Building a Supportive Environment for Your Online Community

Building community is a sentiment that is bandied about a lot these days. Whether it is meant as an attempt to create a supportive environment where you live or mimic the same type of vision in an online setting, the motivation seems to be the same: to gather with other folks in order to achieve a set of goals that would be impossible to do alone. So, how might we create and nurture our digital communities by incorporating the lessons we’ve learned from history, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy?

We humans are a tribal people. We tend to gravitate towards others that have a shared set of values and a similar vision for the future. From communities based on necessity, like agricultural communities and those created by fearless founders in quest of the Great American West, or deliberate communities, fashioned sometimes organically out of economic realities and countries of origin, the group of people that gather together often do so to learn, share, and create,  to connect and be part of one’s tribe, and to tell one’s story.

Think about all of the relationships that matter to you the most. What nurtures these relationships and helps them thrive? I bet that the qualities of respect, trust, and honesty are paramount, which develop stronger over time but must be palpable from the onset to take the relationship to the next level. The ability to communicate these expectations upfront and continuously allow for an ongoing exchange is what creates the foundation for greatness.

You might be thinking, yeah, great. This all sounds fine, but what are the tangible actions I can take in order to create this type of environment for my organization’s supporters in an online community? The following suggestions have proven to work wonders:

Get to know your community and facilitate conversations among your members. The expectation that members use their real names to dissuade anonymity can help to foster this exchange.

  • Provide your community a sense of ownership by including them in conversations around decision-making activities.
  • Explore ways that your supporters can share their unique skills to support the community. The feeling of being valuable in a group is indispensable.
  • Whenever possible, meet them face-to-face. The internet is amazing in that it allows us to keep in touch, share, and communicate in ways barely imagined 20 years ago, but nothing can replace the bonds created when humans interact face-to-face. The visual cues, communication gestures and sense of true connectivity are lost with online-only interactions.

Want to help your community become even stronger? 

State your policy and define boundaries for each of the factors that your community needs in order to thrive, and understand that the community is a living, changing, evolving organism unto itself. The best structures are those that are solid enough to provide support but flexible enough for growth and change. This was as true for The WELL – the place where the online community movement was born in 1985 – as it is for any online community today.

The strength of The WELL was built around the tenets discussed above; the insistence that members use their real names, a “community manager” (then called conference hosts) to maintain a supportive and safe environment, a sense of ownership within the overarching goals of the community, the ability for members to provide their unique skills from which the rest of the community derives value, and the creation of deliberate opportunities for members to meet in person all contributed to this first, and still thriving, online community. That this online community has developed into a thriving offline reality is an outcome that especially NGO’s should note; it is literally a dream come true!

Integration of your supporters

To garner the resources of your online community – especially within the NGO space – relies even more on the integration of your supporters into your world; the community that evolves around the work you do everyday is one of which your supporters want to be a part. Sharing the story of your work – the people and places who are impacted through your efforts everyday – acts as an invitation to your supporters to connect. The Greek philosopher Epicurous said that we need three things to live a fulfilled life: friendship and community, self-reliance/freedom, and an examined life. A well balanced, focused, and thriving online community can provide these fundamental desires. This strength and cohesiveness is what it takes to move mountains – and all of the other herculean efforts required to illicit systemic change – and is realized through your hard work that our global community relies on to strengthen the lives of all of our communities, online and even more importantly, offline and face-to-face.

About the Author: 

Darby Burn Strong was born Darby Strong and married a guy named David Burn. (The other one.) The only thing she made up about her name is keeping her surname in last position, which is not traditional, just like her. Plus, Burn Strong just sounds better, right?

What motivates her: people’s stories, struggles and spirit. Organizations and people in which to believe. Business motivated by Corporate Social Responsibility and Natural Capitalism.

Darby brings her client service, systems thinking and business acumen to the Portland tech start-up, Little Bird, as their Flight Coordinator. While there, she helps others take flight, both internally and externally, through her work in operations, customer success, and brand building.


Darby Burn Strong
Flight Coordinator
Little Bird