How to Design Community Leadership Programs

3 minute read

August 10, 2022

How to Design Community Leadership Programs


Leading a community single-handedly can be a recipe for burnout. While your leadership skills may be peerless, your community will likely demand much of your time, patience, and creativity to grow and maintain.

The good news is that you don’t have to build your community alone, even if you are a team of one. That’s because, with community leadership programs, you you don’t always have to hire someone new

By distributing leadership to your members, you can continue to grow your community’s active membership while keeping your most valuable members engaged.

Distributed leadership can take shape organically; but as community builders, we have the opportunity to purposefully craft programs that usher people along a leadership journey. These programs are called “community leadership programs,” which are simply any initiatives that recognize and invite your community’s top contributors into deeper engagement with your brand.

Below are some examples of community leadership programs.

  1. VIP programs, like the Microsoft MVP program 
  2. Advocacy programs, like the Acer ACEs program
  3. Community Advisory Boards
  4. Superuser programs, like Foursquare’s Superusers

When you’re ready to consider launching a community leadership program of your own, it’s important to understand all relevant components and make a plan—even if that plan changes over time.


The Five Critical Components of a Community Leadership Program

Let’s break the important components into the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Identifying the 5 Ws will help shape your leadership program, giving you clarity and a plan to share with others.


Answer these questions to articulate who you’re building for.

  • Who will you invite to deepen their participation in your community?
  • What will be the criteria for an invitation?

Make the answers to these questions transparent and publicly accessible to ensure equity. (Read more about the importance of clear criteria in last month’s blog post.)


Once you’ve identified which members you’ll invite into deeper engagement, it’s time to figure out what the program looks like. Keep the following questions in mind as you identify the What. 

  • What are you inviting them into?
  • What kind of progress do these leaders want to make?

To answer the first question, start by considering your organization’s overarching goals as they relate to this initiative. Perhaps you want to grow your business funnel, improve product, or encourage more contribution from members. Once you’ve identified those goals, you can choose types of programs to help you achieve them.


Business Goals Type of Leadership Program
Grow top of funnel VIP Programs
Grow top-middle of funnel Advocacy Programs
Improve product Community Advisory Boards
Encourage more contribution Superuser Programs


Use the second question to help articulate members’ shared progress, for example:

Become an expert and stay on the cutting edge.

Improve and extend the reach of your personal brand.


Reflect on these questions to help make decisions on the timing of your leadership program.

  • When is the right time to create a community leadership program?
  • When should we invite members, and how often?
  • When will we ask them to contribute, and how often?
  • When will members’ leadership status expire, if at all?

While there are no definitively correct answers, I’m happy to share some recommendations based on my community-building experience. I recommend waiting (at least) one year into your community’s launch to begin planning a leadership program. This timing will allow you to observe the top contributors in your community and deepen relationships with them before inviting them into a formal relationship. I also recommend putting term limits on initial programs to assure members that their position is a pilot and won’t go on indefinitely if it isn’t the right fit.


Where will they gather (to do “the what”)?

If you already have a community platform, I recommend keeping things centralized and running the program there. Otherwise, this can be a good time to experiment with some new platforms with a dedicated group of super-engaged members.


As you design your leadership program, the following questions are the two most important to answer. And the answers should align across your team.

  • Why is your organization making this investment?
  • Why would members want to be part of this?

Once you’ve identified the 5 Ws and answered the questions above, you’ll have all you need to outline the structure of your leadership program. Now it’s now time to get approval for the program and make it happen.

One last thing …

Before you leap forward, check with a lawyer about key legal issues that impact leadership programs. Some examples include:

  • Labor laws
  • Content ownership/intellectual property
  • Branding and trademark usage,
  • Any other issues specific to your program

This might seem like a nuisance, but a legal check protects you, your organization, and your community members, which will give you peace of mind as your community scales its way to success.

Want to learn more about Community Leadership Programs? Watch our exclusive webinar with Carrie Melissa Jones here, on demand!

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Written by Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones is a community leader, entrepreneur, and community management consultant who has been involved with online community leadership since the early 2000s. As the founder of Gather Community Consulting, she consults with brands to build and optimize communities around the world.

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