Creating Virtual Community: The Do’s and Don’ts

In the pivot to a mostly-digital world of events and programs, many virtual convenings have become information dumps: platforms to hear from professionals and consultants, news and government updates, or tips to maintain events and fundraising. Somewhere between March and our 100th Zoom call, we’ve lost the personal touch. So how do we regain the feeling of being together in a room while looking at each other through a screen?

At Forefront, we’re still trying to figure out the best way to balance the importance of sharing information with our need to come together at the virtual water cooler. As a convener for nonprofit and philanthropic professionals across Illinois, this balancing act happens in our external events and our internal processes. Here are a few important things we’ve learned through trying to replicate camaraderie in the virtual setting.

Don’t: Overload Your Team

When workplaces first shifted to a virtual model, it was tempting to try to keep up similar levels of personal interaction within our organization. Staff meetings, check-ins, Zoom happy hours, and other virtual appointments proliferated. Zoom fatigue, however, is real: it’s been shown that virtual meetings are more stressful and burn people out more quickly than face-to-face time.

Here at Forefront, we have chosen to space out what were once weekly all-staff meetings, as well as weekly informal happy hours. Many communications can be accomplished through email, chat software, or text instead of a constant stream of video calls. Don’t be afraid to be flexible with when or how you stay in touch. 

Do: Build Intentional Space for Human Connection

Likewise, don’t forget to intentionally create time for human connection with your peers and your clients. One weekly small team huddle where the standing agenda item is “How are you as humans?” does more for boosting morale than any number of large group ice breakers. In the Forefront Library, we have worked on scheduling individual orientation sessions to allow for immediate questions and avoid long email threads. This allows us to make sure our Members know they are truly being seen and heard, not simply another faceless attendee of a virtual training. 

Do: Keep Adapting

When people are stressed from too many video meetings, it might seem prudent to back off entirely. However, this could further isolate some individuals and potentially silo others who weren’t affected by your current cadence. Things are changing quickly, and it is important to solicit feedback and continue to adapt your strategy for both internal and external community-building so you meet the moment and the needs of your participants.

For every external program Forefront creates right now, our team looks at what the purpose of the convening is and try to anticipate what will serve people best. Is the goal to get information out, or bring people together? Is the subject matter well-suited for large groups, or should we cap attendees at 20? If it’s part of a series, how often should it meet, and how often should we reassess the cadence?

Back in March, Forefront began hosting weekly Funders calls that reliably gathered at least 60 philanthropic professionals from across Illinois to discuss specific topics around philanthropy’s response to COVID-19. In addition to shedding light on relevant topics, the meetings served as a weekly temperature gauge for the sector, allowing professionals to hear what else is happening and position themselves in a statewide framework. At the beginning of the pandemic, foundations were rapidly recalibrating their strategies, and a weekly opportunity to connect with colleagues across the state was a valuable tool in their arsenal.

But as we reached June, and funding practices got into better alignment with the new landscape, foundations needed less frequent strategic guidance. We slowed the calls to every two weeks. Now Illinois funders can learn with (and from!) one another at a pace that suits their needs. In the coming months, we’ll evaluate the cadence again, and adjust based on group size and needs.

Don’t: Assume One Size Fits All

Forefront is a primary convener for the social impact sector in Illinois, and Forefront’s Annual Luncheon—usually taking place every June—is a once-a-year chance for the sector to come together in one room. This year, that was impossible. We pivoted instead to a virtual summit: a pre-recorded event of two panels and keynote speakers streamed from MyForefront.org. 

One of our biggest challenges was attempting to replicate the “gathering” of a large convening in a virtual setting. We tried to do this by routing viewers to social media using the hashtag #ForefrontSummit to facilitate conversation between viewers and speakers. What we found was that one size does not fit all: While some participants flocked to social media, most chose to watch the event without directly engaging. Our viewers needed more ways to instantaneously connect with the content, and with each other, than just logging onto Twitter.

Mixing in opportunities for small group or individual interaction with larger informational sessions lets your community engage in the ways that work best for them. One person may thrive in a large, 60-person Zoom meeting; another may not speak up unless there are only three others on a call. As we plan our programming for the coming months, our team is working to boost engagement by offering a variety of program sizes and intents so everyone can find a welcoming space. 

Do: Make Space for Small Groups

One-on-one connections are easier to maintain virtually than groups, and small conversations can create important moments of connection between peers as they realize they are in similar situations. “If you’re going through it, chances are someone else is or has already,” says Lily Blouin, Forefront’s Regional Coordinator.  When the pandemic hit back in March, Lily decided to increase the frequency of her CEO Confidential Roundtable meetings so that Forefront Members in Knox and Warren Counties had more opportunities to connect on a personal level. 

“Nothing makes me happier than when someone poses a questions or problem to the group and someone says, ‘I’ve been there, let’s connect later. I think I can help,’” said Lily. “That’s how partnerships begin; that’s how communities are built.”

While being online does mean that your meetings and programs are no longer limited by room size, there are reasons to keep some gatherings cozy. A recent webinar from the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that when groups are smaller, people come out of their shells: when webinar participants jump into breakout sessions, for example, they are likely to return to the larger group with their cameras still on. Large webinars are great for sharing information with a lot of people quickly, but most people need intimate spaces to feel comfortable putting themselves out there.

Forefront is trying to create more intimate spaces like Lily’s CEO Confidential Roundtables by reintroducing Member Coffee Hours in a virtual environment. These monthly sessions will alternate between information about Forefront’s current work with opportunities for small-group discussion and networking. Our September meeting will focus on voter engagement, and we’d love to see you there.

You Have Lots of Tools in Your Arsenal – Use Them All

Whether you’re figuring out how to build community on your internal team or trying to reach your greater community, adapting, persisting, and making space for both important updates and human moments are key to building and preserving group cohesion. 

Check back with us as we share more about our networking and community building opportunities for the sector. 

How is Your Organization Creating Community Online?

As part of our community, we’d love to hear from you what steps your organizations have taken to boost morale and keep everyone connected during these difficult times. Send us an email at communications@myforefront.org, and we’ll collect your responses for an upcoming blog post.

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