Redefining Community Leadership for an Online World

Community Leadership Model

Last week, I presented two sessions at the North American Jewish Day School Conference, both focused on developing online leaders. The second session, entitled “Redefining Community Leadership for an Online World,” explored how traditional “offline” organizations could open their community leadership to those beyond the the bricks-and-mortar building, to include online fans, friends, and followers. In particular, I wanted to grapple with the sticky questions of sharing leadership, merging online community with offline, the value online leaders might bring to a bricks-and-mortar school, and for what purpose. In other words, I wanted to explore the broadest, most generous definition of “community,” and the role that community can play in the development and enrichment of a traditional organization tied to a physical and geographic location.

Who is the “Legitimate” Community?

The traditional community leadership model (and especially true within school communities) holds that leaders emerge from the parent and alumni community. Those leaders have qualities of stewardship, influence, and community connectedness. When an offline organization creates its own social media spaces, opening up a virtual online community to Like, Follow, Connect and Tweet with them, its community expands.

However, more often than not, the organization does not view it as such. Are these online friends, fans, and connections really “the community?” Does this organization have an obligation to cultivate, reach out to, or include virtual community leaders within the organization. How could you merge the offline with the online, and what tensions might it cause when an organization such as a school, begins to foster virtual leaders who are not tied to the school geographically or by any student/alumni connection?

If your organization is reaching beyond its traditional borders to create a virtual community, can it do so without offering that community any role in the organization? Well, many organizations do just that – they broadcast information to fans, encourage them to post/tweet/message them – but do not actually listen to them or “invite them into the community.” I feel strongly that this is the wrong approach: continuing to do so is a disincentive for anyone to continue to be involved in your online space in any deep way. Just as you listen to your community of parents in a school, and respectfully hear their suggestions and thoughts, you need to do the same with any virtual community.

Identifying Online Community Leaders

Identifying Online Leaders

I am very influenced by a paper presented at the 21st Workshop on Information Technologies and Systems (WITS 2011) entitled “Identifying Leaders in an Online Cancer Survivor Community.” In it, the authors identify contribution and network centrality as the two core elements of leadership in an online community. Contribution is indicated by the activity of the contributor, frequency of posts, length of days the post is up, and value of the posts. How critical a person is to the functioning of the community indicates that person’s network centrality. Thinking about this, it really is a translation of offline leadership into the online world. Elements of influence, value of contribution, connectedness, and active interest all play into the definition of an online leaders.

I use the “collect, vet, and classify” method of finding community leaders: identify those who participate regularly (the “regulars”), create a spreadsheet to track and classify them, cross-reference them with your offline leaders, and finally vet them for value and regard within the community. There are a number of ways to identify online leaders within your community. The presentation embedded at the bottom of this blog post highlights many of these tactics.

Supporting Online Community Leadership

Supporting online community leadership

There are a few elements organizations should have in place in order to develop and work with online community leaders: an interest in bringing them into your organization, a ladder of engagement for anyone to climb who is interested in moving from fan to community leader, rewards and roles for “regulars” who participate actively and offer value, and closed leadership spaces for working with leaders.

The final section of the presentation deals with closed leadership spaces for online leaders. Once you’ve decided to bring leaders from your virtual community into your organization, it’s often helpful to create a closed, private virtual space for leaders to meet and plan some online content. These leaders are your biggest fans online, and you can leverage their enthusiasm and ideas to help you create strategy and content for that online community.

Debra Askanase has 20 years of experience working in nonprofit organizations, from Community Organizer to Executive Director. She is the founder and lead consultant at Community Organizer 2.0, a social media strategy firm for non-profit organizations and businesses. She blogs about the intersection of social media, nonprofits, and technology at and regularly provides advice and commentary to our eJewish Philanthropy community.