Why the world needs more online charity community forums

This week’s blog is by Rebecca Fitzgerald, founder of StrawberrySocial Ltd – a social media management agency.  Rebecca has a background in digital and project management for corporations and charities.

This week’s blog is by Rebecca Fitzgerald, founder of StrawberrySocial Ltd – a social media management agency.  Rebecca has a background in digital and project management for corporations and charities.

 

There was a time when having a forum was a brand’s main option if it wanted to have an online presence. In those BFB (before Facebook) days when Bebo and MySpace reigned supreme, company-hosted forums were a way for brands (such as Nokia or the BBC) to engage with their consumers. A decade later, times have changed.

With the advent of channels such as Facebook and Twitter brands can now be at the heart of where their audience lives. Forums have become the preserve of membership organisations, sports clubs, gamers, tech providers and… charities.

The reasoning for much of this is clear – highly defined audiences with specific interests wanting to chat in a less ‘transient’ way. They want to seek help or advice, have access to historical solutions - actually belong to a community. Many forums have that added security of being ‘closed’, i.e. the user has to provide their details to gain entry. This is ideal for users who need a charity’s help – providing a supportive and relatively private safe haven.

So why aren’t there more of these online charity forums?

 

The practicalities

Starting a user-friendly forum can be a costly business. Note I say ‘user-friendly’ – there are many ‘quick and dirty’ forums set up on impractical structures. They might be sufficient for some sectors but would not provide the ease of use and welcoming nature that a charity forum would need in order to please its audience.

So welcome in the tech build company. This is where it can all be absolutely fabulous or all go horribly wrong. I have worked with both commercial and non-profit organisations and have liaised with many tech companies on behalf of my clients. These companies ranged from understanding and helpful, to obtuse and money-grabbing. These were the kind of people who would take an organisation’s hard raised funds and squander them on impractical builds. It was heart-breaking.

However, this is far from common nowadays. Online knowhow is widely shared and readymade tools are in abundance - organisations are no longer held to ransom. There are now more enlightened tech providers and more affordable options.

A super example of this is the Friends in Need forum, run by Depression Alliance.

 

A success story

Depression Alliance (DA) has been around for almost 40 years and is the leading UK charity for people affected by depression. In November 2013 it launched a project called Friends in Need. It’s aim? To help people maintain recovery from depression. The project provided an online forum but also a way for users to establish support groups in the ‘real’ world.

An agency called Ideas Made Digital built the forum and redesigned their website. The work was carried out in an affordable and fully collaborative way. They constructed a user-friendly forum with a CMS that the DA team could easily use to monitor the threads and help keep the community safe.

The forum contains many topics - from carers asking for help to threads about particular medications and side effects. The DA team take a light touch with the moderation, getting to know the ‘regulars’ and being aware that medication can provoke out-of-character actions. They did a risk assessment and put in place an escalation process for when users need help. On the whole, the community looks after itself and DA very rarely has to intervene. When they do, it is to direct users to 24 hour hotlines run by The Samaritans and SANE.

The forum now boasts almost 20,000 users. It is a shining example of how a charity (and not a huge one at that) can provide a tangible, practical and lasting difference to their community.

Says one user, “Friends in Need is a place you can be yourself without fear you’re being judged or told how you should act when you’re feeling depressed"

 

Here’s three top tips from the DA digital team (Erin Hedger and Seema  Inamdar):

  1. Listen to your community and develop easy ways to maintain a conversation with them. Your community should grow and develop at their own pace and organically, don’t try to artificially expand it. 
  2. Your community should always be steering and in control of the direction of the forum, the organisation’s role is to provide a framework for them to do so.
  3. Allow your community to feel empowered, not stifled by over moderating. Have staff/volunteers on the site to welcome, help and nudge but never interrupt or take control of a conversation.

 

Has your charity thought of setting up a forum? If not, why not? 

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