expect not only to be able to find information online before they give, but they seek out organizations that engage them through websites and social media.

What’s more, using online tools to build community among donors can yield great results—a study conducted by Convio and Strategic One revealed that donors who receive online communication give more than twice as much as donors who are less engaged or engaged through offline efforts.

A great way to combine social media and your nonprofit’s website to leverage this need for information and communication is through the use of online communities or member forums, either custom-built or by leveraging an existing platform…

These communities can:

  • Attract donors and supporters to your nonprofit’s website and build awareness of your cause
  • Offer a means of interacting with members and supporters to gain their insight and input, highlight new resources or needs while updating them on programs and fundraising goals
  • Increase donor satisfaction and retention
  • Curate stories and testimonials from donors to use in campaigns
  • Provide a sense of community and pride among those who give
  • Mobilize grassroots efforts quickly and effectively

Here are a few tips for building an effective online community…

  • Know your purpose
    Mashable’s Geoff Livingston points out that the cause needs to be the purpose of any online community or member forum. You know that it isn’t about you—it’s about connecting donors and potential donors with your cause so that your nonprofit can continue helping serve a need within the community.

What’s more, by knowing your online purpose you can better meet the needs of online users. When you provide a benefit, you provide a valuable community worth being a part of.

“I feel we may be successful because we deeply believe in the importance of community and what it does to people touched by diabetes,” said Manny Hernandez, president of the Diabetes Hands Foundation, which runs the 13,000 person TuDiabetes network. “We have seen so many people come back to us and say: ‘I have had diabetes for X many years. I felt so alone. I never knew there were SO many people who felt exactly like me.’” In Canada, the Canadian Breast Cancer Survivors online community has almost 100,000 members chatting within 67 forums.

Prior to developing or implementing an online community or members’ forum, consider creating a think tank to help guide its purpose, and to create goals and a strategy for converting site visitors to donors. Invite donors, board members and those you serve to participate. Have a whiteboard and plenty of markers handy and be sure to thank everyone for participating with a chocolate thank you or a small gift, like a branded T-Shirt.

  • Build thoughtfully
    Whether creating a custom community based within your website or using a platform like Ning™ or Facebook™ and integrating with your website, think carefully about the needs of the community and your goals before building. Privacy, interactivity through wikis, commenting and photo sharing or integration with larger networks should all be considered. The beauty of platforms like Ning™ and Facebook™ is that they’re easy to use for organizations of all sizes, from small initiatives like the Charity Golf Network to large operations like the Canadian Red Cross.

    “Our community had a unique need for a secure and private space where Iraq and Afghanistan veterans could connect with one another, share stories, offer support, and know that the people they’re interacting with share many of the same life experiences,” said Chrissy Stevens, Communications Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “We spent months assessing our options for starting a white-label social network, and Ning was the only platform that offered the right combination of privacy controls, quality user experience, easy administration and customization, and ongoing support.”
  • Integrate with other online efforts
    Once your community is up and running, be sure to maximize visibility and engagement by integrating it with other efforts. Meaning, pull in the news feed from your Facebook™ page or your Twitter™ updates to the front page of the community, link resources and articles shared within the community in e-newsletters, host fundraising contests in the community that are promoted through your website and social media channels. Do what it takes to spread the word and connect your online users in one space.

As Livingston says, “In many ways, there’s a larger conversation occurring and the general networks can serve as beachheads to bring people back to your network. Conversely, integrating Twitter™ and Facebook™ allows for people within your network to talk about your activities in the larger context.”

  • Promote through offline efforts
    If online users give more, wouldn’t it make sense to recruit more online users? Promote your nonprofit’s online community or members’ forum in the annual report, direct mailings, program catalogues and appeals. Let offline users know that they’re missing out on a really great thing. Have your development offices hand out sticky notes with the community’s URL to prospective donors, thank current offline donors with gifts like coffee mugs or computer-shaped stress balls that include a tagline and URL that could drive them to the online space.

Harness the power of online communities today and leverage the generosity of the next big wave of supporters.

Livingston, Geoff. “5 Tips for Creating Non-Profit Online Communities.” Mashable – The Social Media Guide. 12 Feb. 2010. Web. 10 June 2011.
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