CW20 speed blog: Best practices for building an institutionally based community

Posted by g.law on 21 May 2020 - 8:19am
hands in a circle
Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

By Carlos Martinez (editor), Mario Antonioletti, Paddy McCann, Yasir Noori and Anastasis Georgoulas

This post is part of the CW20 speed blog posts series.

One of the first things you need to determine about the community you are trying to establish is what it is for and who you are targeting. Is there a need for such a community that is not already being served by some other existing group? 

Once you have some preliminary goal you can start to determine the kind of participants that you want to draw in. You may also want to set-up a team to help out so that it does not become a one-person show or a heroic effort, otherwise you risk having a single point of failure, and putting all the pressure on a single individual might be too demanding. You will want to choose infrastructure to support and inform your community and may want to seek sources of funding or sponsorship for the provision of snacks for your meetings and other financial requirements you may need to meet, e.g. room hire, domain name, etc. There are a number of practical issues you will need to decide on: Would you want to charge a membership fee or a per-meeting fee in order to meet your running costs? You will want to determine how often you meet - weekly? monthly? quarterly? Do you want to meet at a single location or will you move about? Is there a cost associated with this? Longer-term, what is your strategy with regards to making the group sustainable? Do you need a governance policy? How are decisions to be made? You do not have to answer all of these questions at the start but the more you can think about them the more it will help form and guide your nascent group.

Infrastructure

Your community will most definitely benefit from having a focal point, a single place where (potential) members can discover the purpose of your community, what the details for  communication channels are and what upcoming events are planned. This need not be more complicated than a simple webpage on the hosting platform of your choice, for example, the institution’s website or on an external service such as GitHub Pages or WordPress.

Your community may have a number of communication channels such as collaboration platforms, social media or a shared calendar, but email remains the most universal form of online communication, and a mailing list is essential. The mailing list can be a place for discussion or it may simply be for making announcements, but it is the most reliable way to reach people, and to have a handle on the size and scope of the community. Building the list may be a challenge; hopefully, at the outset, you will know a few people who should be included, and they should be encouraged to pass on announcements and recruit others. Attendees at events should also be encouraged to sign up.

Events - tell people what you're about

Communities can interact in different ways - think about what type of event you would like to hold. This ties back to your mission statement and what people want to get out of this community. A common pattern is to structure events around one or more lectures or talks of interest, which can be formal or informal. For some groups, a more hands-on approach is better, with time made available for addressing technical issues. Perhaps it’s simply a social gathering to show people that they are not alone, highlight what support is available and help them build a network of connections, or maybe it’s a more structured training event. Your events don’t always have to be the same, and can combine many of these aspects. This variety can be useful in addressing people’s diverse needs and interests, although remember that consistency is also important, so you may need to balance the two concerns. 

Events - attracting people

For your community to be successful in the long run you not only need to organise an event that attracts people, but you need to make sure people are willing to come back to your events. One idea -- which may seem simple but actually has a big impact -- is to provide participants with a snack and something to drink during the event (coffee and biscuits is already a good start). This may have little to do with the content of the event, but it helps to make the event feel more welcoming and well-organised.

Bring a friend

In a community, there is often a core group of people who are enthusiastic about a certain topic. Getting them involved, and keeping them interested will generally not be so difficult -- engaging new people, however, can be harder. 

As with any group, it is often the case that the group reduces over time: this could be due to members moving to other locations, other activities taking priority, etc. In order to keep your community alive, it is important to continuously make efforts to bring in fresh perspectives into the community.

To increase the number of community members, one could ask everybody present at a meeting to bring exactly one friend or colleague next time. An in-person invite from a colleague is likely to engage more people than broadcasting an email invite to 'All'. This way, the next event will have a relatively high proportion of newcomers, which may help lower the threshold. Naturally, you should advertise the event as such and adjust the program / make sure to take care of the newcomers so that they do not feel lost once they are through the door.

Having a diverse population will help to ensure that your community has a broad perspective which considers diverse opinions and viewpoints. If you want your community to be diverse, you should make sure that your community is open and inclusive. This may happen naturally but it is also beneficial to be explicit about your will to be inclusive. Having a code of conduct for your community will help you keep inclusivity in the mind of community members.

Online tools

The COVID-19 period has shifted the way in which people work and interact. Organising online events has become easier with more people becoming experienced with working remotely from home. The benefit of working from home can also have a significant environmental and social impact.

However there are technological challenges which may discourage some participants. Having adequate access to suitable tools and guidance on how to use them might help newcomers to overcome their initial reluctance.

There are a great number of successful software development projects that are run by developers from across the world, particularly open source software. While an institutional environment makes setting up a local community easier, there is great flexibility in running events such as organising workshops and hackathons online. Tools that were found essential for running online events, such as CW2020 include:

While there is no guarantee that a newly built community will attract a lot of attention and be sustainable long-term, careful planning and persistence help small communities to flourish and make a strong impact. In summary, we believe the best practices to build a community include finding the strong purpose of the community and the infrastructure that can support its growth, attract, engage and empower the community’s members. Many of these practices can be achieved through a wide variety of online tools that can aid in building and sustaining the community.


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