How To Get Started Thinking About Online Peer Learning Communities for Nonprofit Professionals | Beth's Blog

How To Get Started Thinking About Online Peer Learning Communities for Nonprofit Professionals

Instructional Design

Note from Beth: This one of my favorite photos of a workshop I designed and facilitated at SXSW called “Peer Learning Session for Nonprofit Social Media Managers.”    The idea was to get folks who do social media for nonprofits sharing best practices about social media adoption and culture change by balancing brief content delivery with lots of interaction.   This was a face-to-face session, but the learning was extended online afterwards, albeit briefly,  in an organic way on twitter using a hashtag “npsmpeer.”

I’ve been interested in this sort of “self-ignited” peer learning or what has been called “Peeragogy” and that I experienced briefly last year as part of creating a handbook on the topic facilitated by Howard Rheingold and in many private and public Facebook or LinkedIn Groups where nonprofit professionals share best practices.

But both of the peer learning designs are for nonprofit practitioners who have fully embraced online networks and comfortable using them technology .  What if you want to look at ways to create an online professional learning community that was sustainable over time  to spread best practices in a nonprofit area?  That was a question that Mario Morino and Cheryl Collins asked in an email thread to a couple of folks with lots of great ideas and experience facilitating online communities.   That email exchange morphed into this guest post.

Is your nonprofit facilitating online professional learning?  What have you learned?  Please share in the comments.

Overview: Online Community Systems, Cultivators and Resources – Guest Post by Mario Morino and Cheryl Collins

The Leap of Reason team is exploring cultivating an online community to advanceawareness and increase expectations for continuous improvement and high performance for nonprofits as a pathway to increase social benefit and impact. To learn more about developing online communities the Leap team reached out to a select group of individuals who have extensive experience and expertise in online communities to ask 1) what community management services we should consider and 2) what sources/venues we should consider in cultivating/managing communities.   We hope the summary of what these individuals shared, while is not exhaustive, will be of value to others working with (or considering the establishment of) online communities.

Community Management Services and Platforms

There is a wide range of services/venues upon which online communities can be built, including more generic ones such as Facebook, LinkedIn, email distribution groups, and others.  The following ones were suggested as more specifically focused for online communities.

  • Ning – Popular with nonprofits, reasonably priced, may require some customization
  • BuddyPress – Works with WordPress but requires customization for some online groups
  • Google+ Groups – Easy to use, most individuals have a Gmail address (or can get one easily), but limited feature set and potential for making some private conversations public
  • – Robust feature set, interface is easy for participants, ability to delegate responsibility to manage different sections, capacity to support collective resource center. Pricing may be barrier for some groups (Setup Charge + $595 monthly fee)

Community Cultivator Recruitment

Respondents unanimously agreed that the community manager, community cultivator (whatever the title) is the MOST important component of a successful online community.  One suggestion was to look within an existing community to see if there is a leader with the passion and experience to facilitate because it helps with trust, perceived value, and overall traction. Another person said, “It’s ideal to have a team rather than a single person. Besides the obvious advantage of being able to collaborate, it avoids creating a hub/spoke dynamic in the community where folks hang back ‘waiting’ for the central person to do something.” The concept of having a peer from the community is called a “technology steward” in the book Digital Habitats, co-authored by Nancy White, John Smith, and Etienne Wenger.

One of the respondents suggested that “the best way to get talent in this space is to identify someone who already has skill, someone who is a natural at working this way online and does it because they love it, in their personal time, if not their professional time. It could be an ‘unknown’ to your community, in fact that might give your host a more neutral starting place.

“One way to go about finding the talent you seek is to go lurk online in spaces and conversations, particularly those about social change issues – of any ilk – and pull them in.  Who’s running the parenting/running/makers community/community org, young donors, etc. e-newsletter, Facebook group, most active Twitter persona, podcast weekly discussion channel, YouTube show (has to be one that engages and interviews people, not showcases the host)? Go get that person.  Find someone who demonstrates the fluency, skill, passion, connecting instinct you want in a host and bring them in to your world! Perhaps many of these people are somewhat introverted IRL (in real life) so experiencing their tone and skill online is critical.”


This is a partial list of advisors and consultants who work with organizations interested in developing online communities:

Online Community Examples

There are literally thousands of online communities, focused on a span of topics such as parenting, medical issues, education, nonprofit management, technology applications, and platforms. We’re always looking for additional examples.

Additional Resources

A brief list of some highly recommended books, articles, and website.


Like so many other examples, technology is not the most important part of a successful online community.  Yes, it’s important to find a system/platform that meets the criteria and is appropriate for the group’s technology skill level, but it’s the human element that makes the difference.

We’d welcome inputs and suggestions to improve on what we’ve shared.

Our thanks to Mitch Arnowitz, Don Britton, Beth Kanter, Lisa Kimball, Estee Solomon Gray, and Victoria Vrana for their assistance in compiling this post.

Mario Morino is the author of the primary essay and Cheryl Collins is the co-editor of Leap of Reason. Contact or follow the Leap team on Twitter.


11 Responses

  1. […] Note from Beth: This one of my favorite photos of a workshop I designed and facilitated at SXSW called "Peer Learning Session for Nonprofit Social Media Managers." The idea was to get folks who do social media for nonprofits sharing best practices…  […]

  2. Carrie says:

    I would love to hear other people’s examples of successful peer learning communities that are not focused around technology. The list above is way too short. I personally do not find much value in the linked in groups, but perhaps I am missing something. We are very interested in being able to start a successful online peer learning community to augment the peer learning communities we establish in person.

  3. Hi, my organization, RAVSAK, which is a membership hub for 130 Jewish schools has been experimenting this year with exactly this – building peer-learning communities among the administrators and educators in our network. Many of our members value privacy and safe spaces, are not active in facebook or other public social media platforms and are very busy people who don’t have time for lots of messages. We’ve been using google groups, I think fairly successfully. A colleague and I just wrote up our work in progress here. We’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions for culture shift and whether there are easy to access platforms that allow for ongoing privacy and conversation but with not too many hoops to jump through to access.

  4. […] Note from Beth: This one of my favorite photos of a workshop I designed and facilitated at SXSW called Peer Learning Session for Nonprofit Social Media.  […]

  5. […] to a recent post from Beth Kanter’s Blog, these professionals have a lot to learn from each other. At this year’s SXSW Conference, Beth […]

  6. Beth says:

    Carrie: I guess my lens or bias is technology-focused communities.

    Have you seen this peer learning group – it is using Ning. It is for evaluation

  7. David Wilcox says:

    I did some work on communities of practice for rural networking in the UK recently, looking at business models and practices
    It highlighted the difficulty of maintaining standalone platforms and, of course, the importance of facilitation.
    You might be interested in the work of Steve Dale, who designed local government CoPs, and is now focusing on the the idea of personal learning networks and social ecologies.
    No easy answers, it seems. My hunch is that we all have to get smarter at becoming personal knowledge hubs/learning networkers, across different platforms, and we need to cherish those prepared to do the connecting and curating. I’m calling that socialreporting. Still haven’t figured the business model 🙂
    For what it is worth, I find Ning difficult to sustain, Linkedin rather unsatisfying, Google + groups promising if you can get people there. It’s interesting that online community managers still use a Yahoo email list.

  8. Great list and conversation Beth, thanks for including me!

  9. Glenn says:

    I too am interested in “peerology.” I highly recommend the book, “The Wisdom Network.” It discusses an 8-step process.

    Also, I work for a nonprofit with staff spread all over the country (and Guam). We use Yammer as a social network and have groups for various topics. This works very well as a communication device. Of course, like anything, the Bell Curve rules, so we have some who are more enthusiastic about it than others.

  10. Beth says:

    Glenn: Thank you so much for sharing the “Wisdom Network.” Another book I discovered recently is “Your Network is Networth” by Porter Gale.