community, presentations, social media strategy

Redefining Community Leadership for an Online World

13 Comments 13 February 2013

Community Leadership Model

Last week, I presented two sessions at the North American Jewish Day School Conference, both focused on developing online leaders. The second session, entitled “Redefining Community Leadership for an Online World,” explored how traditional “offline” organizations could open their community leadership to those beyond the the bricks-and-mortar building, to include online fans, friends, and followers. In particular, I wanted to grapple with the sticky questions of sharing leadership, merging online community with offline, the value online leaders might bring to a bricks-and-mortar school, and for what purpose. In other words, I wanted to explore the broadest, most generous definition of “community,” and the role that community can play in the development and enrichment of a traditional organization tied to a physical and geographic location.

Who is the “Legitimate” Community?

The traditional community leadership model (and especially true within school communities) holds that leaders emerge from the parent and alumni community. Those leaders have qualities of stewardship, influence, and community connectedness. When an offline organization creates its own social media spaces, opening up a virtual online community to Like, Follow, Connect and Tweet with them, its community expands.

However, more often than not, the organization does not view it as such. Are these online friends, fans, and connections really “the community?” Does this organization have an obligation to cultivate, reach out to, or include virtual community leaders within the organization. How could you merge the offline with the online, and what tensions might it cause when an organization such as a school, begins to foster virtual leaders who are not tied to the school geographically or by any student/alumni connection?

If your organization is reaching beyond its traditional borders to create a virtual community, can it do so without offering that community any role in the organization? Well, many organizations do just that – they broadcast information to fans, encourage them to post/tweet/message them – but do not actually listen to them or “invite them into the community.” I feel strongly that this is the wrong approach: continuing to do so is a disincentive for anyone to continue to be involved in your online space in any deep way. Just as you listen to your community of parents in a school, and respectfully hear their suggestions and thoughts, you need to do the same with any virtual community.

Identifying Online Community Leaders

Identifying Online Leaders

I am very influenced by a paper presented at the 21st Workshop on Information Technologies and Systems (WITS 2011) entitled “Identifying Leaders in an Online Cancer Survivor Community.” In it, the authors identify contribution and network centrality as the two core elements of leadership in an online community. Contribution is indicated by the activity of the contributor, frequency of posts, length of days the post is up, and value of the posts. How critical a person is to the functioning of the community indicates that person’s network centrality. Thinking about this, it really is a translation of offline leadership into the online world. Elements of influence, value of contribution, connectedness, and active interest all play into the definition of an online leaders.

I use the “collect, vet, and classify” method of finding community leaders: identify those who participate regularly (the “regulars”), create a spreadsheet to track and classify them, cross-reference them with your offline leaders, and finally vet them for value and regard within the community. There are a number of ways to identify online leaders within your community. The presentation embedded at the bottom of this blog post highlights many of these tactics.

Supporting Online Community Leadership

Supporting online community leadership

There are a few elements organizations should have in place in order to develop and work with online community leaders: an interest in bringing them into your organization, a ladder of engagement for anyone to climb who is interested in moving from fan to community leader, rewards and roles for “regulars” who participate actively and offer value, and closed leadership spaces for working with leaders.

The final section of the presentation deals with closed leadership spaces for online leaders. Once you’ve decided to bring leaders from your virtual community into your organization, it’s often helpful to create a closed, private virtual space for leaders to meet and plan some online content. These leaders are your biggest fans online, and you can leverage their enthusiasm and ideas to help you create strategy and content for that online community.

  • Great stuff, Deb! Or maybe I think it’s great because I found alignment in the concepts of how we’re trying to build our national alumni network at Public Allies. 🙂

    One of our challenges is building a compelling “ladder of engagement” – because we’re so spread out geographically, and that our Alumni (volunteers) have a diversity of engagement methods, i’ve thought of it as one of those large “cargo nets” where there isn’t necessarily one path up a ladder, but rather a tree branch type of opportunities. Again the challenge on us is to find that balance of populating that “tree branch” or inviting the Alumni/volunteer to identify their compelling path.


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    MacArthur, I believe that the Ladder of Engagement could simply be a translation of what your organization already does to engage Alumni, but online. What would be a compelling offer to them, and feel like they are being rewarded for their enthusiasm while gaining insight for the organization? That’s one approach I’d think about taking.

    I’d love to hear more about how you’re building Public Allies. Sounds like you are already on a great path to creating a loyal, networked community. Please share any insights or successes!


  • Hillary Boucher

    Great presentation Deb. This is an interesting angle that I don’t see covered much. I find this with the nfps I’ve worked with who have a strong sense of “real world” community. They look at online community as something they “have to do” and on a few occasions when conversations have gotten sticky online they are quick to dismiss it as not mattering much. “Can’t we just ignore them?”

    Recently on a board meeting I went to Facebook and said, “Hey everyone, the BOD is working hard at improving maternal and infant health. Like this post to cheer us on and say hello.” Within 45 minutes we had hundreds of likes and warm messages of support. I interrupted the call at one point to tell them about it and it actually hit home for some of the board members. There’s a real live, breathing community there who wants to work with us!

    Thanks for sharing.


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Hillary, thanks for sharing your fabulous example! There really IS a real, live breathing community that wants to work with you, and if you reach out, they are usually thrilled to be asked. As a corollary thought, I was just invited “inside” an organization who reached out to me because I’ve been talking about them online and talking to the Executive Director online. They created a private G+ group for their fans to talk to each other and, I suspect, ultimately promote the organization 🙂


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  • Melinda Lewis

    Debra, I’m interested in your advice for specific metrics to use to help organizations determine the network centrality of their key leaders (or potential leaders), short of doing an actual network map, I guess, because that seems beyond the immediate capacity of a lot of folks who are just trying to figure out who’s positioned to best move their work forward…even once they figure out who really wants to own it with them. I’m thinking not only in online networks but offline as well…thoughts on how you’ve seen organizations tackle this in practice? Thanks for sharing the presentation, by the way–I’m thinking about those levels of community engagement in the context of an advocacy campaign, specifically, and how it translates. Thank you!


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Melinda, I always work with a combination of creating an actual network map offline and sometimes online, drawn from apps such as Crowdbooster (how networked are your followers. great for leaders) and Linkedin maps. I know there are some high-tech paid tools for network mapping that I haven’t tried, but Beth Kanter has written about this well in this blog post: I’ve also heard good things about this one (but it’s not so simple to use)


  • Hey Debra,
    This is so interesting! I really like the idea of the “legitimate” community. In order for the community to have any purpose or effect, the organization has to consider their wishes, suggestions, etc. I like the comparison to parents in a school as well-it’s very relatable. It’s nice to have the support of any community, and the online community is no different, and it’s especially important for community leaders to understand their role in the online community.

    Great presentation as well. When you say, “Your community is your entire social web,” how do you think social media users can connect and better understand their relationships with each other, and what’s the best way to form new ones?

    Thanks for the post!


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Hi Catie, great question! I think it is the responsibility of the organization to facilitate those interpersonal connections between stakeholders. Fans of organizations likely feel some connection to other fans, but an organization that could facilitate deeper connections through a Twitter chat, a group chat, an online community, encourages relationship-building. A good community manager should understand that friendships and relationships that form between community members strengthens the community’s stability overall.

    I hope I answered the question you asked. If you meant something else by it, check back in and let me know. There were so many ways to answer it…


    Catie Ragusa Reply:

    Absolutely, this is perfect. Thanks! I hope we can keep in touch through Twitter! 🙂


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Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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