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The Link Between Community Managers and Community Organizers

Written by Molly Talbert | on December 15, 2015 at 9:00 AM

As a community manager, it may feel like you’re often breaking new ground, trail-blazing through an innovative profession. And you are. It’s a relatively new job force and there aren’t many forebearers for you to look back on.The very idea that you could have a collaborative community online was in its infancy in the mid-’90s (discounting old listservs and forums popping up since the 1970s), and didn’t really begin to take off until the 2000s (...guess MySpace was good for something). Although it’s a robust profession now, without much history, where should you look to gain inspiration when you need it.

Community management draws upon many disciplines, allowing you to cast a wide net; everything from psychology to organizational development to city planning is up for grabs. We came up with this reading list, which shows a sampling of how many unique resources are out there for people in your professional shoes.

There’s one crossover we need to add: Community organizing.

You are a modern-day community organizer. While online community management is newer, community organizing has a long, storied history. As you probably know, community organizers were behind many of the greatest civil rights victories in our country’s history, from getting women the right to vote and ending segregation, to current-day struggles for even broader rights for all. It’s important to remember they’re also behind many smaller, local victories in neighborhoods and cities. Community organizers are often seen as people who aren’t necessarily afraid of conflict. They’re pushing hard for change and at the forefront of many grassroots movements, whether the movement is a landmark civil rights case or a neighborhood task force.

How are community management and community organizing similar?

Fundamentally, it’s obvious: both a community manager and a community organizer work within a group of people banded together by a specific issue or cause. Isn’t that what community is all about in the end? People working together on a shared value or personal interest? Needless to say, those issues, causes and interests can vary wildly. Community organizers often galvanize others around social and local issues, while community managers can organize around many things: a profession, an industry, an interest or a user’s group/product, as well as social or local progress. Both disciplines focus on how to crowd-source support and garner engagement.

Learn about more community organizing stories and brands in this community manager handbook from our friends at The Community Roundtable.

What can community managers learn from organizers?

Although both professions share a passion for strengthening community, there is one big difference: community organizing is often in-person and localized geographically, where as community management is mostly internet based. So how can you translate traditional community organizing tactics to a modern, cloud based community whose members are scattered geographically?

In the end, community is at the heart of both professions, so it’s not that big a stretch.

Community Strategy

First, strategy is important. Sure, you may not have a specific end-goal like an organizer, such as policy reform, but strategy is still key. Decide on different micro goals, like growing by X number of members/clients each quarter or having X number of new discussions each week. Follow your progress with key metrics, and adjust your tactics accordingly. Since you’re working in a software program and not canvassing like an organizer, take advantage of the amazing tools at your fingertips, like automation rules and a data dashboard.

Community Tension

As your community grows and evolves, so will the discussions and comfort levels people have with expressing themselves in that space. Another lesson from community organizers is to know that tension can be good and a sign of progress. This makes sense in community organizing, since pushing for social change often requires fighting the status quo. But how does this fit into your online community, a place where people should feel comfortable engaging?

As someone who tends to avoid tension and conflict at all costs, I am very aware of how uncomfortable it can be in a community. But know that you’re doing your job well if people feel free to express their true beliefs and opinions (respectfully, of course). In fact, it’s a sign of a mature, stable community when people debate and bring up controversial issues or opinions. You don’t want the tension to turn abusive, so keep an eye on it -- but don’t be too quick to shut everything down. Keep in mind people are more likely to leave a community that is boring than one that provides interesting and valuable insight.

Sense of Community Ownership

Tension can also be a sign that members/clients have a sense of ownership regarding the issues, outcomes or particular discussions. Otherwise, why would they care enough to express themselves? Here’s where you should take more notes from community organizing -- foster a sense of ownership within the community. Make sure people feel connected to the group and know they’re important. That’s one reason organizing can be so effective -- people have a stake in the cause and results. Often the issues are very personal and directly impact community members. And when they take ownership, they become advocates. Allow your members/clients to express themselves, start discussions and help each other out -- this will build their sense of ownership and commitment to the space.

One final key takeaway: listen to your community. Who are the loudest voices and who needs help being heard? What are the topics people care about or issues that raise the most concern? It’s hard to manage or organize a group when you don’t know what makes them tick.

Where do you go for inspiration as a community manager?

Topics: Online Community Management, Online Community

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