Cat Herding 101

I was given the awesome privilege to present a session at the 2016 Sektor 3.0 Conference in Warsaw, Poland. I wrote this article to help me prepare for my presentation.

Cats? Herds? What? I often see the phrase “cat herding” or “herding cats” used with regards to community management. For those who haven’t heard it before, let me explain: Herding cats is an idiom which refers to the futile attempt to control or organize uncontrollable entities. In this context: Community managers have their work cut out for them. (NTEN’s new Digital Inclusion Manager, Drew Pizzolato, helped me craft this title. I was grateful for the support as well as the excuse to talk about cats. After all, “Bethany lubi koty.”) So, here we go: Cat Herding 101!

This article will focus on the basics for creating an engaged and effective online community by welcoming our community members, helping them connect and find value in the community, and appreciating them. (And by offering lots of kibble!) Many of the examples come from NTEN’s various online affinity groups (a.k.a. Communities of Practice) and cohort-based educational programs (Nonprofit Tech Readiness Program and the new Nonprofit Technology Professional Certificate) which make use of our branded online community platform: The practices illustrated, however, are applicable to any closed online community groups, such as Facebook or LinkedIn groups, Meetup, Slack, and so on.


Entering a new online space can sometimes feel like you’re the new kid at a party. Community members who aren’t given a proper welcome and introduction to their new surroundings may become alienated and leave before they’re able to see all the great things your community can offer. But, you remember what it’s like to be new (and awkward with your giant glasses and unruly hair and pathetic understanding of current pop culture references) or how intimidating it sometimes felt to reach out in a new space, don’t you? (Okay, maybe some of that only applies to me…) Regardless, you know that you don’t want your new community members to feel like outsiders.

As the party host, it’s your job to give your new members a hearty “hello!” and show them around the community space. It’s up to you to reiterate what the community is for, explain any features, and illustrate what is and is not acceptable within the community. Get out there and welcome!

Automated email drip campaigns where members get a message every week or so about community features or updating notification settings are dreamy, but not necessarily a reality for a lot of communities. Perhaps your community doesn’t live in a forum-based platform and you don’t have the ability to do something so advanced. Don’t let your tech stand in the way of an introduction message. No matter what platform you’re using–Meetup, Facebook or LinkedIn groups, Slack, etc.–try to set aside some time each week to copy and paste a welcome message to your new members. Welcome them to the party and open up that line of communication. (Check out NTEN Nonprofit Tech Club organizer Eli van der Giessen’s text expansion tricks to make repetitive tasks like this a snap.)

Any sort of online group should have a set of community guidelines. The CMX Hub Facebook group has a short and simple list of shoulds, should-nots, and the consequences for violations. CMX’s rules focus is on maintaining the value of the community by keeping it discuss-based. NTEN Connect contributor Melissa Chavez recommends that community managers go farther and develop a code of conduct. She states, “The default mindset should be to think about the people involved in your community who are the most vulnerable and to be sure that they, too, will feel welcome, comfortable sharing, and valued for their voice and contributions.” Ultimately, you want to develop clear, enforceable rules that protect both your community members and the value your community provides. Make these guidelines easily accessible. Don’t forget to include direct contact information in case a member needs to report a violation. Remind members about the guidelines at least once a year.

Now that your members know the rules, help them engage with each other. Introduction threads are a great way to get new members to interact with community tools and meet others. They also give community managers the opportunity to connect respondents to resources based on their messages. Pin the thread to the top of your forum, include the thread link in your welcome messages, and embed it in the group description. Make it easy for a new member to make that first contribution.

NTEN’s various cohort-based education programs have done well with introduction threads that ask participants to respond with where they’re located, details about their organization and their role, goals for the course, a recent win, and their favorite animated gif. The addition of the animated gif prompt has been a real treat. Participants have often gone above and beyond and included pictures of their families or pets or hobbies. This level of sharing seems to quickly help lessen the distance between us.

The volunteer organizers of NTEN’s online Nonprofits & Data Community of Practice, Janice Chan and Judy Freed, crafted their forum’s introduction thread to include prompts for a community member’s walk-up song and their Facebook relationship status with data (“married, in a relationship, it’s complicated, we are NOT friends…”). This addition does such a great job of setting the tone for the group and reaching a friendly hand out in welcome.

In a recent Connect article, Emily Garcia made the case for personally welcoming your newbies. Emily’s organization, World Pulse, recruits seasoned online community members to serve as Community Welcomer volunteers and to greet newcomers. This practice not only gives newbies the chance to engage with other members right away, it opens up opportunities to level-up the involvement of existing members. Wow! I joined the World Pulse community to check it out for myself. Sure enough the welcome messages starting pouring in. In addition to the delightful personal welcome, the messages included information about community’s various features and norms. Bonus!


Back to the metaphorical party: You’ve welcomed your guests. They know where the snacks are (very important), where to find the coat room, and how to behave. Now what? Since you’re not going to spend the whole party talking about yourself (right?!), you need to find ways to help your guests connect and receive value from their attendance. Ideally once the party hosts have helped make the connections, guests will start conversations on their own.

Question prompts are a great way to generate engagement and help community members connect. Craft open-ended, specific questions. Stay away from “what do you think about X”-type questions which tend to be too broad, as well as a bit too vulnerable-making. Create a posting schedule that is predictable and sustainable. Be ready to do targeted outreach to staff and community members should you need help getting the conversation going.

NTEN’s online WordPress Community of Practice has had great success with a Question of the Month-style discussion prompt. Lead organizer Cindy Leonard posts a new question at the beginning of the month and the responses and discussion flood in. The Nonprofit Digital Communications Community of Practice won big with a Win of the Week prompt. It only took less than a month before community members started the posts on the community organizers’ behalf. Amazing! (Note, however, that this series of win-sharing prompts was short-lived. The weekly posting schedule wasn’t sustainable, even with the community helping to drive it. Start small.) The Tech Decision Makers Community of Practice has had a hilarious, persistent thread which simply asks community members to respond with five words about tech.

Live community events, such as Twitter chats or conference calls, are another great way to help community members connect. Several of NTEN’s Communities of Practice hold monthly hour-long conference calls. These calls are purposefully casual–much more group discussion than polished webinar. During Tech Decision Makers community calls, volunteer organizer Alex Speaks directs the group to first spend time sharing recent successes and then later share problems. These prompts typically lead to rich, organic discussions. Drupal Community of Practice calls focus on more a collaborative Q&A format but includes time for event reports from the various camps and conferences Drupalists often go to. The Women in Nonprofit Tech Community of Practice have held numerous interviews with experts and just recently experimented with a book club-type conference call.

I get the pleasure of sitting in on most of these community calls and have learned so much from our organizers. Big tips: Don’t be afraid of silence. Be curious, and be prepared to ask a lot of questions to help get the conversation started. Don’t forget to bounce questions back to your attendees–you don’t have to be the expert.


Huzzah! Your party was a success. The snacks were both salty and sweet, the discussions were engaging, and most importantly–your guests were smart and generous and genuinely delightful. Make sure you appreciate them! Your community’s health and growth can hinge on your member appreciation and stewardship.

Connect author Susan J. Ellis reminds us that we should give thanks both publicly and privately. Quick thank you emails are simple and, when personalized, can go along way. Short is fine and, as far as I’m concerned, animated gifs are a most excellent way to help convey enthusiasm and thanks. Perhaps break through the virtual wall every now and then to send snail mail. Postcards are great for handwritten notes and don’t carry the pressure of needing to fill up a lot of space. Small notecards have the bonus of being able to hold a branded sticker or two. (I know, I know–using email and postal mail for appreciation is hardly news, but it works.)

As for public acknowledgment, help your community members see that their contributions matter by shining a brighter light on their work. Think about inviting particularly engaged community members to serve in a community organizer or welcomer role similar to those in NTEN’s Community of Practice program or World Pulse’s online community. Perhaps try out a member spotlight or member of the week/month series. Put together regular round-ups of the most popular posts (why not also round-up posts that need attention while you’re at it). Link to them in your onboarding materials. Turn great posts into official resources or ask contributors to expand their posts into articles for larger distribution.

I hope these tips are useful to you. I learn so much from the fabulous NTEN Community!

Photo credits: Heart emojis and cat herders

Bethany Lister
Community Engagement Manager