More and more charities are setting up online support communities – a space online for people who use their services to come together and share information, offer support and help each other to feel less alone. It’s almost expected now – if you don’t have a space like this, you may find people use your Facebook page or other social media pages to ask questions and support each other.
Communities are an excellent way to increase reach, help people connect and improve outcomes. Online community members (especially those who are established and ready to ‘give back’) are often more engaged with the charity and more likely to take part in focus groups, respond to surveys and even fundraise.
But online communities need to be monitored and moderated. As an example, I recently conducted an online consultation for a charity in the process of setting up a new community. Participants identified a number of issues they had come across in badly moderated or unmoderated communities.
- Posts going unanswered – or answers being unbalanced with some people getting lots of responses and some people getting very few.
- People feeling unwelcome or overwhelmed.
- Posts being misinterpreted or misunderstood.
- Spam and trolls.
- Personal attacks.
- Judgmental or critical posts.
- Incorrect information and advice.
- Competition and comparison.
- Arguments that become too heated.
- Detailed discussion of suicide or graphic posts.
- Inappropriate sexual content.
Luckily, all of these issues can easily be managed with good guidelines and clear moderation practices. But then comes the big capacity question. Can you afford the staff time for moderation? It’s rare that small charities can afford a decent sized community team or to pay an agency to cover out of hours. I’ve worked with a number of small charities where one person is on call all the time. It’s not sustainable (and terrible for their work life balance and mental health). But choosing not to moderate out of hours can lead to an increase in workload during work hours if issues escalate and more members get involved. Post moderation or closing the community out of hours removes the need for moderation but stifles community growth.
So what about volunteers? This is often the next question. Could we ask volunteers to cover out of hours moderation? It’s certainly possible but it isn’t as simple as it sounds. I’ve managed an online volunteering opportunity for five years and coached volunteer chat moderators for a further three. I also helped YouthNet achieve their Investing in Volunteers award for volunteer roles that mainly took place online. Here are some questions to think about.
- What will their role be? Will you want them to take full responsibility for moderation or will they have more of a welcoming or spam deletion role with difficult moderation decisions left to staff? How you answer this will probably depend on the level of support you can offer and where you plan to recruit your volunteers from.
- Do you have the capacity to support your volunteers? A lot of moderation tasks are not easy and new moderators in particular will probably have lots of questions – especially if they are working from home. They may need support deciding how to respond and formulating replies to potentially disgruntled or distressed members. They’ll need an opportunity to debrief and, if possible, an opportunity to chat about their shifts with other volunteers. Don’t underestimate how much support new volunteer moderators will need. Can you offer a shadowing element in your training to help them get to grips with the role?
- How will you manage safeguarding and escalation processes? You may still need a trained staff member on call in case of the need for escalation. Will this be the same person who is around to support volunteers if they need it or someone else?
- What else will you offer them? To make a role appealing and encourage volunteers to stick around it can help to offer regular training sessions (these can take place online), a clear set of transferable skills and social opportunities.
- Are you able to run regular recruitment and training? However much support you offer them, online volunteers are harder to retain. Without the regular commitment of coming into an office, it’s easier to let it slide – especially if you have a difficult shift and don’t feel adequately supported. To maintain a workable group of volunteers you may need to recruit and train new volunteers regularly.
- Where will your volunteers come from? If your volunteer moderators are committed community members, you may have fewer problems with retention. But you won’t have committed long-term members in a new community. Your members will be people who are looking for help now, rather than people who are ready to give back (most community members go through stages of seeking help and giving support before they are ready, or have time, to take on a more committed role). There are also other things to think about when it comes to asking community members to moderate…
- Will volunteers also be community members? This is a more complicated issue than I have space for here (I explore it a little in an old post here though). Asking community members to moderate can change the way they experience the community. In order to maintain objectivity in moderation, many communities stipulate that moderators cannot also use the community themselves.
- How will volunteering affect their relationship with the community? Most communities will help members understand that they can’t ‘solve’ others problems. It’s important that members know when they can offer support and when someone needs more help than they can provide. Members need to know how to look after themselves and when to take a break from the community. But if members are also moderators they may feel more responsibility for other members and unable to ask for support themselves. They may get very distressed if they can’t help someone in crisis. They may be unable to switch off when they are not on shift. If they use their own accounts to moderate, they may be approached by other members for support or to question moderator decisions.
- How will you recruit? If you choose to recruit non-members as volunteer moderators, you need to think about how you will make the role seem appealing and the experience and skills people can gain through volunteering.
Volunteers can be an important part of a community. But the most successful online volunteer programmes see the opportunities they offer to volunteers as part of their charity’s offering and not just a time-saving device. Volunteers feel supported in a role which can be challenging and difficult to do from home. They are not just giving to the charity but gaining skills, experience and recognition.