To Engage Your Community, Be Helpful, Be Grateful

Your community is your organization’s lifeblood. Even if your work isn’t directly about building and nurturing communities, chances are that organizing people to support and advocate for you (whether with time or dollars) is a fundamental part of what you do. It is also probably one of the hardest things you do. Navigating and activating the human relationships that make up a thriving community comes with myriad challenges, but more rewards.

Building engaged communities is our business and passion. I constantly learn from veteran community builders, and I look to our friends and mentors across industries for their insights. The following suggestions are based on ideas developed by the people we look up to and my own experience.

Give Your Community Two Gifts

Building an engaged community is about building relationships based on value and appreciation. You need your community to be engaged because that engagement helps you meet your goals as an organization. If you want to get value from your community, you need to offer them value by helping them meet their goals.

Value is the first of two gifts you have to give your community in order to engage them. Appreciation is the second. Whenever you have the opportunity, community members should be thanked and acknowledged. We’ve seen this behavior rubs off. They, in turn, become more appreciative and kind community members. Providing value and showing your appreciation builds a loyal, affectionate community.

Help Your Members Become Who They Want to Be

When we think about how to provide value to our communities, we often look to our users’ experience. Switchboard’s UX advisor, Samuel Hulick—a user onboarding authority—has insightful ideas about how to design experience that make your users better versions of themselves. This Super Mario illustration sums it up.

User onboarding is the process of turning someone from a stranger into a “thriving, successful user.” A simple as that sounds, it is actually quite difficult to achieve. This is hard, Samuel argues, because companies and organizations can be so wrapped up in their own idea of why something should be important to members that they miss the real reasons people want to join you. The most important thing that Samuel has taught us is that “you earn [member’s] engagement by making them better people.” And not “better” by your standard, but better by their own. Organizations have a lot to learn from this approach.

Figure out what’s motivated your members to join you. How your programs and campaigns can help them become the person they want to be? If you succeed, an engaged community will be the outcome.

Making the Connection

Once you know who a community member aspires to be, you can provide value by helping them become that person. Your community and its needs are vast, and you can’t do it alone. Rather than attempting to solve the problems of dozens of people yourself, we’ve seen one of the most valuable things an organization can do is connect community members with each other to meet their needs. As Lewis Hyde said, “The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation.” You network is strengthened every time a community member donates through a generosity of time and spirit. As community managers, we attempt to make these transactions as frequent, seamless, and intuitive as possible.

We provide a space for people to ask for what they need and offer what they have to community they care about. Those who offer help aspire to be helpful, generous people. We make it easy for them to do that by offering their time and expertise to their community.

Our users who are asking the community for help aspire to become successful people. We help by letting them ask their community for the help they need: finding jobs, resources, advice, creative partners, or a helping hand.

Then there is the role of the community caretaker. We all know this person: that exceptional volunteer or community builder willing to go the extra mile and act as the switchboard “operator” to make the connection between asker and offerer. These generous, encouraging caretakers make all the difference, and their participation can lead directly to a life-changing outcome.

Every day, all day, we study this mysterious and powerful cycle of give, receive, and reciprocate.

I use Switchboard as an example because it’s what I know best. Your community will have different aspirations, and your organization will have different ways of addressing them. Regardless, if you are interested in building a thriving community around your organization, consider how you can build connections between your community members to help them become better people. By sharing and validating the special skills and interests of your community, you can lighten your load as an organizer and deepen your organization’s relationships with its supporters.

Showing Your Appreciation

We’ve heard from almost every community builder we know that regularly surprising and delighting your members will contribute to engagement and affection in the community. You’re asking your members to invest in you. To earn that, you’ll have to invest in your members and take good care of them.

Charlie Brown, CEO of the community-centric design firm Context Partners, writes that there are three reward categories that contribute to a loyal community: monetary, experiential, and reputational. Monetary rewards might be out of the question for a small organization (and they aren’t actually the ones that create a real connection, surprise!), but experiential and reputational rewards are always close at hand.

I try to say “Thank you” as often a possible. Perhaps the most powerful tool is the handwritten thank-you card (I’m not kidding!). We write to our investors, our friends and supporters, people we met once for coffee, and the people whom we admire but who haven’t joined us yet.

Highlighting community members on your blog is another great way to delight people and show them that you appreciate them. Be generous with your attention and highlight people who don’t always fit the profile of “super-user.” Lift up the people doing the leg work and the people who support you in unexpected ways, even if they aren’t making big donations.

Meeting people in person also goes a long way toward showing and building affection and connections in your community. Last fall I went on tour to tell our community how much we appreciated them. We asked people to come out, meet us for coffee, and attend thank-you parties. We found it best to avoid having an ulterior motive for our events and to focus on celebrating their contributions.

Showing your community how much you value them has to be both a long and short game. There will be immediate payoffs (a good soundbite, a donation), but the real rewards come in the long term, when you have a community built on close relationships between loyal, loving members. These community members are your lifeblood. They will drive you to your goals, become your passionate employees, and keep your sails full as you work to change the world.

Aria Joughin
Community Manager