How to Build an Online Community 4 Ways to Get Started

How to Build an Online Community: 4 Ways to Get Started

Julia Claire Campbell Marketing, Nonprofits, Social Media Leave a Comment

Today’s article on how to build an online community is such an important topic for nonprofits as they navigate the challenges of fundraising both during and after the pandemic. Joshua Meyer from OneCause has been working with nonprofits to engage donors and build a virtual community of supporters through peer-to-peer fundraising and virtual events. 

The challenges of the past year have shown nonprofits the true value of their connections with donors, volunteers, partners, constituents, and stakeholders.

Between the shift to virtual events, tightened budgets, and drastically reworked messaging in response to the pandemic, nonprofits have had a lot on their plates, and community connections have made a critical difference for many of them.

Supporters across the nonprofit sector have been eager to keep helping the causes they love. However, organizations that had already put in the work to build their community online ahead of the pandemic were certainly in a better spot to immediately tap into those connections and keep their missions moving.

At OneCause, we specialize in virtual fundraising and events. For many nonprofits, we saw how growing and tapping into strong community relationships made the difference between lackluster campaign performance and exceeded goals.

It’s never too late to start fostering a stronger sense of community for your own nonprofit. But it’s not enough to simply hope that your campaigns, events, and stewardship efforts result in stronger community relationships—you’ll need to take active steps to build and encourage those relationships online. Here are a few of our favorite tips:

  • Lean into peer-to-peer fundraising.
  • Recruit ambassadors to promote your events.
  • Develop a more engaging social media presence.
  • Create digital membership perks.

These strategies can help you start generating more connections between supporters and your organization, laying a powerful foundation for ongoing success. With an energized community behind your mission, it’s much easier to grow your impact and your reach over time. Let’s dive in.

Lean into peer-to-peer fundraising.

By its very nature, peer-to-peer fundraising is an excellent choice for nonprofits looking to foster more connections and a sense of community among their supporters. This decentralized form of fundraising relies heavily on social media and the personal connections of your supporters.

Peer-to-peer fundraising is powered by social proof, the idea that seeing loved ones and peers support your cause provides an inherent connection that will motivate new audiences to get involved. 

Plus, peer-to-peer fundraising is an extremely flexible strategy. Nonprofits routinely find success with P2P campaigns in all kinds of contexts, including fully virtual fundraising, campaigns tied to events, awareness or giving days, DIY-style, and more. 

There are many best practices to keep in mind for peer-to-peer fundraising, but you’ll want to pay extra attention to these elements for community-building:

  • Use fundraising software that provides as seamless an experience as possible. The goal is to expand your reach and raise donations through social proof. This means a quick, easy giving experience is a must to quickly motivate new donors to give.
  • Provide your fundraisers with guidance and resources. Training sessions, social media and email templates, and ongoing support will show your fundraisers that you truly value their help in building your community and that you want them to succeed.
  • Use cohesive branding to ensure all of your new supporters make the connection. Your fundraisers should be able to customize aspects of their donation pages (their personal ties to your mission are what matter here, after all), but make sure new supporters still make the connection between their friend’s page and your nonprofit.
  • Collect data for future engagement and outreach. You can only judge the success of your peer-to-peer fundraising campaign if you actively track its performance. Make sure your software provides intuitive reports to show you how well your fundraisers have done and who your new donors are. Then, target those new donors with special thank-you or welcome messages after the campaign.

This OneCause list of peer-to-peer best practices outlines more tips to keep in mind, but remember the main idea—this form of fundraising is inherently social, meaning it’s an ideal way to combine fundraising and community-building. Effective P2P campaigns will deepen your relationships with existing supporters and help you reach new donors who already have personal connections to your community. 

Recruit ambassadors to promote your events.

To take peer-to-peer fundraising even further, consider recruiting dedicated ambassadors to help promote your campaigns. Ambassadors are like super-charged peer-to-peer fundraisers, strategically recruited for their community connections and passion for your cause. They’ll promote your event via social media, secure registrations, and raise donations in the process. 

This technique is especially useful for larger-scale campaigns leading up to signature events like galas and auctions (whether they’re virtual, in-person, or hybrid). Planning any type of major event involves a lot of moving parts, so having extra help from ambassadors will not only simplify the marketing process but also forge deeper community ties in the process. 

Ambassadors also give your promotions a more personal touch. These volunteers serve as the human connection between your digital, pre-event campaign and the event itself.

You’ll want to rely on this personal touch and your ambassador’s connections to the community to boost overall engagement. We recommend following these best practices to maximize their impact:

  • Actively support your ambassadors. Provide your ambassadors with plenty of resources to promote your campaign and event. Schedule regular check-ins to review progress and answer any questions or roadblocks that they encounter.
  • Create Facebook groups for them. Foster a sense of community among your ambassadors by giving them a dedicated space to share updates and encourage one another. 
  • Develop engaging challenges and contests. Offer prizes for the most donations or registrations secured! Many organizations also create funny challenges for ambassadors to complete once they reach certain goals, providing even more motivation for their friends and family to pitch in.
  • Highlight your ambassadors during your event. Take some time during your event to honor and thank your ambassadors for their help. This will deepen your relationships with them while also showing your wider community that you truly value everyone’s contributions. 

For many types of campaigns and events, taking a deliberate approach to recruiting the most effective volunteers possible is a smart move. The social proof generated by their involvement can be a powerful force to attract new supporters who’ll already have a personal connection to your nonprofit.

Develop a more engaging social media presence.

Social media has been a running theme in these tips so far, and for good reason. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have made it easier than ever for nonprofits to directly engage with their donors and foster a sense of online community.

However, many organizations only scratch the surface when it comes to social media. Occasional posts and event announcements are great, but there’s always more that can be done to actively generate engagement and community. Consider these tips:

  • Create a concrete strategy for social media engagement. You might create “playbooks” for different purposes, like promoting events or posting volunteer shout-outs, that outline types of posts and a schedule for sharing them. This will help ensure consistency in your social media approach and that each action supports your goals.
  • Understand where to meet your supporters and how to engage them on different platforms. Take some time to study your donor base. Which platforms are they most active on? Anchor your strategies with those social platforms and tailor your content to maximize engagement. For instance, eye-catching photos and videos are great for Instagram but longer-form event invites or campaign appeals work better on Facebook.
  • Encourage plenty of direct engagement. To help your supporters feel like they’re part of a community, directly engage with them! Ask for comments (and reply to them), create dedicated hashtags for campaigns, and create simple social media contests to get the conversations started.

Building a solid social network helps foster more interaction and community among your supporters near and far. Plus, a ready-made community of highly engaged followers will boost the results of your future campaigns, appeals, and invites.

An active social media presence is also an excellent way to source new volunteers, peer-to-peer fundraisers, and ambassadors over time. Just be sure to keep track of social media engagement to identify these impactful individuals and to refine your online engagement strategies over the long run. 

Create digital membership perks.

Creating a literal community of members is also a smart choice for many organizations, and it can lend more structure to your community-building efforts. 

If you already have a membership program in place or are developing one, adapt it to the online sphere with easy-to-use website portals (or simply create a Facebook group). For the most robust features, donor management software that includes membership features or dedicated member management software will be your best bet. Check out Double the Donation’s top picks for an idea of the range of tools available today.

Then, consider the types of perks you can offer members. Don’t forget that you’re aiming to foster more online engagement, so you’ll need a few digital-centric perks to support that goal. Here are a few ideas:

  • Access to virtual members-only events
  • Discount codes for your online store
  • Special social media shout-outs
  • Access to members-only resources or behind-the-scenes content

As you develop your membership community, support your strategies with plenty of communication. Message boards, virtual gatherings, Facebook groups, and dedicated newsletters are all fairly easy ways to ensure your members feel like they’re part of an active community that contributes to your nonprofit’s work.

Most importantly, allow your members to get to know one another. Their social ties will strengthen the entire membership program and pull more new members into your orbit over time. Plus, they’ll be a ready-made audience to help promote your new projects and campaigns to friends and family online, tapping again into the power of social proof.

If your organization has struggled to build a solid online community, there are plenty of simple steps you can take to help foster one. Peer-to-peer fundraising tactics, ambassador campaigns, concrete social media strategies, and membership programs are all tried-and-true ways to emphasize the human connections between your organization and supporters.

A sense of community is a powerful asset for nonprofit organizations, especially during times of disruption as we’ve seen in the past year. Having an engaged audience that feels a sense of belonging and investment in your mission is invaluable, both for fundraising purposes and for growing your impact more generally. Best of luck!

About the author: Joshua Meyer brings over 14 years of fundraising, volunteer management, and marketing experience to his current role as the Director of Marketing for OneCause. Currently, as a member of the OneCause sales and marketing team, Josh manages all of the firm’s marketing efforts. He has a passion for helping to create positive change and loves that his current role allows him to help nonprofits engage new donors and achieve their fundraising goals.

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