You may be the main leader of your community, but it’s never smart to be the only leader. To be sustainable, growing communities need to empower many leaders in many roles. You cannot build a community alone.
My work with political organizations and nonprofits especially has taught me how the most effective online communities identify, onboard, and train new leaders. It is simpler than it seems. Bringing on new leaders in your online community is really just a three-phase process that can be repeated as you need more leaders.
This framework makes the process of adding new leaders to your community simple; what is more complex is maintaining the relationships between yourself and your leaders. Focus your energy and attention on strengthening those relationships instead of just guessing what you should be doing all by yourself. You’ll achieve a better result for yourself, your members, and your community overall.
The first step to creating a community leadership program is to identify potential leaders. You can do this one of two ways:
Create an application form where people can apply.
Pick out leaders based on predetermined criteria.
If you plan to start a leadership program from scratch, you need to ask which of these two options will work best for your community. First, determine what your leaders will do for your community and their responsibilities, then choose the criteria for selection into the program.
The first option provides more transparency to your members. There are many advantages to being transparent and giving members an equal chance to step up and nominate themselves or others.
However, there are times when you want to choose leaders based on their past contributions and not on their ability to fill out an application with pizzazz (you may also want to skip the process of reading thousands of applications if your community is particularly large).
The second option often works in communities that have been in existence for at least several months and have reached a point where a handful of members contribute noticeably more than others. In this case, it is important to determine what responsibilities your leaders will have and then map selection criteria to those responsibilities.
For instance, do you need help with moderation? Your criteria should include community members who have shown an active interest in keeping the space safe for other members by flagging posts, jumping in to calm conflicts, and responding with clarity and kindness.
You can select these leaders in one of two cadences:
Keep the leadership program applications or selection ongoing (great for filling your pipeline of future leaders, but this also can be annoying for those who are left in a holding pattern and may feel uncertain about when they will be onboarded - or they are onboarded without a strong cohort)
Create cycles of new members (great for building camaraderie among cohorts, but can be hit-or-miss in terms of the strength of each cohort)
You can either interview potential leaders or let them know that they are pre-vetted and that this is a big honor. It matters that this communication comes directly from you, the leader of the community and a line of direct communication back to the central organization.
2. Welcome and Enfold
Once you have selected leaders, you must welcome them. If they are entering an existing program, you must also enfold them into this leadership program and introduce them to current leaders.
My past clients have either done this in person or online through group video calls. Create an agenda for your welcome event, but leave lots of space for people to talk amongst themselves, ask questions, share their concerns and specialties, and get to know one another. One of the best outcomes of a welcome event like this is if people arrange one-on-one chats amongst themselves after - hopefully not to talk about you behind your back, but rather to support one another informally. The welcome event’s main priority should be to bond members and give them just a bit of lite training. Don’t overwhelm them!
If you are enfolding new leaders into an existing program, also consider buddy programs, doing a welcome event where old and new members come together and introduce each other and their roles in the community.
Make this fun! Don’t just run down a checklist of items that need to be discussed. You’ll put everyone to sleep.
3. Recognize and Reward
As leaders onboard onto the new program, you will naturally see some take more action and exhibit more commitment than others. It’s important not to put these leaders in competition with one another, but rather to view the leadership program as an ecosystem that has strengths and weaknesses - where one leader might be great at local outreach, another might be a whiz at training new leaders online.
Make sure to recognize the unique gifts of each contributing leader. Use them as examples and let them explain to others and train others and identify others who they think might also be able to follow in their footsteps.
Reward these leaders not through some kind of transactional value (like merchandise/swag or coupons or gift cards) but rather through personal actions that have symbolic value. Thank these leaders with handwritten cards or simple emails, if that’s what you have time for.
Leadership programs have natural up and down cycles. You’ll notice that some members simply cannot take on the commitment that they assumed they could. It’s smart to keep a pipeline of other potential leaders at the ready, so you can usher them in when the need arises.
Keep nurturing these leaders over time, allowing for natural turnover. This is the only way to create a program that scales.