How do we create a community online? Volunteer Alberta’s Youth @ the Table (Y@TT) program asked this question when we moved to virtual programming because of the pandemic. Supported by Canada Service Corps, Y@TT is a province-wide initiative seeking to engage youth ages 18-30 at the governance level of nonprofit organizations. Our in-person gatherings helped create a wholesome experience for our participants and we had the challenge of generating the same impact virtually.
We concluded that fostering a community online has a lot to do with creating a sense of belonging and purpose among our participants.
Why is it beneficial to build a community?
An online community helped our participants stay engaged. They got involved in the program because they had that initial desire to learn about nonprofit board governance and build their leadership skills. However, there were outside factors that could have impacted their participation along the way. Creating a community helped motivate our participants to stay engaged, connected, and committed.
How to build a community?
- Focus on relationship building (humanize the experience) – New participants may know about the organization, its values and missions, and the responsibilities of the position. Relationship building requires going beyond general knowledge and including opportunities for participants to get to know the organization at a deeper level.
Practical ways to build relationships:
- Set a time for the volunteers to meet and interact with paid staff – This helps participants get a sense of the programs and services of the organization and the individuals behind the whole operation.
- Use slow mail – Engagement might happen online, but it doesn’t mean all interactions need to be virtual. One way to reduce a sense of disconnectedness is to send volunteers organization swags or personalized thank you letters.
- Create spaces for peer-to-peer interactions – Allow volunteers to get to know one another. This could in the form of sharing meals virtually or hosting game nights and events where they get to network.
- Go beyond the immediate needs – Be intentional in communicating with participants not only when something’s needed, but also when exciting things are happening in the organization. Celebrate successes with them as much as possible.
- Move beyond the “out of sight out of mind” mentality – Engaging remotely can mean that we don’t always see the process or the amount of effort that goes into a given task, we may only see the finish product.
- Make gathering online fun with room for emotions – Interactions with participants or volunteers don’t need to only be about business. Online meetings can be more engaging by putting elements of fun and having spaces where individuals could show up as they are.
Practical ways to create fun and genuine meeting spaces online:
- Engage with participants informally – Think of check-in topics where individuals can talk about their interests and be intentional in chatting about things that are not related to the program.
- “What do you look most forward to this weekend?”
- “What has made you smile recently?”
- Allow participants to come as they are within the boundaries of mutual respect and compassion – Make room for stories and create spaces for individuals to share how they really feel. If possible, adjust activities or content based on participant energy and needs. If participants show up tired, remove expectations that they need to be energetic.
Although we have learned so much in terms of building a community online, we are continuously improving. Online engagement continues to pose the challenge of reading people’s body language and non-verbal cues, ensuring timing works, or encouraging full presence. What we constantly try to live by is to be kind to ourselves and to our participants. If the meeting wasn’t what we were expecting, we learn from it and try again.
Recommended tools and resources to help create engaging and creative meeting spaces:
- Online whiteboard – Miro
- Graphic design – Canva
- Word clouds – Menti (this can be a great way for short engagement, you can ask questions and create word clouds, display polls, etc.)
- A book on innovative tools and techniques you can use to generate ideas or foster collaboration in an interactive way – Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rule-breakers, and Changemakers
Volunteer Alberta practices & Youth @ the Table learnings
No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work by Liz Fosslien & Mollie West Duffy