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6 tips to creating successful charity online communities

With dormant forums galore, how do charities create engaged online communities that bring users and the charity, real value?

By Emma Owens · April 13, 2021

Right now, the lives of so many are lived almost entirely online. We work from home, speak to our families via Zoom, and unsurprisingly screen time has skyrocketed. Never before have so many been driven to cohabit digitally for such a length of time. This has resulted in freshly laid digital tracks as a result of a year of living online which charities can follow and learn from to create more engaging, more human, charity online communities. 

But, how should charities reimagine online forums, communities and networks? Instead of neglected, sparse spaces in the corner of a website, how do we recreate digital communities as vibrant, living sources of valuable content, advice, stories, and signposts that are easily accessible to those in need? Here’s six tips to creating charity online communities. 

Online communities should create a sense of belonging

Connecting moments matter

Trivial example incoming: I don’t drink hot drinks (no, not even hot chocolate) and other Brits cannot get their heads round it. Occasionally I meet someone else who also doesn’t drink hot drinks and we experience a teeny tiny moment of connection. When centred on something actually important, these connections can be magical. Take this magic into an online community and people unite. 

Take parents or carers of children who have complex health needs. Their unique situation of caring for a child 24 hours a day can result in a huge sense of isolation – something that even friends and family may not be able to relate to. WellChild, the national charity for seriously ill children, used Facebook to start a closed community of parents; The WellChild Family Tree provides a safe haven of support and an open line of communication for parents in need. WellChild empower their most engaged family ambassadors to help moderate the group and welcome new members, which is a great way to create an increased sense of ownership and save the charity time. 

Person crying with head in hand, sat next to an unmade bed

A community that wants to help

If a parent has a crisis at 2am, they get a response. Why? Because this is a group of people in a highly specific situation, able to empathise with each other – they want to give back, they want to help. So, rather than trying to build a community that’s for everyone, build a space where people feel a sense of shared identity, ownership and where they’re confident that it’s theirs.

Charity services + peer to peer support = value

Farah Baldock from Gingerbread – the charity supporting single parent families to live their lives to the fullest – explained that when creating a digital community on their website it was important to consider parents’ circumstances – juggling life, school, care and work all at once makes them typically, time-poor. But the power of peer to peer support can’t be underestimated. “Light touch advice, a moment of empathy or simply an ear to listen is as important as the practical advice and information we provide to improve their day to day lives.” 

The digital aspect of the network enables parents who are hard pressed to find a moment to themselves to access the support they need when they do find that moment – whether it’s before bed, or on a lunchtime break at work – an online community is waiting, just a few clicks away. Gingerbread’s success building their online peer network is unquestionably bolstered by the team’s commitment to co-production. Gingerbread worked alongside single parents to develop solutions to the peer support process – something we would advise every. Single. Time.

Learn from offline communities

Gingerbread also has a network of volunteer-led local friendship groups across England and Wales for single parents to connect with others with similar experiences. Whilst these work well for some, Gingerbread found that some parents didn’t identify with the friendship groups because personal situations can be hugely diverse. Single Mums with older children may find it challenging to connect with Mums of newborns, for example.

Taking these learnings and adapting to a post-covid world, Gingerbread is looking to digitise these groups and develop more specific, ‘micro groups’ based on shared interests and experiences. Gingerbread is currently testing this approach with single fathers and parents of children with special and educational needs and disabilities to understand how engagement occurs. 

Learning from the offline communities to build more useful, engaging online communities is a smart approach from Gingerbread. The charity has recognised a proven need for further segmentation and digital means that whilst the target audiences become narrower, geography matters less, and therefore the scope and reach grows. 

Long-tail keywords 

Building a digital community that serves both the user and the charity means being more than a neglected bolt-on. How could a digital community be the start of someone’s journey to accessing help, or a first step to becoming a supporter of your charity? 

If we think of a digital forum, traditionally it is a long list of questions with answers in the words of service users themselves. This format organically creates a large long-tail keyword footprint on Google. Reminder: long-tail keywords have a better conversion rate and they account for 70% of all internet searches. So, if you’re searching for something very specific that you need help with, we’ll often end up on a forum post, where someone is asking or answering that near-exact question. If that forum is on your website, or directs to your website you’ve got yourself a new user with a relevant need.

An example of this type of journey brings me to Reddit: The forum of all forums. Let’s say I’m concerned about the welfare of women who are sex working in Manchester city centre. I search Google for “Manchester sex workers near Piccadilly station”. The top result in Google is a Reddit thread with someone expressing that precise concern.

The post has gathered a lot of responses, many of which direct the reader to MASH (Manchester Action on Street Health) – a charity that provides free and confidential support for women who sex work in Manchester. So, bear it in mind; digital forums can be a hugely valuable place to draw in relevant search engine traffic from many users who could be brand new to your charity.

Google search for 'Manchester sex workers near Piccadilly station' and top results being a Reddit thread
Reddit thread about 'Prostitution near Piccadilly station'
Screenshot of MASH charity website homepage

Instant gratification

Dating apps. Love them or hate them, they provide one thing in abundance – gratification. Speaking to Nichola McAvoy from Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) and Founder of Ally: a – now closed down – friend finding app for people with alopecia, it’s evident that this snippet of satisfaction is an essential piece of the puzzle when trying to create and maintain momentum in online communities.

“If you sign up for Hinge or Tinder – you’re likely to be able to have a conversation or at least an interaction with someone, pretty much instantly. A really important part of a successful community is having that loop of new people coming in. With Ally, people were excited by the concept but without the instant gratification, you’ve lost them.”

In her current role at SEUK, Nichola and her team are working on building an online community of social enterprises, following an initial design sprint with our team here at Reason. Early conversations highlighted a need to go beyond testing ‘features’, or testing different types of content with users, and instead pointed to a period of observing how people interacted with each other and the system itself.

“Communities are about behaviour change over time. You need three or six months of that forum in action, to let it build, see how people behave over time. Functionality can be spot on but if there’s no desire to have conversations or interact with others, it’s irrelevant.” 

Start small (and free)

An engaged network is a goldmine for information, support and advice, but sometimes it can outgrow the platform it started on. Useful nuggets become lost and effectiveness is compromised. At that point, we’d suggest moving the community to a more structured format. But, before that point, always start somewhere that’s free, or at least cheap, somewhere you know your audience is already spending time, and experiment with it to make sure it is actually needed. 

Thinking about where your target audience hangs out will usually lead you to a free platform anyway. This tactic paid off massively for WellChild, its community of incredible parents and their closed Facebook Group. Now the charity knows there’s a need for this online community as the free platform becomes overwhelmed with engagement, it’s time to consider where to take it next.  

Nichola of SEUK echoed this sentiment, having learnt a lot from her time building Ally. The app was a passion project born from her own experiences of having alopecia, and the power she felt when connecting with those around her who knew what it was “to step outside without your wig on for the first time.”

But Nichola learnt that whilst an app can be beautiful and have a slick interface, more often than not, a Facebook Group can lend itself to a higher volume of chat and engagement. An app is just another place to ask people to remember to log in. 

“A community app has to have a massive volume of people for it to work. If you haven’t got a way to make that happen, then you’re going to struggle.“

woman working on her laptop at home with baby
Social media and communication apps on an iphone next to a glass of coffee
Laptop screen with multiple faces showing on a Zoom call, next to a mug on a table

Charity online communities, done right

When they are co-created, tested and well targeted, charity online communities often bring huge value and support to those within them, and also to the charities that built them. However, the time and effort they can require to ensure a safe, well managed and active digital space exists for people who actually want it can be extensive. Speak to your audience, understand their needs and behaviours and test as cheaply as possible to begin with and don’t forget to question what value your charity would like to get out of it too.

More tips on how digital can push your charity forward