What we’ve learned through our support for organisations working on building digital communities

Lesedi Bewlay

Through our Light Touch Support programme, we support social justice organisations to effectively (and responsibly) use tech and data. Since 2016, we have supported hundreds of groups on themes varying from human right defence to legal empowerment.

One clear trend we’ve seen over the years is a consistent interest in building online communities – whether establishing new communities or strengthening existing ones.

The partners we’ve worked with want to do this for various reasons: to share knowledge about the issues they work on, to make connections with the people they work with, to promote capacity building for their communities, to form alliances with other movements and organisations and more.

Building online communities, however, isn’t easy! Bringing together diverse individuals and organisations is already complex and doing this online can bring even more complexity. In this blog post, we share some things we like to keep in mind when supporting organisations who are interested in going down this path.

Know the goals driving your community-building

Often, the first thing organisations start with is, “What’s the right tool to build an online community?” More often than not, our answer is: it depends! 

We always suggest that organisations first look closely at their work and context and organisational values, and dig into how these connect to the goals they want to achieve with an online community. 

Knowing this is fundamental to deciding on tools and processes for bringing people together online: a social movement looking to build a public forum where hundreds of activists will gather to mobilise against a repressive government, for instance, will need to take a very different approach to  a small group of co-workers who want to build a community inside of the organisation where they work. 

Here are some questions that can support you in mapping out the intended purposes of the proposed community: 

  • Why do you want to build this digital community? What do you want to achieve? Is the goal to connect, to build a movement or campaign, to exchange knowledge, or something else?
  • What might potential members want from this community? Where might their goals align (or not) with yours?

Reflecting on the questions above, and trying to answer them with as much specificity as you can, will guide your strategies for community-building as well as help potential members know what to expect.  

Plan for the ongoing work of community management 

Maintaining an online community is a lot of work, in both the short term and the long term. It requires setting aside time, human resources and tech infrastructure to keep things running smoothly. Here are some questions and ideas that can help you assess what it may take to maintain the online community you’re trying to build:

  • Maintenance: What technical infrastructure is required to build a community that meets your needs and goals? What will it take to foster user engagement? Will this be a public community or a curated/private community? Can you map the resources you’ll need to keep this community running?
  • Moderation: Moderating community groups is part of ensuring that the content and direction of the group reflects the community’s values and goals. One first step of moderation is creating community guidelines — a set of guidelines ensuring community members can engage meaningfully. Here are a few examples:
  • Communication and interaction: 
    • Keeping members engaged and interacting is one of the toughest parts of building an online community. Having someone who makes sure conversations are flowing, resources are available and strategies are being shared can help keep your community alive. Do you have someone like this in your organisation? Or is there someone in the community who would be interested?
    • Make sure community members know when and how to engage: inform the community about events and activities that are happening, and how they can participate in discussions. 
    • Be clear about how community members can  access the information they need and who they can reach out to if needed. One option is to publish tipsheets and guides about community issues, and send the community regular updates. 

Deciding which tool or platform to use 

Different tools and platforms will work best depending on the goals you have, who you’re engaging with, the uses you expect, and your capacity to manage the community. Each potential tool or approach comes with its own set of advantages and challenges.

When selecting a platform, factors to take into account include: 

  • User needs and behaviours:
    • What tool functionalities are the most likely to respond to user needs? For example, do you need a chat function? Advanced privacy and security controls?
    • What characteristics of a tool or platform might be a good fit for your members’ current technology preferences and limitations? For example, do most potential members prefer using their phones for this kind of participation, rather than their computers? Is low internet connectivity a concern?  
  • Alignment with your values: 
    • Which of your organisational values need to be taken into account when selecting a tool? 
    • Are security, privacy and data protection a priority for you and for community members?   

There are many different tools that we have seen organisations use when building their online communities, depending on their needs and capacities. For instance, the Namati Community is a legal empowerment network that interacts via an online forum, while the organisers of the Internet Freedom Festival maintain a Mattermost space where community members gather on a daily basis. 

Some types of tools you can use for your online community include:

  • Chat applications: Tools like Slack or Mattermost, for example, can have channels based on specific themes or topics. Through these, users can communicate and share resources.
  • Wikis: These are often used for knowledge sharing and/or sharing resources for  community members to use and comment on.
  • Mailing Lists: Community users often subscribe to mailing lists with specific themes, where they can participate in threads and share announcements and resources. This platform favours long-form exchanges and it can be easier for people to use (since they sign up using just an email account and most are already familiar with how email works), and messages go straight into their inboxes (there’s no additional platform they need to log on to). 
  • Web-based forum: This option is more easily organised (especially when compared to a mailing list), and it has more search functionality. Members can also build their user profiles and have group conversations. 

Within each of these types of tools, there are many options, and each one will have budgetary, technical and human resource implications that might make them a fit (or not) for your needs. 

You may also find yourself navigating questions about open source vs. proprietary, self-hosted or cloud-based, and more. For help navigating these questions, you can give our tool Alidade a try. (This is an interactive guide designed to help organisations figure out what kind of technology tool would fit their needs). 

A final note: Building an online community is a learning process! 

There is no single formula for building a successful online community: rather, it is an iterative learning process, and you may decide to change approaches along the way. 

Each organisation or movement operates in their own context, works on different issues, interacts with different audiences and carries their own set of values. Any individual organisation’s decisions around whether and how to build an online community will be shaped by these factors. 

Get support

If you are part of an organisation or movement that is looking for support with building an online community, you’re also welcome to reach out to our Light-touch Support team!  

For further reading, here are some resources we find useful:

Our tool Alidade, an interactive guide that helps you to figure out what kind of technology tool might best fit your needs.

Image by Amy Humphries via Unsplash.


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