Breaking the Rules for Open Community

By: Lindy Dryer and Maddie Grant, CAE

Web 2.0 means community now reaches beyond geographic location or membership status, pulling together anyone with a will to contribute or a desire to be involved. It also means many of the old rules about managing communities no longer apply. Here's how four associations have changed the way they work to engage their communities online.

Associations are no strangers to community. And yet, the things that have made associations so successful at building community in the past may actually be holding us back from building community in the digital age. In our book, Open Community: A Little Book of Big Ideas for Associations Navigating the Social Web, we explore important concepts for building community online, starting with changing the very definition of community:

Open community (noun): A diverse group of people, bonded by a common interest in an industry and an organization, who care enough to contribute and cooperate online for the good of the group.

Notice there is nothing in there about geography or membership? That's because open community can include anyone with internet access, regardless of location or membership status. The more important common denominator is people's willingness to give of themselves and their time to shape their community, their profession, their industry, and their world for the better.

We spoke with executives and staff from four very different associations about their open communities. Each of these associations has found success by ignoring conventional wisdom and breaking the unwritten rules that seemed to be holding its open community back. Here are their stories.

Association: National Science Teachers Association

Rule to break: The community should be interacting on the association website.

New approach: Support community wherever the interaction takes place.

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) encourages groups to form organically as well as in its official communities. The result is a complex ecosystem of websites and social sites where members and other stakeholders are connecting. NSTA has Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profile pages, 13 topic-area listservers, and an official blog. There is also an online community portal within the association website. "While this complexity creates challenges, it gives both members and stakeholders in the community more chances to engage," says Teshia Birts, CAE, senior manager of chapter and associated group relations at NSTA.

The complexity also reflects the reality of NSTA's open community. NSTA members teach different disciplines and different grade levels, so the number of communities that could form is almost limitless. Says Birts, "There are established official communities, using both our public and private platforms, but NSTA encourages groups to form organically as well."

NSTA members have access to monthly journals, a career center, and the NSTA Learning Center. The content is rich, but there is not much two-way conversation there. The two-way conversations are happening with NSTA on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. NSTA members are using these outposts to share information about professional-development opportunities and discuss important topics such as classroom management and the use of technology. The outposts deliver a new mix of member-curated content alongside staff-curated content.

Over the past few months, NSTA has emphasized meeting members and other stakeholders where they are. The NSTA listservers, which have been around for years, continue to be vibrant even as discussions on LinkedIn increase every month. The Twitter and Facebook followings have grown as well. And NSTA continues to experiment with the online community portal within the association website. It has tested a few different white-label social networking systems and is now deploying a balance of tools for members who need their own playground.

As it works to meet members and stakeholders where they are, NSTA will enlist the support of member ambassadors willing to help take online engagement to the next level and cultivate conversations wherever they take place.

Association: Nonprofit Technology Network

Rule to break: Staff should not mix personal and professional.

New approach: Empower staff to build relationships with your open community.

The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) believes it is necessary to be open, authentic, and transparent in its work to create a community that can meet its mission. And all staff members are expected to connect with members, constituents, and the wider nonprofit community about the issues they're working on together.

While NTEN has official profiles on Twitter and Facebook, for example, staff also have personal profiles and understand that their individual online presences can support the organization's goals. As a small-staff organization (it just hired its ninth staff member), NTEN chose not to set social media policies, focusing instead on a shared set of community values (see As the staff grows, NTEN may go back and add more formal policies, but for now, everyone is clear and comfortable with the boundaries.

NTEN believes that sharing some personal information is essential to social media success. "Our personal boundaries are really common sense and have been natural to maintain," says Anna Richter, program director at NTEN. "Most of our staff end up setting up their social media profiles as a result of working at NTEN, at the encouragement of our organizational leadership." NTEN provides an informal orientation for new staff members by pointing out the networks on which they can set up profiles and showing them the basics of protocol for each network (e.g., character limits, tone, and purpose of different social spaces).

"Then we generally practice the baby-bird method of training. We launch them for flight and watch their natural social instincts keep them up," says Annaliese Hoehling, publications director at NTEN. "Some staff are more comfortable than others, and we don't require anyone to leave their comfort zone."

Because of its openness and collaborative culture, NTEN attracts a constant stream of partners and content cocreators. As a small-staff organization, this has been the key to continually bringing new resources and opportunities to members.

Association: American Library Association

Rule to break: Community should be a membership benefit.

New approach: Open community is a benefit for anyone who cares enough to participate.

The American Library Association has opened its online doors to all interested stakeholders, regardless of membership status, and encourages and supports unofficial groups.

It wasn't always this way, and in 2007 ALA experienced a backlash. A competing group, the Library Society of the World, popped up as "alternative for library and information folks who want the advantages of a badly organized organization without having to pay money to be a member of such a beast." Here was a group of stakeholders who felt disenfranchised and frustrated by ALA. In response, ALA made the decision to address the criticism head on and build a stronger connection with all of its stakeholders, whether they chose to join or not.

Using social media and its online community, ALA Connect (, ALA has reached out to members and nonmembers, actively soliciting their feedback, ideas, and participation. Perceptions have changed. Today, ALA is viewed as a responsive and friendly organization. More than 1,400 nonmembers are using ALA Connect to view and add public content. According to Jenny Levine, internet development specialist and strategy guide at ALA, "People are giving ALA a second look. We're offering librarians a way to contribute and participate even if they can't afford the dues."

ALA didn't stop at just opening the doors. It also worked to support the activity of unofficial groups. Eighteen months ago, an informal ad hoc group, the Young Librarians Working Group Think Tank, started in ALA Connect. Its purpose was to create formal recommendations to submit to ALA leadership. The group opened an outpost on Facebook that is open to all, and it grew from 80 to 250 members in just one week. ALA staff members were invited to participate, and they now provide context for ALA issues and gather feedback. One of the members of the Facebook group even ran for the ALA Council (its governing body) and won.

Association: American Society of Civil Engineers

Rule to Break: Staff should own and manage the association's social media outposts.

New approach: Staff should support social media work led by member champions.

The American Society of Civil Engineers set up a LinkedIn group for its members, but when an unofficial LinkedIn group quickly grew larger and more nimble, the professional association joined forces with the member champion who had created and was managing the group.

Today, ASCE's LinkedIn group has more than 21,000 members and is one of the best examples of a well-run professional group on LinkedIn. The group owner is a member volunteer. "Moideen Mathari is the very definition of a member champion. He's been the driving force behind the ASCE LinkedIn group and an essential part of the group's success," says Audrey Caldwell, senior manager, communications, at ASCE.

Mathari started an unofficial ASCE LinkedIn group in July 2008. ASCE staff had set up an official group just two months earlier, but key differences between the two enabled the unofficial group to take off. Among them, Mathari's group had an active jobs board; the official ASCE group did not. Most importantly, Mathari was able to devote the time to cultivating his group, beginning with his own professional connections and branching out from there; due to staffing constraints, ASCE staff was not able to commit the same amount of time and effort to its group.

When the growth of Mathari's LinkedIn group significantly outpaced the official group, ASCE made the decision to fold its group into Mathari's and make his the official ASCE LinkedIn group. ASCE reached out to Mathari in the spirit of collaboration and asked him to continue doing what he had been doing successfully. He agreed to invite ASCE staff to assist as comoderators and to post and enforce group rules set by ASCE. Otherwise, the group remained as it was initiated by Mathari, including an expanded job board that proved to be a popular feature. Recruiters continue to post jobs, but now ASCE posts more jobs, more frequently, than any other source in the group, maintaining the ASCE Career Center as the top-of-mind resource for job seekers and job posters in the field of civil engineering. ASCE also steps in to help resolve disputes in the group, monitor and moderate the group, and respond to member questions and requests directed at staff.

"We learned that this group drew on the passion of its members to become a success," says John Marston, manager, digital media communications, at ASCE. "Our strategy is to stay out of the way so that members can talk with each other. We're confident in the work Moideen and other leaders in the group are doing, because every day we monitor everything that happens there. And when we need to step in, we can and we do."

What Rules Should Your Association Break?

Every association is different. Online community comes in all shapes and sizes and happens in many different places all over the social web. The common denominator is not the tool or site where it's happening but rather the people who are a part of the community. Unfortunately, you cannot achieve open community simply by replicating what someone else is doing. There is no single right way to build community online. Each of these four associations plotted its own course, including a few course corrections along the way.

Building community online doesn't have to be complicated, but it does take work. It also takes courage, knowing that you're going to put your organization out in the open without knowing exactly how everything will unfold. But when you get a handle on your community—when you know who the people are, what they need, where to find them, how to get them talking, how to get them acting collectively—you learn what you're doing right and what you need to change, and you make more intelligent business decisions.

Lindy Dreyer and Maddie Grant, CAE, are cofounders of social media strategy consulting firm SocialFish and authors of Open Community, available in the ASAE Bookstore at Emails: [email protected], [email protected]

Maddie Grant, CAE

Maddie Grant, CAE, is cofounder of the consulting firm Culture That Works, LLC. She is coauthor of Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World and When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business.