Tag Archives: online community

Online volunteers created a music festival in St. Louis

Everyone pictures virtual volunteering as remote volunteers that sit in front of a computer or tablet or smart phone, typing and clicking, interacting only online and undertaking mostly techie tasks. But something I learned early on when I started researching virtual volunteering back in 1996 is that it’s actually a very human thing, that often leads to very personal non-computer-related activities and connections.

twangfestMore than 20 years ago, some members of an online discussion group, Postcard2 or P2, an email-based gathering place for people to talk about a particular type of music – alternative country – decided to create their own nonprofit and host a weekend of concerts in St. Louis to feature bands performing the kind of music they love, which is rarely played on the radio. It became an annual event, called Twangfest. And in June 2016, Twangfest will host its 20th event milestone.

These founding members of this music festival were dispersed across the USA, and most saw each other face-to-face only once or twice a year. But they spent time together, online, every week, often every day, for a few years. They had become close friends who shared a passion, and they channeled that passion into an onsite event that’s one of my favorite examples of what virtual volunteering can lead to.

I was a part of the discussion group starting in 1996, just as a lurker, and sometimes, more than 100 messages would be posted in a single day. I wrote about Twangfest, and the community that spawned it, back in 2000 for the Virtual Volunteering Project. I got to go to the event in 1998 and 1999, and I still meet with people I met via P2 – many are still dear friends. Here’s part of the description of the discussion group from some point in its history:

This list began as an offshoot of Postcard, the Uncle Tupelo list, and was created for people who wanted to discuss a wider range of music, including (but not limited to) alt.country, country rock, hard country, bluegrass, honky-tonk, insurgent country, roots rock, and hillbilly music We also discuss a wider range of topics, including the music’s forerunners and historical background, the sociology of the music and its listeners, and contemporary business practices that make the music possible. Many of the 600+ subscribers to this list are ordinary folks who love this music. The list also includes musicians, writers, radio and record label folks, and others who work in the music business, who bring an interesting perspective to the subjects… Years of argument and agreement have created a sense of community on P2. List members meet up at musical or other venues in their home towns or as they travel. 

Note that it never says anything about virtual volunteering. The intention of this group was never to create a music festival and a nonprofit, and even with those creations, no member of the group was calling it virtual volunteering. Yet, that’s what it was. Some volunteers took leadership roles, becoming members of the board of directors, identifying places to advertise, recruiting volunteer designers, negotiating with venues, and approaching potential sponsors. Some volunteers took on micro tasks – like me: I was an on-call volunteer, ready to answer questions as needed about preparing nonprofit paperwork and coming up with phrasing for the web site and press releases to make sure people knew this wasn’t just a music festival, that it was a nonprofit organization working to preserve and promote the unique tradition and culture of Americana music. The nonprofit never divided people as online volunteers and traditional volunteers – all were just volunteers (and in this case, just means solely, not merely, so please, no hate mail).

I’m stunned that it’s been 20 years since Twangfest started! But, then again, virtual volunteering is a practice that’s more than 35 years old!

Also see:

Lessons on effective, valuable online communities – from the 1990s

Updated: research regarding virtual volunteering

vvbooklittleThe Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, a book decades in the making, by Susan J. Ellis and myself. Tools come and go, terms come and go, but certain community engagement principles never change, and our book can be used with the very latest digital engagement initiatives and “hot” new technologies meant to help people volunteer, advocate for causes they care about, connect with communities and make a difference. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version.

Keynote speaking in South Carolina & Washington state!

logoCome here me speak this month or next!

Me in South Carolina Jan. 27 – 29, 2016
I’ll be the keynote speaker and presenting workshops at the South Carolina Association for Volunteer Administration (SCAVA) annual conference, January 27-29, 2016 in North Myrtle Beach! You do not have to be a member of SCAVA to attend. Join me!

Me in Vancouver, Washington (state – USA) Feb. 11, 2016
I’ll be the keynote speaker at the Nonprofit Network Southwest Washington / Directors of Volunteer Programs Association (DVPA) conference on Thurs., February 11 in Vancouver, Washington (state), USA.

You can book me for your conference or workshop! After February 2016, my consulting schedule is wide open. I am available for presentations, short-term consultations, long-term projects, part-time positions, and, for the right role, a full-time permanent position. Here’s what I can do for your organization/initiative.

There are free online workshops by me which you can view anytime, if you want to know more about my presentation style. Most are more than 45 minutes long:

I’m available for interviews on Skype or your preferred video conferencing tool, and, of course, by phone – I’m on West Coast time (the same as Los Angeles). I’m available for in-person, onsite interviews in and around Portland, Oregon (the area where I live), and am willing to travel most anywhere for an interview or as part of a short-term consultation.

Say yes to filling out that online profile

I help manage the TechSoup Community Forum, for employees, volunteers and consultants that work at or with nonprofit organizations, libraries, NGOs and other mission-based organizations. The focus is to discuss challenges, advice and questions regarding their computer, Internet and other network-tech use.

Before I reply to a question or respond to any post, I usually click on the person’s TechSoup community profile (here’s my profile). And most of the time, the person’s profile is blank. That’s frustrating for me, not just on TechSoup’s forum, but on any online forum I’m a part of. Who is this person that’s posted a question or comment? What kind of nonprofit do they represent – what’s its mission or how big is it? Why should I adhere to the person’s advice? All of these are questions that get answered with a profile.

I look at profiles on almost any online discussion group I’m on at some point – that includes YahooGroups, GoogleGroups, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, or any other platform. I look at a profile usually because someone has posted a really helpful post, and I want to know who the person is behind that excellent information, particularly what kind of organization they represent. I also always look at a person’s profile before responding to them on any group if I’m about to disagree with them – it’s a way for me to know a bit more about where they are coming from, so I can craft my response carefully and appropriately.

I also have looked at profiles because someone has said something that has made me realize that I might work in a similar field, or be in the same geographic area – and that’s lead to some great off-list conversations, lunch, coffee, even professional collaborations. In fact, my profile has played a role in some of the paid work I’ve gotten (people see some of my responses, click on my profile, read more about me, maybe click on the link to my web site to learn more about my credentials, and, boom, gig offer).

I treat online conversations like face-to-face meetings; I’d never get up in a group of people and espouse all sorts of opinions or professional advice, but not say who I am, what org I represent, etc. Not unless it was a group where all attendees are *supposed* to be anonymous (like many self-help groups). My profile is my name tag, where I can say as much or as little as I want. Imagine going to a panel discussion on a particular topic, and not having any information on the people in front of the room speaking – no organization name, no summary of the person’s background, etc. – that’s what it’s like, to me, when people talk on online groups but don’t fill out their profiles.

For me, a profile with even just a bit of info – a real name, a name of an organization or a link to a web site or LinkedIn profile – equals credibility. I’m going to take that person much more seriously when he or she offers up advice or questions, because I know at least a bit about who that person is.

TechSoup has advice that takes people step-by-step in filling out their TechSoup community profile.

A lot of people want to stay anonymous in online communities, even those groups focused on their professional, public work (IT, human resources management, social work, arts marketing, aid and development work, community garden management, etc.) because:

  • Their employer (or the organization they volunteer for) would frown on such participation, even if it contributes greatly to employees’ professional development, because they see it as a waste of time.
  • Their employer is afraid of a breach of confidentiality or the airing of dirty laundry (but that same employer probably doesn’t blink at an employee going to a conference, even presenting at a conference).
  • They want to ask questions and offer advice freely, without worrying about any on-the-record association with their employer (or where they are volunteering).
  • Even if they wrote in very general terms, if they were discussion a problem in the workplace or with a client, it would be easy to know what organization they worked for just based on the kind of nonprofit they have said they represent and the city in which they are located.
  • They work somewhere that is a highly-desired workplace, and know that if they provide their real name and/or the name of their employer, they will be inundated with inquiries by job seekers.

If any of those apply to you, you should still fill out your online profile, providing enough information so people know you are for real and credible, but not enough information to be identified. It’s NOT difficult! You could just say:

I work at a nonprofit organization based in Kentucky, focused on helping the elderly. I’m in charge of IT.

I volunteer at a Red Cross chapter west of the Mississippi. 

I am a social worker at a very well-known, large nonprofit in the USA.

No name for you or the organization, and not even a specific city name – yet, each of these profile statements give community members a sense of the kind of work you do, and helps us to better understand the advice you offer or questions you ask on an online community.

The discussion about why to fill out an online profile – or not – is happening over on TechSoup. Post there or here in the comments.

From just a bulletin board to a DISCUSSION

Too many online discussion groups are really just online bulletin boards: a place to put up some information, but not discuss it. If that’s all you want from your online group – a place to disseminate information one way, from messenger to audience – that’s fine. But if you want more… what does “more” look like? And how do you get to “more”?

bulletin board / announcement board content:

  • announcements about events, policies, reports, new staff appointments, etc.
  • reminders about policies, events, reports, etc.
  • most content generated by 1 – 5 people; most staff & volunteers in the program don’t generate content (and may not even read it)
  • content is available elsewhere/is not unique to the forum
discussion forum content

  • people responding to comments and reminders
  • people asking questions
  • people inviting discussion or debate about specific topics
  • content generated by a variety of people, including staff members of the programs tied to the discussion forum
  • there is content that is not available anywhere else, meaning the forum is essential, not just a repeat of announcements from newsletters, etc.
  • unique content is essential; forum members need it for their work
bulletin board / announcement board method:

  • ad hoc, as events happen, policies and reports are created/updated, etc.
discussion forum method:

  • questions are regularly introduced, in a strategic manner, particularly when questions and discussions aren’t happening organically
  • specific people are contacted and asked to respond to a question, announcement, debate, etc.
  • discussion forum is highlighted (not just mentioned) during webinars, onsite workshops, onsite events, and attendees are invited to continue discussion on a specific place on the forum.
  • specific, current threads in the discussion forum are highlighted in meetings, newsletters, reports, etc.

Share your thoughts! And please see the wiki at http://knowledgenetworks.wikispaces.com/ for advice on how to make a transition from an announcement/bulletin board to a discussion forum.

Join me on Twitter Oct. 23 for a tweetchat!

On Tuesday, Oct. 23, from 1-2 p.m. New York City time (10 a.m. Oregon time), I’ll be leading the tweetchat on Twitter.

The tweetchat is focused on building and sustaining online communities for nonprofits, charities, schools, government programs and other mission-based initiatives, though some corporate folks frequently show up and share.

The focus of the chat tomorrow will be on cultivating leaders in online communities. A lively, information-rich online community rarely happens because of just one person answering questions, inviting and welcoming new members, facilitating discussions, regularly introducing new topics, etc. Rather, they happen because of a number of people taking on these roles, officially and unofficially. But how do you cultivate and keep such online leaders?

Participating in the tweetchat is simple: you log into Twitter, and then you click on the link or do a search on the term #commbuild on Twitter. All messages with the #commbuild tag will appear. Keep reloading the tweets and you will see all new messages. To respond, just choose a message and click on “Reply”. Be sure to put the tag #commbuild in your message, however, so everyone else can see it too!

The questions I’m going to be asking on this Tweetchat (subject to change!):

Q1 What is an online community leader, from your POV? Define who that would be. 
Q2 How do you recognize some1 emerging as an online community leader?
Q3 When do you move some1 from unofficial leadership to official (written task description, dates of commitment, etc.)
Q4 Have you ever made some1 an official community leader (facilitator, chat host, etc.) & regretted it? What happened/why?
Q5 Have some1 ever asked to be made an official community leader & you have had to say no? What happened/why?
Q6 Should community leaders have term expiration dates, or do you just keep them as long as they are around?
Q7 How do you recognize/reward community leaders for their contributions?

In addition to this being a terrific learning experience regarding how to cultivate community leaders in online communities, it’s also a great learning experience if you are new to Twitter or to tweetchats.

More about the #commbuild tweetchat events.

Harry Potter fans make a difference – as do other fan groups

Back in the 1990s, when I was directing the Virtual Volunteering Project, I researched the phenomena of online fans of TV shows, performers and sports teams using the Internet to organize volunteering, donations and other support for various causes and nonprofits. I thought it was such a splendid example of both online volunteering and DIY volunteering.

There are thousands of online communities for people who want to to share information and excitement about a particular television show, movie, sports team, celebrity, hobby or literary genre. And just as offline communities and groups will often “pass the hat” at their gatherings for a good cause, these Internet-based fan groups often come together online or in person to improve their communities, promote a cause or generate funds for a nonprofit organization. Often, these fans engage in philanthropy with no prompting from any charity or formal organization.

It’s been almost 15 years since I wrote that, and I’m pleased to see that this tradition is continuing. The latest example: The Harry Potter Alliance, a group 100,000 Harry Potter fans all over the world, has raised $15,000 for aid in Darfur and Burma and $123,000 for Haiti. Its Deathly Hallows Campaign is attacking hunger, bullying, child slavery and more.

We are an army of fans, activists, nerdfighters, teenagers, wizards and muggles dedicated to fighting for social justice with the greatest weapon we have– love.

Accio Volunteers!

Tags: outreach, networking, connections, friends, connect, network, volunteering, volunteers, community, engagement, volunteerism, social, business, Harrry Potter, DIY, books, movies, novels, fiction

Online community member? Supporter? Volunteer?

Not much sets tongues wagging more among people that work with nonprofit organizations, NGOs, or other mission-based organizations, than a debate on who is and isn’t a volunteer.

I recently had a person responsible for a Second Life community assure me that those people involved in that community are not volunteers. In 2010, NetSquared, an organization I’m a big fan of, talked about how to encourage donors to contribute their time and/or talents virtually  – and never once used the word volunteers.

I’m firmly in the big tent when it comes to who is a volunteer: if you are doing something to support a nonprofit organization, and you are not being paid for it, you are a volunteer. I don’t care if you have been assigned community service by the court or a school, if you want to be called intern, if you are online or offline, if you will be the unpaid manager in charge of an entire department during your volunteer service, if you are doing a so-called micro-assignment and you are never ever going to do one again – I’m going to call you a volunteer.

The aversion to the term volunteer is astounding to me. I’ve had co-workers passionately try to explain to me why an intern isn’t a volunteer, despite the fact that that intern is NOT being paid. Or why an online community member, who helps other online members, and offers advice and feedback, isn’t a volunteer. Or a supporter who blogs and tweets about the organization regularly – and very positively – resulting in more publicity for the organization isn’t a volunteer. Or a board member isn’t a volunteer. My response to this: NONSENSE!

Part of the reason for the aversion to calling anyone and everyone who provides support to an organization, but isn’t paid to do so, a volunteer is because of how rigid so many staff members see their roles. If online community members are volunteers, who is in charge of those volunteers? Very traditional volunteer managers who see their role as being responsible for involving all volunteers, rather than supporting all staff in involving volunteers themselves, will balk at the increased (actually, just different kind) of responsibility. The program manager responsible for an online community of supporters, or the fundraising manager responsible for working with the board members and leadership committee members, may balk at the idea of having to be more internally-transparent about his or her involvement of such people and providing reports to the volunteer manager. It means approaching work and responsibilities more as a team, and many nonprofit, NGO, government and other mission-based managers just are not ready for that, terrified that it will diminish their manager or director role.

In addition, as I said in my blog on this subject back in 2010, I’ve heard some people say that they think the word volunteer conjures an image of very traditional people (whoever they are — I’m still not sure) doing traditional things like stuffing envelopes or handing out food at a homeless shelter. I’ve heard some people say that they think the term volunteer means someone who is merely providing free labor rather than free expertise, so they prefer to talk about pro bono consultants or executives on loan. Or online community member or supporter.

Does that mean all volunteers should be managed by the same person, or that they should all be screened, supported, recognized and supervised the same way? No. Volunteers’ level of responsibility, the amount of time they are donating, the length of their commitment, the nature of their work as a volunteer – all this and more will determine how they are screened, supported, recognized and supervised.

So, once again, I’ll be a rebel: I fully embrace the word volunteer. I’m going to keep using the word volunteer to mean when a person is donating time, talent and skills, whether onsite or online.

Tags: volunteer, volunteers, online, virtual, volunteering, community, discussion, supporters, members, fans, super

Do you fear online super fans?

TechSoup recently held an online community meetup regarding building Super Fans. The event defined super fans as people online who demonstrate a particular brand of loyalty that, once recognized, stands to benefit your organization tremendously. Super fans are those individuals who are engaged with your organization above and beyond your average supporter.

In other words, super fans are super online volunteers – super-devoted, super-passionate online volunteers. And they usually emerge on your online community, in the comments section of your blog, in the comments section of your Facebook page, on Twitter (retweeting your stuff), etc.

As I said in the comments section of this blog recap: in this era when so many are claiming that most people only want micro-volunteering, just-whenever-you-might-have-time volunteering activities, it’s nice to read an article that acknowledges there are many people who want to be online volunteers with longer term commitments and much higher responsibilities, that want to be influencers, not just unpaid task-completers, and there are organizations that really do want such volunteers.

And as I also noted in my comments: I’ve found many nonprofits greatly fear “super fans” – they fear the intensity of their passion, their motivation, their loyalty and their energy. They fear the super fans unasked-for-suggestions and ideas, their independent tweeting and blogging, their spontaneous helpfulness to “regular” online community members… In fact, many nonprofits will shut down a super fan that they feel is too “super” – not for any policy violation or inappropriate behavior, but because of the perceived pressure such a fan can put on employees and other volunteers (when they “outshine” staff in an online community).

For the record: I fear not the super fan. I might make a suggestion to an online volunteer that’s a super fan, to make it clear they when they are speaking as an individual versus a rep of the organization, to change the wording on a blog or comment to make it more accurate, to let me announce something to an online forum first, etc. I might ask that super fan to join a formal committee to explore, in a more traditional manner, this or that program activity, outreach activity, etc. But I do not want to dampen that super fan enthusiasm! I have no idea how long it will last – will the person burn themselves out in a three months? Less? Super fans are never forever.

In fact, I’ve turned a couple of online super critics into super fans… but that’s another story.

I’ve also been a super fan myself, and most of the time it’s been super appreciated – but twice over the years, indeed, I was asked to curb my enthusiasm (“please don’t post to our online forum so much”) – both times by very traditional organizations that have been around a very long time.

So, why do some nonprofits sometimes fear super fans? Is it the unofficial or non-traditional nature of super fans that causes the fear? Is it that they fear anything they can’t completely control? How do you convince a nonprofit not to fear you, the super fan?

You can leave your comments here, or you can go over to the TechSoup forum thread I’ve started on this subject and post there.

Also see:

What is “too much” from an online contributor?

The dynamics of online culture & community

How to handle online criticism

Tags: volunteer, volunteers, online, virtual, volunteering, community, discussion, enthusiasm, enthusiastic, supporters, members, fans, critics, critic

Twitter, confidentiality, nonprofits & more

Nonprofits, NGOs, government agencies and other mission-based organizations: learn how to use Twitter… via Twitter! Today, May 9, at 9 am USA Pacific time, follow #nptwitter on Twitter. Much more detailed info at the TechSoup Community Forum. If you can’t participate at the time, you can view the discussion later by doing a search on #nptwitter.

But wait – there’s more! Last month, TechSoup hosted a free webinar to discuss ways to use social media to find, communicate with and build community among volunteers, lead by myself and Erin Barnhart. One of the questions that came in but that we didn’t answer to the asker’s satisfaction (our answer was all-too-brief) was:

As a nonprofit law firm for kids, I’m concerned about confidentiality with social media, especially Facebook. What are the hazards in this area?

Offer your answer, and read my own, on the TechSoup Community Forum.

I hope volunteer managers / volunteer coordinators in particular will view these resources. Too many of you think social media is something to be used by those working in your marketing or public relations department. You need to be using online tools to engage with volunteers and potential volunteers yourselves! I’ve been saying this since 1994 – you’re 17 years overdue! Here’s my own advice regarding online social media specifically.