Online community in the charity sector - benchmarking and insight
Today, Because it's Good and SiftGroups launch the comprehensive Community Report for the charity sector, after research and analysis of 100 UK charities.
What started as a discussion with the British Heart Foundation on how it could benchmark its community has led to the first sector-wide survey on why organisations set up online communities, how they integrate them in their daily operations and how charities work out what they deliver.
We spoke with a broad range of organisations from across the sector, from some of the largest (British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK) to the much smaller (The Princess Royal Trust for Carers and Ambitious about Autism). I allude to this disparity in size because it highlights one of the more interesting findings – that there is no direct correlation between the size of the organisation and the number of people involved internally in supporting the community.
Some charities at the lower end of the income scale see an online community as a key strategic priority over and above other service delivery or charitable activities. What's more, the smaller charities were far more effective at using their community to make service delivery efficiencies than the larger organisations.
One of the most telling highlights from the report, particularly given the complex and challenging economic landscape the sector finds itself operating in, is that 90% of respondents to our survey see no financial benefit from their community. More worrisome is that 93% have no means of measuring contribution to Return on Investment (ROI), even if they were asked. In all instances where organisations did see financial benefit, it was an efficiency gain in the delivery of support and information rather than direct revenue generation, which is entirely appropriate given the nature of the communities involved.
It strikes me that this is the biggest area for improvement going forward; community managers and digital specialists must evaluate the true financial impact that their community contributes and share this more widely within their organisation.
It seems that a lot of communities are still separated from the main digital experience of the organisation, often sitting in separate silos away from the core website. The key question here is if this is the case, how empowered are the members of your community to influence the policy and practice of your charity to improve how you work, and ultimately improve their own situation? Some of the smaller charities demonstrated admirable models in this respect, within which their community was visibly active in influencing policy development.
This lies at the heart of the challenge that is now presenting itself to the whole sector; how do you evolve from a broadcast to a truly collaborative model? On-site community (alongside the broader use of social media) is a vital component in not just meeting the needs of your advocates, beneficiaries and supporters, but it should also be a catalyst for driving internal cultural change as well.
All this should be tempered with a word of caution; our report indicates that if you're not prepared to invest properly in community – with appropriate human resourcing and considered planning – it could well backfire on you, or indeed fizzle out to become yet another online "ghost town".
With that in mind, from the insight we gained from across the sector, we've extrapolated five key tips to consider before setting up your own online community:
• Ensure that the whole organisation is behind the proposition: don't be tempted to set up a community silo "just to see if it will work". It has to be at the heart of your digital communications/service strategy to really ensure your users and your colleagues adopt it. By doing so you will also be able to demonstrate how the community contributes to your organisation's ROI.
• Do some proper audience research and plan the function against audience need: in some instances a simple discussion forum may be the best approach yet in others more complex functionality like ask the experts or live chat may be required.
• Technology is merely facilitative, people come first: make sure that your internal resourcing is appropriate; you may be tempted to bolt on community management to an existing job description – really think this through. If anything, look to over-resource a new community.
• Identify community champions: as a part of your user research, look to establish key online advocates who will be the pioneers of your nascent community, creating conversation and mentoring others who join.
• Plan a comprehensive launch strategy and seed content: you don't want to go live with an empty wilderness, so plan your pre-launch activity carefully and work with your community champions to create lively dialogue prior to the full public launch.
Download the full report here.
This article also appears on the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network.