This past year has been an incredible learning experience for me. I’ve been the New Tactics Online Community Builder for over 6 years now but it was only recently that I found my clan – my community-building peers who have pushed me to realize that there is a LOT more that I can be doing to make this community the best it can be.
I am the Online Community Builder for an international human rights program called New Tactics in Human Rights, at the Center for Victims of Torture. We host an online community of practice for human rights defenders from around the world. It is a space for practitioners to share their experiences, lessons-learned, challenges, successes and ideas with their peers. It’s one-of-a-kind and has so much potential.
I am passionate about the power of peer-learning and networking. I remember thinking “there has to be an online community for online community builders whose mission is to make the world a better place” and of course there was. Michael DeLong, a fellow online community builder, connected me to the #commbuild group of nonprofit community builders. Finding them has set me on a path of reflection and has inspired me to really push myself to improve my community-building efforts.
This community has also motivated me give back by contributing my knowledge and lessons-learned (for what its worth) to the larger community of community builders out there. I will be sharing our New Tactics approach to community-building, what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and our plans and ideas for the future. I look forward to reading your comments and hearing about your experiences!
New Tactics’ Approach to Community-Building
We believe that our online community platform allows human rights defenders to learn directly from the experts on the ground – their peers! The approach we have used so far to engage our community in online discussion is by coordinating structured, time-limited, forum-based conversations.
The New Tactics Conversation is an online discussion between human rights defenders. Participants in the conversations share their experiences, learn from others and meet new allies. The conversation is an open, public forum for human rights defenders to discuss their experiences advancing a human rights strategy and implementing a particular tactic. These conversations allow participants to:
- Reflect on their work by sharing their experiences
- Learn from others’ experiences and find new tactics
- Connect with new allies and create new networks and communities of practice
The conversations are held monthly on different topics (i.e. Using Mobile Phones for Citizen Media) and are active for five days (Monday through Friday on the English site). We’ve held over 70 online conversations since 2007.
The conversation is the key activity for knowledge-exchange among our community of human rights defenders. We have hosted 2 kinds of online conversations:
- Tactical Dialogues – structured online discussion about a particular human rights tactic or approach, led by recruited practitioners from around the world with experience or expertise in the topic
- Community Voice – gives all of our community members the opportunity to share their feedback and ideas to help improve the impact of the community activities
Lessons-Learned: What works
Working with partners who are invested – We bring together human rights defenders to discuss their work either each other. We rely on the expertise and experience of our community to create a useful and informative exchange. Because we are not the experts on any of our conversation topics, we have found that an effective way to find practitioners with expertise and facilitate a discussion is to work with a partner – a person or an organization who knows the network and content. This partner helps us identify our conversation leaders, facilitate the discussion by asking the right questions, and promote the event. These partnerships are built on mutually beneficial goals: participants have an opportunity to reflect on their work, learn new ideas and build relationships with peers.
We try to recruit a partner for each conversation that we host. Of our recent 20 Tactical Dialogues, 14 were facilitated by partners.
We have found that it is best to work closely with the partner to identify the topic of the discussion. For 2014, we identified themes for our future conversation topics (with input from our community). Now we are working with partners to identify the specific topics to be discussed, related to the most popular themes.
Providing lots of support – In an effort to engage very busy human rights defenders, we have defined roles and expectations for our community members:
- Conversation Facilitator (aka partner)
- Conversation Leader
It has been absolutely critical to provide support for our conversation participants by sharing guidance and technical support. Here are a few examples:
- Instructions on the website about how to participate in a conversation
- I host a one-hour web conference (using ReadyTalk) before each conversation for the recruited leaders. It is an opportunity for them to meet each other, learn how to participate in the conversation and discuss the main themes of the conversation. The web conference is recorded and shared with all conversation leaders.
- Provide guidance/advice for the conversation leaders on the best way to lead the discussion
- Emails to the conversation leaders throughout the week to share updates and provide support
Through surveys, we have found that conversation leaders feel very supported throughout the process.
Practice what you preach – I often feel like when I am recruiting practitioners to lead and join our conversations, I am asking them to take a leap of faith (see the section on ‘measuring impact’ below under challenges). I’m saying to them “trust me, participating in this discussion is worth your while.” But how do I know that?
The best way to know would be to have a robust evaluation system to be able to give evidence of impact to your community (ah hem, I’m still working on that part…).
Another good way is to speak from experience. If you’re asking people to take time out of their day to engage in an online community, you better have some faith yourself that it’s beneficial! Join your own online community of practice and be engaged. You will you see first hand what works and what doesn’t in online engagement, and you’ll probably learn some great tips from your peers!
My other point regarding this is that it’s really good community-karma to share what you’ve learned. Somehow, over 1200 human rights defenders have agreed to share what they’ve learned on the New Tactics website over the past 6 years. At the very least, I should be able to do the same with my own peers.
Lessons-Learned: What has been challenging
Measuring impact – The goals of our community, mentioned at the top of this article, are not easy to measure. It requires each participant to reflect on how much the event impacted them. Currently, I send a survey out to each participant immediately after the conversation is finished. The next step is to send out regular surveys 6 months after a conversation, 1 year, 2 years, etc. I’m in the beginning stages of setting up this system.
But even with results from surveys, it’s hard to pull out the data. There are many resources out there on how data-driven online community management (some of them are in this collaborative resource list for community builders). I’m still figuring this out.
Questions around security – Identifying the right approach to protect our community members has been challenging, and I wrote about the nuances in an engine room article titled “How do we balance the responsibility to protect with a mission to connect?”. For the meantime, we have decided to keep our community open and public, and encourage our members to avoid posting any information that might put someone at risk. Our website is behind a secure socket layer (SSL). We also guide new users (on our registration page) towards resources to help them use our website securely. We also allow users to be anonymous.
Spam – It’s an endless annoyance. We have chosen to keep our community open and public which means anyone can join. We have relied on Mollom to analyze text for spam user registrations and email verifications. In the past, we did not require approval by a New Tactics staff person because our community is so global – we wanted to make sure that when someone wants to add a comment, they don’t have to wait for us. Unfortunately, we’ve been hit so hard by spam users (who each have a different IP address and are able to pass the Mollom verification tests) since September of 2013, that we had to change our registration process to require approval by an administrator. We continue to 5 to 10 new spam user registrations each day. Allowing spam to post content in your online community is a good way to lose legitimacy, so it’s important to keep this under control.
Ideas for the future
We’re in the process of adding some new features to the site, including:
- Allow users to use Facebook to log-in to the New Tactics website (if they want)
- Allow members to contact each other privately and securely through the website
And I’m also exploring some new ideas, including:
- Host conversations around developing effective strategies and topics that impact the entire human rights community, such as: fundraising, accountability, security, well-being
- Allow members to participate in conversations through other means (email, social media, SMS?)
- Organizing an advisory group of dedicated members to brainstorm on topics, themes, and ideas
- Create more opportunities for community members to post questions and get feedback from other members (regardless of that month’s topic/theme)
If you have any questions, ideas or comments, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!