How to create an inclusive community by putting your members front-and-center

Everyone has experienced that moment. When we were kids, it was the feeling of cautiously sitting down at a lunch table on the first day of school. As adults, it may be the feeling of walking into a conference room full of people at a networking event. 

For some, these moments of meeting new people and building new connections make them come alive. But for others, these memories can remind us of times where we felt a little uncomfortable, uncertain, even unwelcome. 

Now, some of that may be our own personalities (self-proclaimed introvert right here!), but some of it may be that the environment and people in those moments weren’t exactly inviting. 

These moments of discomfort are what you want to avoid when building your community, and even though online communities seem like they put everyone on the same playing field, there are still ways you can ensure that everyone that logs in to your community feels welcome and included. 

Here are 5 ways you can make your online community a safe place for all who enter.

1. Create an expectation of inclusivity before members join your community

Set the expectations for what inclusive engagement will look like in your online community before members get there. 

A diversity and inclusion statement can seem daunting, but it’s important for your staff and your members to understand what inclusion means to your organization and how you expect staff and members to encourage and empower each other across your events, social media profiles, and online community. 

There are lots of good resources to use that will help you get started on writing and promoting your statement. Here are a few key takeaways to keep in mind: 

  • Make your statement clear and concise. You want to aim for around 75 words or less.
  • Tie your beliefs and expectations of inclusion with your larger mission.
  • Use specific examples of practices and groups that you implement to ensure people feel welcome (videos, community group invites, etc.).
  • Be authentic. There are best practices related to the right tone and length of your statement, but make sure it’s in a voice your members have come to know and respect from you.

Looking for a good example of a diversity and inclusion statement? Check out the United Way page.

2. Empower members to be themselves

Let’s be honest. Associations and nonprofits tend to attract like-minded people with a passion for a common cause. But that doesn’t mean that your population of members doesn’t also possess different interests, experiences, abilities, and preferences. 

A recent survey of community users reported that “participating in an online community/forums makes me feel like I can be myself”, and that’s a major reason they join. 

So help them put their best, truest selves forward on your online community by doing things like:

  • Encouraging all your members to complete their profiles and to submit a profile picture. Candid, fun photos go a long way in building trust and inclusivity.
  • Introducing new members in the Newsfeed either as they join the community or at the end of every week or month. Ask them to share a little about themselves in the comments.
  • Include instructions on how to start new discussion forums. If members feel like topics they’re interested in aren’t available, empower them to make the community their own by starting their own discussion forums, documents, etc. 

3. Engage with different members in different ways

Many people join online communities to build connections with other people, especially as we’re all working and living through the pandemic together. But online communities bring a lot of value to their members in addition to connection.

A lot of members join communities to learn the latest and most reliable information about their favorite topics. Some join communities to get exclusive or early access to events or deals. And some love being entertained by a good Newsfeed.  

Get to the heart of WHY different members join your community, then you can plan to build your community features, the type of media you use, and how you promote your online community based on the different types of members you see consistently engaging. 

4. Encourage deeper connections 

It’s a huge win if every member who joins your community feels welcome and safe. Honestly, that should be the number one goal. 

But don’t let those initial welcoming feelings fade away over time! Make sure that you plan to re-introduce your members and give them consistent opportunities to go from casual connection to genuine relationship. 

Some ways you can do this are to include a member spotlight on your community’s main page. This allows you to highlight some of the ways your members are unique. And make sure to end your member spotlight by including ways people can interact with them (certain discussion threads, at an upcoming event, etc.) 

You can also plan regular meetups virtually and in-person when the time is right. 

5. Listen & Learn

One of the best things any of us can do to ensure our online communities remain a safe space is to make a habit of listening to our members. 

A huge benefit of an online community is that association and nonprofit leaders have a real-time feedback tool. You can use your community to promote a quick survey gauging your members’ comfort level with in-person events and create an open discussion thread where people can offer consistent feedback to the organization. 

Having a place that amplifies your members’ voices means you can be responsive to what truly makes all your members feel heard and seen. 

Fostering an inclusive community starts with you

Creating an inclusive online community can’t be rushed or faked. Today’s members, and especially those who are regularly online, can sniff out whether a community is checking a “diversity and inclusion box” or if they genuinely want to get to know, celebrate, and welcome diverse members as part of their association or nonprofit. 

Make an effort to understand why your members joined your organization and how they enjoy interacting with your community, and you will get a community that’s active, diverse, and welcoming. We bet they’ll want to tell their friends all about it, too,

Want to know more about building an inclusive community? Join us for our webinar on Wednesday, October 13, at 12:30 ET as we walk through how to attract and retain the top five community member examples.

And if you have any other questions related to building an online community, reach out! We’d love to talk with you.