Friday, September 28, 2007

Building a Community, Part I: Why Bother?

I am planning on doing a series of blog posts around a new (and until now, highly secretive) initiative that we are working on at the International Rescue Committee.

Full disclaimer, I’ll be as honest and open as possible, but please expect that I’ll reserve the right to gloss of some details and ideas that I feel could be too easily adapted by others, thereby reducing the effectiveness of what we are building, or planning to build.

Part I “Why bother building a community”

If I am being totally honest, the impetus for the creation of an online community at the IRC revolves around something I hinted at in an earlier post. The IRC needs a platform – a way to engage people, build their involvement beyond making donations and coming to various traditional fundraising events and volunteerism. And yes, we’re thinking of a younger demographic as well.

But past the IRC needing new sources of revenue, what the IRC really needs is a way to engage a community of people who care about what we’re up to in war zones in an open, honest dialogue about what they can do to help – and how the IRC will use their involvement to accomplish it’s mission of rescuing and rebuilding lives and communities.

So what is it?

Good question. My team and I have looked at what seems like every community being run by a non-profit. From the super basic of “we have an email newsletter, and that is community” to the uber-engaged organizations like Greenpeace and March of Dimes Share Your Story, there is a ton of variation and differences. And each one was created for different reasons. New ones seem to pop up ever day.

But before I go too deep, let me make a distinction. At the ORGANIZATIONAL level, every business whether it be for-profit or non-profit most certainly has a loosely defined “community.” It’s easy to join this community, sign up for their e-mail newsletter or give them a donation and just like that, you are part of a community. At that level, I guess I’m part of the New Balance community because I wear NB sneakers. Not a very deep connection, but still… loosely defined it is a community of sorts. And this is of course the problem with communities – the connection is often too loose, or based on a shallow or single transaction. It's too easy to take for granted the relationship you think you have with a supporter.

I’m not honestly all that interested in loose, brand communities. Despite the fact that Apple has created a movement and Nike rallies athletes everywhere to “Just Do It” – these communities of consumers aren’t really interacting with and for each other at any level other than as a consumer. We need to do better in order to affect real change in the world.

Nike created, an online community for soccer fans. DVDTalk is a thriving online community for people who love movies and DVD’s. Netflix is as well. Why can’t Blockbuster keep up and why are they shaking in their shoes… Netflix has built a huge community of people who can connect to each other around the movies they love. They can share RSS feeds and rate their favorite movies. That’s closer.

Even closer still is what I helped to build at the March of Dimes. The Share Your Story community was started as a way for us to reach out to a new audience (i.e. mother’s of premature babies). We had just shifted our focus to prematurity, and realized that there wasn’t a dominant community of moms sharing stories, helping each other and telling their stories. Babycenter and iVillage had basic message boards, but they were lost in a sea of other topics, none specific enough to really attract such a targeted set of women.

So we opened the doors a few years ago and let them meet each other, share their photos and tell their stories. Not only did the community build itself (today to the tune of 20,000 people), but it turns out that the community is enormously involved in fundraising. Going back to my original point about the impetus for creating community to drive fundraising I can say that we did imagine a day where the community would raise a few bucks, but never did we imagine to what scale it would contribute (my data is old, but I’m making an educated guess that “family teams” which were created along with the new online community now generates millions of dollars a year via WalkAmerica).

So why build a community? The answer is complex and yet so simple!

Build a community if you are interested in long term brand success – develop brand evangelisgts, loyal donors, advocates and employees. That’s why. Next comes the really hard part… how to do it.

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