Online learning

6 Strategies to scale (and engage) your community of practice

Whether you have an established community of practice or you’re just getting started, these six strategies will take your engagement to the next level.

Three professionals designing a community using laptops

Organizations of all markets and sizes are facing a unique challenge: how to engage stakeholders, volunteers and/or members online. Moving programs and events online was the first step as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but what do we do after the initial excitement wears off? How can we continue to build community enthusiasm and create a safe space where members see value and want to engage?

Whether you’re an organization with an established online community or you’re just getting started, use these six strategies to take your community to the next level:

  1. Design with the end in mind.
  2. Group or cohort your members.
  3. Know your key measures of success.
  4. Choose a community platform that focuses on creation, not dissemination.
  5. Leverage synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities.
  6. Empower community members as leaders of the community.

1. Design with the end in mind.

Communities, at their core, should be tied to a common domain or purpose. They should inspire members to take action with what they’ve gained from the community, all while building meaningful connections and being a space of collaboration.

When developing an engagement strategy for your community, start with the action you want members to take. This concept, often referred to as backward design, encourages community managers to consider the impact on practice after an event or experience, not just during. Instead of approaching engagement by starting with content — what information will we present or how can we structure our community — the backward design process helps map out the intentional outcomes of your community.

The stages of backward design are:

Stage 1: Establish the purpose and desired results.
  • What knowledge or skills do you want your community members to have?
  • What will your members be able to do as a result of your community experiences?
  • How will they apply what’s learned in their own lives, careers and communities?
  • What is the ultimate call to action for this experience?
  • How will this experience help them solve problems that matter to them?
Stage 2: Identify the evidence of learning and engagement.
  • How will a member demonstrate a level of understanding and engagement?
  • How will you know if a member needs additional support?
  • How will those pieces of evidence be useful for the member’s daily practice?
Stage 3: Plan the activities and resources.
  • What activities, experiences and lessons will lead to achievement of the desired results and spark community members to take action?

Source: Ubd in a nutshell, Wiggins, 2006

Maybe you’d like your community members to host a volunteer drive in their local community, complete a task as part of a community onboarding program, become leaders of their own project or simply share a resource on their social networks outside of the community. Start from these results, consider evidence of these outcomes then design the activities and experiences to achieve them. For more resources on backward design, take this free online learning course.

2. Group or cohort your members.

As communities evolve, their members’ needs and interests may also evolve over time. Members who have been in your community for months or years may be at a different point in their learning journeys than new members.

Use group or cohort features within your community platform to group members based on interests, involvement in specific programs, volunteer groups, etc. Once you group members, engage them in the content and experiences most relevant to them. Members are more likely to participate in the community if it provides value to them and creates connection, so group and communicate with members in a way that sparks conversation and relationship building.

Three game pieces on game board


Do you have a clear picture of your member personas and community goals? Our three-part guide has templates for strategic goal-setting and audience personas.

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3. Know your key measures of success.

When most organizations set out to create an online community, they envision success as the number of members, discussion thread comments or likes. But not all measures of success are quantitative. Think about the shareability, impact on practice and what a member does as a result of what they’ve learned from the community, not just what they’ve read or clicked on. Track that members are taking action and changing their practice as a result of the community. Consider how your organization’s breadth and name recognition have grown as a result of their impact too.

4. Choose a community platform that focuses on creation, not just dissemination.

One of the biggest differences between building an audience and building a true community is a focus on practice. Anyone can use a Facebook group to grow a user base. But not many can engage that user base to take an action if members don’t feel connected or that they have a voice. In Communities of Practice, however, a community’s purpose is to nurture and encourage an impact on an individual’s practice. From crowdsourcing ideas around climate change to engaging educators on teaching strategies, each Community of Practice should aim to be a space of new knowledge creation.

Transforming your idea of a community as a space for creation, not content dissemination or knowledge management changes the mindset of members too. When they’re encouraged to share ideas and network with others, they’ll be more engaged than if they simply came into your community space just for information. At Participate, our Community of Practice platform supports partners of all sizes and social impact initiatives create CoPs that inspire new knowledge and create a lasting impact. Learn more about our social learning approach here.

Illustration of a social learning community of practice with credentialed learning, social networking, member-driven connection and impact on practice

Illustration of a Community of Practice approach

5. Leverage synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities.

Online and in-person events each have their own unique affordances, and, as an intentional community designer or facilitator, you can leverage those affordances for impact.

The matrix below helps identify the ways in which you can engage community members through various mediums, collaboration styles, independent or collaborative projects and more.

diagram showing asynchronous vs synchronous learning

Asynchronous vs. synchronous activity chart for a Community of Practice

As you design experiences for your members, consider the synchronous and asynchronous activities that will help members understand concepts, inspire creation and spark conversation. When is it best to let people go through things on their own, at their own pace (Asynchronous Individual)? If you're bringing people together at the same time, how can you take advantage of that and allow members to build off of each other's ideas (Synchronous Collaborative)?

For example, if you’re hosting a monthly virtual Zoom call to talk through a new initiative of your nonprofit (Synchronous Collaborative), how might you provide a space for discussion and collaboration after the call to keep the conversation going and spark further ideas (Asynchronous Collaborative)?

computor for elearning connected to a stack of books


6. Empower community members as leaders of the community.

One of the best ways to create sustained engagement is to empower and train community members to become leaders of your community. Build cohorts of leaders who can take on community responsibilities, alleviating your work while also supporting further growth of those members.

A way to get started with this idea, is to celebrate member achievements on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. See which community members are most engaged and use that to your advantage. Highlight those members in spotlights, organizational newsletters and/or social media posts, and invite them to be facilitators and leaders of the community. They’ll know firsthand what members are looking to learn or connect around, and can design experiences and discussions based on those needs. Empower these leaders to become peer mentors for other community members, relying on them as a guide and cheerleader through community experiences. 

With these strategies, your online community can increase engagement, deepen connections and create impact.

To get started, click below or contact our partnerships team.

Mark Otter is CEO at Participate. Follow him on Twitter @markjotter.


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