills to NGOs creating environmental or social impact. Members register their skills and interests and NGOs get the opportunity to put forward projects with design-related challenges. Via a match-making process a project owner (NGO) and supporter (designer) then jointly work together for 1-15 hours. This allows NGOs to get access to amazing talent for free while the community gets to use their skills for a purpose they care about. All of it is done with forms and Slack. To keep members motivated, ensure that their participation in these approaches are:
  • meaningful and allow the person to see that the action is significant and makes a difference in achieving a meaningful goal.
  • autonomous and provides levels of responsibility according to their skills and abilities to achieve a particular outcome.
  • allowing for feedback and learning so participants can see the progress of their work, measure success, and receive coaching and support from more experienced leaders.

Tips for collective action:

  • Apply a sunset approach and set a date when the group will end, the task is done, or when members can opt-out or opt-in.
  • Support meetings and group structure and ensure that whoever leads or drives the group has everything they need to do it well.
  • Ensure clear guidance on how the brand of the community can be used.
  • Be ready to have difficult conversations.
  • Measure results and capture the results of the work-groups in some way to later be able to share stories on the impact the community jointly created.

Enspiral has codified its rules and provided a platform where members can explore new ventures. The Enspiral Handbook is very transparent and detailed in its documentation of guidelines and processes. They also developed powerful digital tools about how a community can manage decisions (Loomio) and finances (Cobudget) together.

When it comes to creating impact, community builders must balance two points of tension: 1. Togetherness and co-creating for results. 2. Managing expectations as the community matures. Learn to manage these elements patiently and effectively.

Fabian Pfortmüller of Community Canva believes there are generally two tensions in a community when it comes to impact:

  1. Being together versus doing together.
  2. Wanting short term outcomes but only achieving longer term impact.

What is the difference between being together? 

Being together needs a commitment to fellow humans. Doing together needs a commitment to an outcome. These two things can clash.

Being together requires a patient, long-term approach and works best when we don’t have very specific expectations. Kindness, openness, deep listening, trust, and a feeling of safety are key.

Doing together is different. It means we have a clear goal we’re trying to achieve. All of a sudden, deadlines, reliability, responsiveness, project goals, team roles, budgets and sharp focus matter.

There are more people we can be in a harmonious relationship with than there are people we can work well with. Working together needs a very specific match of character, skills, working styles.

Because these modes are different, when we move from one mode to the other, we cross a threshold that needs a different set of agreements and expectations. In many communities, that threshold gets crossed, often without explicit acknowledgment.

Very few communities actually manage to deliver short term outcomes. It takes time for members to build trust and for people to feel ready to get invested and committed. This reality means patience must be an important strategic tool in your community builder toolbox.

Patience strategies for community builders 

Set realistic expectations for yourself and your co-creators. Ask yourself: how long are we willing to consistently invest into this group and when do you expect to see a community return? A crucial element is defining success. What value do you hope the community will ultimately create for members? What’s a realistic time frame to get there? And when do you expect the community will mostly run by itself?

Keep reminding yourself that most communities will take at least three to five years to mature and become meaningful. This depends on variables including size and context, but it may not be worthwhile to initiate a community for a timeframe any shorter than three years.

Set long-term expectations of members. If you have a long-term arc in mind, be explicit and tell members about it before they join. Ideally, this becomes part of your commitment and agreements i.e., when joining this community, I know that I’m joining for at least “x” months.

If you start communities with a shorter time frame, it’s important to be explicit about the commitment time frame. For example, it can make sense at the beginning to have a test period of 6-18 months to determine if this group of people wants to become a community and are willing to invest long-term. It’s crucial to make it very clear that there is an end date to this first phase and that a longer-term commitment will have to be decided then.

Find a balance between short-term and long-term projects. There is no simple formula for this, but it’s important to find a mixture in your activities that promote both short-term outcomes (often around creating value through collaborations, learnings, events) and investing in long-term values such as deepening relationships among members, building more trust.

Finally, practice generous experience design. Do not over-crowd and over-plan many of your experiences.

Learn how to support members in bringing their individual skills and abilities to the community, and how to use them as a co-creator and an organiser of events and activities.

Encourage members to shape the community’s activities 

Each community member brings skills and knowledge into their network. As a community builder, you can harvest those skills and empower members to use them in the community. This will serve both the members, as they will feel valued, and help you gain a pool of experts.

Co-creation generates a sense of ownership and responsibility for what is happening in your virtual community. It also increases engagement and impact. In moving away from asking people “what they need”, and asking “what can you contribute”, each community member becomes a part of the bigger picture.

Appoint volunteer community managers/builders

Volunteers can help sustain actions in specific areas of your community, such as subcommunities or work-groups. They may create content, initiate discussions, connect the right people, moderate action groups. In the beginning, you must invest time to train volunteers to effectively decentralise your efforts and create a pathway to higher impact.

Have community members organise events

Members can set up online or offline events to gather, collaborate, and get to know each other. This could take the shape of a series of one-off webinars on a specific topic or, depending on your financial resources, a workshop or online conference. In the beginning, the community builder will be responsible for organising events. Your first members are typically happy to contribute with hosting sessions or supporting logistics. Later, members will feel comfortable enough to host their own events independently.

Establish a co-creation process or framework

Co-creation processes can be created for everything from strategy development to your platform. For example, to test a  feature on your online platform, open the development process to feedback from some community members. They can become “testers” for certain tools and help you during the feedback stage. Over the long term, this helps members feel a greater sense of ownership over the functionalities of the platform or online space because they had a hand in developing it for the community.

Open calls for ideas

Host open calls for where members can share their community project and activity ideas. For example, organise a webinar series on a specific topic, or a physical meet-up in a dedicated region. The extent of support will depend on your budget and resources, but it is also possible to offer small-scale logistical and technical support for the implementation of online formats.

Remember, it will always be easier to get members to participate in small tasks. If you want to involve your community members in a larger project, break up the project phases into smaller tasks.

Building a community for innovators in conservation - Panda Labs

Panda Labs creates a space for experimentation and collaboration among innovators within WWF to experiment with new ideas, new partnerships, and new funding models. We co-create solutions to the world’s most complex and urgent conservation problems. The Panda Labs community links teams around the world to share learning and materials, celebrate successes, and support each other in achieving a global, vision-driven community trying to drive meaningful impact.