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Janet E. Salmons

About Janet

Philanthropy and Virtual Community

Why should the philanthropy community be interested in virtual community?

"Virtual community" is about communication and relationships. Three key stages where communication and exchange are valuable to successful philanthropy include:

  1. Pre-application: At this stage clear information is needed about administrative (deadlines, formats etc.) and substantive (mission, goals and objectives) aspects of awards and grantmaking.
  2. Funded project: Progress and updates.
  3. Reporting and follow-up: Reporting on results.

Three important kinds of relationships are intrinsic to philanthropy:

  1. Grantmaker to grantmaker;
  2. Grantmaker to grantseeker or grantee; and
  3. Grantee to grantee.

In this series of articles we will explore ways that foundations, corporate giving programs and organizations can use virtual community approaches to foster effective communication and productive relationships. We will consider approaches that fit the needs and opportunities for stages of the philanthropic process, with stakeholders respective to each.

  1. Virtual Community: What is virtual community and how can it fit your needs?
  2. Asynchronous and Synchronous Communications: How do we think about tools and timing?
  3. Managing and Moderating: What staff/volunteer effort is needed to make it work?

Virtual Community: What is virtual community and how can it fit your needs?

In 1993, Howard Rheingold coined the term when he described a "computerized counterculture" of meaningful relationships formed among people whose only or primary interaction was online. In his book The Virtual Community, he observed, "The fact that we need computer networks to recapture the sense of cooperative spirit that so many people seemed to lose when we gained all this technology is a painful irony." Since Rheingold's book came out, numerous other experiments, examples, descriptions and books have emerged, but in yet another irony, the focus is often on virtual community in terms of the commercial potential. Increasingly, companies offer ways for customers to talk with other customers. However, virtual community is a particularly potent tool for the nonprofit world -- those of us who want to make a difference in real communities, local and global. Nonprofit organizations can use virtual community tools to build meaningful relationships within the staff, with volunteers, members, recipients or the public. In this series of articles, we will look at ways foundations and corporate giving programs can foster online dialogue.

For our purposes we'll define "Virtual Community" as an online space that:

  1. Is interactive: Members can communicate with one another, and/or with the hosts who convene the community. They may interact via email lists, a threaded discussion, chat room or a combination of communication methods.
  2. Is dynamic: The site engages and reflects the interests of the members, and is responsive to the inquiries or concerns of the community. Content such as posted articles, FAQs, reports or guidelines contributes value to the community -- and keeps members coming back.
  3. Is purposeful: The online community fulfills a shared purpose, common interest or need among its members. Depending on the purpose of the community, it can be ongoing or time-limited. (Salmons, 2003)

Virtual communities reflect the needs and interests of their members, so their function is often determined by the policy and protocols for membership and participation. Some communities are open to anyone; others screen levels of access with password-protected areas, so confidential information is available only to those with access.

  1. Public: Open to All - Anyone can log on and participate in a community that exists on the public web, and membership is usually open.
  2. Extranet: Open to a Restricted Group - Typically access to this kind of extranet site is limited to members who are registered and enter through a secure log-in. Another way is to make the group self-selecting. CharityChannel lists forums for specific interests; while the topic of a particular discussion may create a membership restricted to people from organizations in the UK or New Mexico, accountants can visit a forum for writers, log-in is not restricted.
  3. Intranet: Open to People Inside the Organization - Intranet communities are designed to facilitate knowledge sharing within an organization. Access is limited and the site is secure.

Let's put together a few of these ideas for examples in the context of philanthropy.

  1. Public: Open to All - An "open to all" virtual community could be useful at the pre-application stage, to promote communication between grantseekers and grantmakers. For example, a foundation could set up a discussion about the mission and objectives of an award program. It could be ongoing or time-limited, to correspond to the proposal preparation period prior to a deadline. After the discussion closes, it can be archived and serve as a FAQ for others who may have questions about the purpose of an award. (More on discussion tools in article 2.)
  2. Extranet: Open to a Restricted Group - An extranet community could be useful at the funded project stage. Participation could be restricted to grantees who are working within a particular area. Discussion based on exchange best practices, ideas and resources could mean more effective projects or collaboration to achieve economy of scale among smaller organizations. The program officer could be a participant, moderator or visitor. (More on roles in article 3.)
  3. Intranet: Open to People Inside the Organization - Grantmaking involves private deliberations and decision-making, and the need to safe-guard confidential information. An intranet community could allow dispersed panelists or foundation staff to discuss these issues within a secure online environment.

Effective virtual community-building starts with clear goals and corresponding methods. This overview gives you some ideas to consider in order to clarify why a community will be beneficial and for whom. Next, we'll start to look at tools you can use and roles you need to fill in order to use virtual community practices to enhance your organization's communication.



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