10 Tips for Creating Successful and Sustainable Online Communities

August 7, 2013

NingI have set up a number of online communities throughout my career. Here are my top 10 lessons learned over the years:

  1. An initial time investment of 25 hours to get your online community set up is not unreasonable. It’s easy and fast to sign up, but there’s more to it than setting up an account and a profile. In the beginning, you need to build a foundation for ongoing and sustainable social interaction between your members. You need to create a community that provides value, resources and a sense that time there will be well spent.
  2. You also need to collect and add some quality content to populate the site from the very beginning. Do not wait until you have a critical mass of members, assuming that high quality content will simply appear. Set the example for what type of content you expect by populating the site with some initial contributions yourself.
  3. Most popular content includes “how to” information, tips, lesson plans and very practical hands-on type information. Avoid lengthy diatribes, theory or “heavy” philosophical material. Multi-media content is also popular.
  4. It’ll work best if you “seed” the community with at least half a dozen (or more, if you can get them) key individuals who are well-known in the social group. These “founding members” should be hand-picked by the administrator. They are folks who will be seen as trusted authorities or influencers. Get at least half a dozen founding members fully signed up (including their profiles and photos) before sending out a mass public invite. You may have to follow up with them once or twice to nudge them, but it’s worth it. Seeding your site with a few key influencers can help build the online community quickly and effectively.
  5. People will have a look to see who else is part of the online community before they sign up themselves. If they see people they know, trust and like on the list of virtual community members, they are more likely to sign up themselves.
  6. Ask each of your “founding members” to contribute one piece of content — an article, a blog post or something that will bring value to the community. Part of the success of your Ning will depend on having quality contributions from a variety of members.
  7. Plan on updating your online community at least once a week. One of the biggest downfalls of online communities is that they stagnate because no one contributes.
  8. Approve new members. Human spammers or spam bots may try to sign up for your online community. Some services that offer online communities give you the option to require that new members be approved. If your service offers that option, I recommend accepting it. It’s a little more work upfront, but it keeps the quality of your online community high… which will keep your members happy.
  9. If you do get spammers in the community, eject them immediately. No apologies and no questions asked. If necessary, you may need to apologize to community members for spammer activity and let them know that you have taken steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
  10. Invite contributions from members on an ongoing basis. Send out periodic and personalized e-mails to members letting them know that you have showcased their work or you’d like to invite them to contribute. Avoid sending form letters or messages that are not personalized. Sending occasional personal e-mail communications will be more effective than mass mailouts or “blasts”. By the way, this goes beyond a form letter that simply has the person’s first name in the salutation. That no longer counts as genuinely personalized communication. Add a comment about the person as human being. Ask about their spouse, kids, pets or latest project or vacation, using specific details that lets the sender know it is not really just another form letter.

Over the past few years, I have noticed a curious trend. Five years ago, fewer people knew what online communities were all about. Those who knew signed up without much resistance and contributed generously. Now, more people know what online communities are and understand how to participate in one, but at the same time, people are getting pickier about what they sign up for. Even though more people have higher technology literacy levels when it comes to understanding both the concept and the “nuts and bolts” of online communities, that does not necessarily correlate to a willingness to sign up for one.

The trick to creating a sustainable and successful online community is continually providing value to members, without overwhelming them. You must respect their time, their privacy and their willingness to engage. Time and energy are valuable personal resources. If you want someone to spend time and energy in your online community, make it worthwhile for them.

An online community is not a sales platform and nor is it a space for one person to broadcast their ideas or opinions. A community — whether it is online or in real life — must be interactive, engaging and supportive for everyone.

Ning is my favorite online platform for online communities, especially for education and non-profit. There is a cost, but it is minimal. The Ning name is also trusted and well-known. I don’t think you need to budget tens of thousands of dollars to have a custom-built platform.

(Note: I have no affiliation to Ning and receives no financial or other benefits from promoting them. I just think they are a good service that’s worth recommending.)


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

How Community Conversations Create Powerful Possibilities

February 23, 2013

The other night we held a “community conversation” as part of our “Creating Space for Strength” project. Together with my two colleagues, Lee Tunstall and Vilma Dawson, the three of us were thrilled to facilitate the evening for this amazing group of Calgarians.

Representatives from Calgary’s North Central Communities

Over 40 people attended the event, including local elected representatives, Hon. Teresa Woo-Paw, MLA for Calgary Northern Hills and Calgary Alderman, Jim Stevenson.

Creating Space for Strength - Panorama shot

Citizens from a number of Calgary communities attended:

  • Harvest Hills
  • Panorama Hills
  • Coventry Hills
  • Country Hills
  • Hidden Valley
  • MacEwan Glen
  • Sandstone Valley

World Café format

We used a “world café” style of conversation. We started off by explaining that the purpose of the meeting was to find out what mattered to community residents. Then, to take the first steps towards envisioning what the community could look like in the not-too-distant future.

People worked in groups of 5 or 6 at small tables, using key questions to guide their conversations. We asked them to jot down their key ideas and points on sticky notes. Later, volunteers collected the sticky notes from all the tables and grouped them into common themes.

We asked four key questions, framed in asset-based community development (ABCD) way:

  • What is good and strong about our community?
  • What could be better?
  • What would you like to see the community achieve in the next 5 years?
  • How do we get there?

Creating space for Strength - community conversation 1


Even though a team of 3 of us consultants facilitated the evening, the whole event was planned, organized and promoted mostly by Northern Hills Community Association.

This picture shows two volunteers from the community association grouping the sticky notes from each question into themes.Creating Space for Strength (Moraig and Paul)

The community association booked the space for the event (a meeting room in a local grocery store) and arranged for food and beverages. They ordered wraps, veggie and fruit trays, cheese and crackers and sweets.

They kept in mind that the population living in their communities is culturally diverse, so they were careful to pay attention to dietary restrictions such as having beef and pork products separated from other foods, and offering completely vegetarian options. The provided a variety of water, juice and soft drinks, too. There is something that brings people together over food and so this was an important element of our evening.

The community association also took the responsibility of buying all the supplies for the evening, including hundreds of sticky notes and enough markers so that everyone could have one to use.


We have yet to formally analyze the data from the event, but informally I can say that by the end of the meeting, the room was buzzing with energy. Residents stayed for a long while after the event wrapped up. They wanted to talk more about their community and how to improve it.

A number of attendees took the initiative to exchange contact information and ask how they could get involved.

Overall, it was a great night that ended on an energetic and inspired note.

As always, we want to acknowledge the organizations that are making this work possible:

Project Origins – Northern Hills Constituency

Project Funders – Government of Alberta (CFEP Grant); United Way of Calgary and Area; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association

Project Supporters – Northern Hills Constituency; City of Calgary; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association; United Way of Calgary and Area


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Community Conversation – Creating Space for Strength in Calgary’s North Central Communities

February 21, 2013

Creating space for strength in Calgary - Eaton International Consulting Inc.Tonight we are gearing up for a big event for our community development project. Here are the details:

Community Consultation – Creating Space for Strength: An Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and Research Project for Calgary’s North Central Communities

The purpose of this community assessment is to find out what our communities’ strengths and assets are, what can be improved, and how. Identifying current resources, as well as needs, is a key step toward maximizing the potential for building an effective, locally relevant, and evidence-based community action plan.

We are interested in hearing your voice. We want to know what you think is working well in your community, what can be strengthened and how we can achieve the goals we set as a community.

This is an open, public consultation. Everyone is welcome. We’ll e using a “world cafe” format for the conversations.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the organizations who made this project possible:

Project Origins – Northern Hills Constituency

Project Funders – Government of Alberta (CFEP Grant); United Way of Calgary and Area; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association

Project Supporters – Northern Hills Constituency; City of Calgary; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association; United Way of Calgary and Area

Here’s a link to our Eventbrite site: http://creatingspacecommunityconsultation.eventbrite.com


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

How checking things off your “to do” list is different than solving problems

December 7, 2012

I am in the middle of a small war with the management company of our condo complex. As the board president, I constantly liaise with our property manager about problems that need to be solved on the property. A recent issue is an excellent example of the difference between management and leadership.

There are 110 town homes in our condo complex that are approaching 40 years old. Structural wear and tear is starting to be a problem. This year, one unit had a major ant infestation. We got an exterminator to deal with the problem immediately. He said that the ants were entering through small holes under the kitchen window and in addition to his extermination services, he recommended that we fix the exterior by plugging up the holes that the ants use as entry points to the house.

Since the beginning of August I have been sending in requests to get the holes around the exterior of the windows fixed. I am not an expert in windows or building envelopes or exterior structures, but it was pretty clear where the holes were. I sent in a request to have the caulking around the outside of the window

The property manager has a construction company that they send out on a regular basis to do jobs on the property. I have met them and they are actually great guys. They know what they are doing. They arrive on time, they do a good job, they clean up after themselves, and they are pleasant to all the residents who live here. It doesn’t really get much better than that.

But this ant issue has recently turned into an all out war.

Last month I said, “I have been asking for this to be done for 3 months. Please have the work done.”

His reply, “I have talked to the contractor. He says the work has been done.”

Yesterday I looked at the unit. The entry points for the ants are still visible.

I wrote again, saying “Four months have now passed since I sent in this work request. This work has not yet been completed. Please have the work done.”

The reply came back, “The contractor assures me that he has caulked around the window. Can I give the contractor your phone number and you can deal with him directly?”

I went outside and looked. Indeed, the area around the metal frame had been caulked, but the entry points for the ants were still wide open. I took some pictures. I highlighted the areas where ants were entering:

Ant photos.001

Here is the second photo:

Ant photos.002

I sent the photos together with this letter:

Dear John:

I’ve been thinking about this. If you say to a guy, “Go caulk around the window.” He’s going to come over and caulk around the window. The job is done because the job was “to caulk around the window”.

 If you say to the guy, “This place has an ant problem. The kitchen wall is covered with thousands of ants. The exterminator says they are coming in from outside, specifically from around the kitchen window. Go over there and have a look at the outside of the kitchen window. Figure out every possible entry point for the ants to get in around that window. Plug each and every last one of those holes up, so the little buggers can’t get in.”

The job is done when the window is turned into an ant version of Fort Knox. No one — not one little ant — gets in.

That is an entirely different job than, “Go caulk around this window.”

The job we need to have done is the second one — plug up every possible entry point for ants from around that kitchen window.

If you need to give the contractor my number to explain that, then go ahead, but I’m pretty sure you get the idea about what we are after here, which is a solution to the problem of blocking how the ants get into the unit.

Every time you send a guy — or a couple of guys — to our property to do a job, they are not just checking off items from a “to do” list. They are solving problems for the people who live here. In doing that, they are making their life better.

I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but every time one of your guys comes to our property to fix a problem for a resident, they get a chance to be somebody’s hero. They do that by solving a problem that the owner can not solve by themselves, because they either do not know how or they do not have the skills, expertise, materials, or maybe just the time. That’s one reason people live in condos.

I guarantee you that the single lady who lives in that unit does not have the skills or materials to fix this problem herself — or she would have already.

Your guys have all that — skills, talent, expertise and materials. We rely on you to hire smart guys and you do that. We see it time and time again. They’re smart, they’re capable and they can solve problems. In a small way, they can be somebody’s hero.

So tell your guy that this is his chance to be a hero for Marilyn, the lady who lives there.



When it comes to leadership, it is important to give people all the information they need to solve a problem. If you hire smart people, then do not simply give them items to check off their “to do” list. Engage people’s skills, expertise and problem-solving abilities to make them part of the solution. In doing so, you are likely to make their work more meaningful… and both they — and their work — will have a greater impact on those they are helping.

I believe deeply in people’s capacity to solve problems, help others and do meaningful work.

Checking items off a “to do” list does very little to connect the work to the people who may benefit from it. Besides, work that only involves checking items off a “to do” list often lacks meaning, especially when that list is assigned to you by someone else.

Engaging smart people to develop sustainable solutions helps everyone over the long term.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

We have power

November 1, 2012

Sarah Eaton, blog, leadershipI don’t normally share things I find on Facebook on my blog, but this one touched me in a deep way. This photo was posted today. with the caption “Recently seen in Hoboken, New Jersey.”  That area is among those devastated by “Frankenstorm”. If you can’t read the sign attached to the fence in the photo, it says, “We have power. Feel free to charge your phone.”

You can see the power bar and extension cord coming from the residence. You can also see people gathered around, with mobile phones plugged into the power bar, so they can charge their devices. Once charged, the phones can be used to communicate family and loved ones who are far away, or even those who are close by.

This is an excellent example of people in communities coming together to help one another. It is a simple, small gesture of generosity can can ripple across continents, as loved ones far away can receive a message that says, “We are safe.”

The line on the sign “We have power” means so much more than “We have electricity”.

When we help others, we always have power.


Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Doing work that matters: Letting values drive how you earn your living… and love your life.

September 27, 2012

Sarah Elaine Eaton leadership speakerAbout a year and a half ago I made a decision that changed my life, both professionally and personally. I made a decision to “do work that matters”; and more specifically, to ONLY “do work that matters”. That is a pretty fuzzy concept and people close to me did not hesitate to let me know.

A good friend with a shrewd business sense who has a high-level position in corporate Calgary put the screws to me by saying, “That’s all well and good, but how do you plan to get ‘work that matters’? Shouldn’t you really define what that means before you decide that you are going to do that and only that? Besides, you are an entrepreneur. Sometimes you have to do work that pays the bills.”

I knew that for too long, I had done work that pays the bills.  Modesty aside, I have a fair number of employable skills, including office skills, technical skills and writing and editing skills. I have also spent almost two decades teaching and facilitating. Then there is the research work… But something shifted. I felt compelled to stop focussing on the skills I have, and start focussing on the values I hold.

I also knew she was right about defining what “work that matters” means. So I asked myself, “What matters?” Here is my answer:

  • Doing work that relates specifically to education, leadership, community and literacy.
  • Working with others to create transformative change for the better.
  • Building capacity in others, helping them grow and realize their potential.
  • Using a strength-based, asset-based approach in all my work.
  • Working with like-minded, highly capable people who share similar values.

The last one turned out to be the most important. Not long after I declared that doing strength-based work matters deeply to me, I was asked to do a project focussed on a Needs Assessment. That is really a fancy term for, “Help us figure out what we need.” The idea is that after the needs have been identified, that you can go about meeting the needs.

A strength-based approach says, “Let’s start by assessing what we already have. Let’s start with the question, what is working well?”

This kind of thinking turns everything on its head. When you insist on examining what is already working well and conducting an inventory all your assets, the result is strangely powerful. The conversation shifts away from what is lacking, what is wrong, what problems there are to be fixed and how terrible things are, to a conversation deeply rooted in strength, resilience and hope.

I started having conversations with friends and colleagues about using strength-based approaches at work, at home and in just about any situation. At first, the conversations were difficult and awkward. I felt like people thought I was naive and out of touch with the real work. I kept reading and educating myself on the notion of asset-based approaches to work, community, leadership and education.

I started partnering with others who were interested in doing similar kinds of work. We began looking at Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for projects that we thought were a precise fit with both our technical skills and our values, in terms of using a strength-based approach to our work.

I can’t give exact details yet because we have not signed the contract yet, but I got word this week that I will get to lead a team of consultants on a major project that fits with all the values that I outlined just over a year ago. The work is amazing. The people we will get to work with are visionaries. The possibility for change is high.

We have all the technical skills we need to do the job. That was not enough though. What ultimately landed us the contract was our clear emphasis on our values. We put a stake in the ground and said, “This is who we are and what we stand for!” Every single one of the values I outlined above come into play for this project.

I think I have finally figured out that a combination of excellent technical skills, solid experience and unapologetic declaration of values is really what allows a person to love the work they do… and do work that matters.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

10 Characteristics of Community Leaders

August 21, 2012

Traits of a good leader are common across disciplines, professions and geographical regions. Community leadership is unique in its approach and goals. Community leadership is not about managing or even coordinating. And it is certainly not about dictating or imposing your own ideas onto others.

In addition to traits of superior leadership in any discipline, such as integrity and responsibility, here are ten characteristics that are particular to excellent community leaders:

1. Maximize Individuals’ Strengths

Community leaders often work with volunteers. They may be elected by members of the community,  assigned to work with a group, or they simply step forward and want to help. In any case, community leaders rarely have the luxury of choosing who they work with.

Your job involves being able to identify the strengths and interests of each person on your leadership team and maximize those talents and skills in a way that keeps your team engaged in the work. Your fellow leaders need to feel that they are making a meaningful contribution to the group, the community and the work.

2. Balance the Needs of Your Leadership Group

Some individuals may have a strong need for control. Others may have a deep need to be appreciated for their time and service. As a community leader, your job is to balance everyone’s needs, as well as keep your sights focussed on the work that needs to be done for the group to move forward.

3. Work as a Team

Let’s face it, community leadership is slow work. It is much less efficient than, say, military leadership, where underlings simply obey the orders of their superior officers. Community leadership means that one person does not do it all.

It can be useful to teach your leadership team the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. An efficient leader will take a task away from someone who is not completing their work in a timely manner. An effective leader will ensure that the person gets the support they need to complete the task. Effectiveness often takes more time than efficiency. Community leadership is about building relationships and working together. Being patient with one another and supporting one another process builds capacity and relationships. But be forewarned, this takes much more time than simply being efficient.

4. Mobilize Others

Even a leadership team can not do it all. You will likely have to work with staff and volunteers to undertake big projects. Community leadership is part education, part inspiration, part motivation and part mobilization.

Mobilizing others is not about telling them what to do, barking orders at them or dictating  how things need to get done. It is about finding a balance between what needs to be done, who can do it, who is willing and has time to do it, assigning the work and then showing appreciation for others’ efforts. Learning to have some fun while you work together is an important aspect of mobilizing and motivating others.

5. Pitch In

There is a myth that leaders lead, and do-ers do. But in a community, leading by example is often the most effective way to get full buy-in for projects. Don’t schedule a community clean-up unless you are willing to get out there with a garbage bag yourself.

Community leaders are rarely have the luxury of focussing only on policy and governance. This kind of work involves arriving early, staying late, cleaning up, and generally rolling up your sleeves to pitch in.

6. Practice Stewardship

This is about getting people to take responsibility for their physical space and surroundings. This includes natural areas, structures and spaces. Stewardship means working together to protect, preserve and take care of your community. This involves renewing, repairing, rebuilding and constantly reviewing your physical community to ensure that it is healthy, strong and well-maintained.

7. Be Accountable to the Community

Above all else community leadership is about the people who live with you and near you. The people who form the community are the beneficiaries, but also those who whom you, as a leadership are accountable.

Community leadership is not just about policies, processes or procedures. More than anything, it is about people.

Often when I guide community leaders in my work, I will ask “What do you think will happen at the next Annual General Meeting if this does — or does not — move forward?” This keeps the leadership team focussed on why they are doing what they do, and why they are really making decisions.

8. Think forward

There is a saying in some Aboriginal communities about thinking five generations ahead. Being a community leader means not only thinking for today, or even tomorrow, but being able to make wise decisions that will still benefit the residents long after the current leadership team is gone.

9. Recruit and Mentor New Leaders

Speaking of the current leadership team being gone, community leaders often get so caught up in all the work that needs to be done today, that they forget to think about tomorrow. Planning for the future is an important aspect of community leadership. Having a healthy base of volunteers and having individuals ready to take on new positions are indicators of a healthy community.

Community leadership work means building a succession plan to keep the community strong as you move forward into the future.

10. Walk Beside, Don’t Lead From Above

In some models, leadership is a position in a hierarchy. Those at the top of the hierarchy have the power and make the decisions. Community leadership is about developing every persons capacity for leadership, starting with self-leadership and self-responsibility. Those who have positions of leadership must demonstrate principles and practices of good leadership by living the example. So, the community leader does not take the prime parking spot out of a sense of entitlement. There are no special privileges that put community leaders above others who live in the community. Every member of the community has responsibilities and rights. Community leaders walk beside others and listen to them.

A community leader’s job is not to take on all the problems of the world themselves and fix everything, but rather to work together with everyone in the community, to mobilize and guide others, to facilitate solutions and thing about the long-term health of the community and its people.


Update: April 17, 2017 – This is one of the more popular posts on my blog. As of this update, it has had more than $55,000 views. If you liked it, please share or Tweet it:

10 Characteristics of Community Leaders http://wp.me/pNAh3-1tI

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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