Lessons Learned in Building a Custom Community Platform

by Garth Moore, Internet and Communications Director, 1Sky

  • Project: Climate Network
  • Location: United States
  • Sector: Environment
  • Professional Designation: NGO

Failure

Recently, four allied grassroots campaigns (1Sky, Clean Energy Works, the Energy Action Coalition and Focus the Nation) set out to build an unprecedented online community: multiple organizations engaging their supporters together toward common goals on a shared online platform. We called it “The Climate Network.”

Despite a significant financial investment and hours of planning, coding, reviewing, designing, outreach, and training to make the project a success, we were ultimately unable to achieve what we hoped. The ambition of the online organizing platform never matched the success of the offline organizing community and strategy. After 12 months, it folded.

What happened? A number of things didn’t go as planned, despite the best efforts of these four organizations, their staff, and several of our best and most active online community members. However, almost everyone involved with the project said if they could do it again, they would, with the right planning and preparation.

If your nonprofit, campaign, movement, or cause is considering developing an online grassroots organizing model or a custom online community tool to support your advocacy or organizing efforts, then we hope our story will help you avoid some pitfalls, and achieve ambitious online organizing goals.

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9 Comments

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  1. Jeff Achen says:

    Thanks for leaving this synopsis of your experiences building The Climate Network. We’ve learned many similar lessons in building and growing our online giving platform. Fortunately, we have a wonderful vendor/partner (Razoo.com) and visionary, but pragmatic, leadership. Very helpful information and I appreciated being able to read the full report. Best of luck in all your future endeavors!

  2. David Saul says:

    Good synopsis of any IT project – the fact it involved community groups, is not a reflection of the community groups. Plenty of commercial and public sector organisations could highlight the same issues (probably worse)

  3. Jennifer Lentfer says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience with the Climate Network online platform, which highlights the importance of relationship building. You might be interested to read about ideas, challenges and insights from other managers of online communities related to international development, which I recently shared on my blog as we develop The Barefoot Guide Online Community. See: http://www.how-matters.org/2011/02/03/revisiting-the-wheel/

  4. Chase Palmeri says:

    I would be interested to know more about the process of “capturing” this failure and writing it up. I think that this is very well done. (and I am eternally grateful for the write-up as I am involved in a similar effort that has many similar risks running very high at the moment) Could I learn from the main author how s/he went about composing the post and the story-telling of this post.

  5. I love this – so frank and honest and when I read your lessons they are extremely complimentary to how we designed http://www.openideo.com. I wish you the best of luck with your next venture.

    Nathan

  6. Thank you for courageously sharing the story. Plenty of lessons to learn from there. One that’s probably most often overlooked albeit fundamental to a tech project:

    “Listen to your audience – Getting those initial requirements from our audiences to meet their needs, instead of assuming needs on their behalf, would have helped us develop a platform that they actually would have used.”

    Very easy to get lost in assumptions and code…

  7. Andy Heckit says:

    That’s quite a comeuppance really isn’t it. But good on you for putting it out in the open. I’ve been looking for insopiration to get just our little community group up running and engaged, but it’s hard going. We’ve tried the Facebook route and it’s the same half dozen who interact, how have any of you guys manged to get a local group fired up when there’s nothing to fight or rail against ;-)

  8. Maureen says:

    That happens quite a lot in the community halls and small leisure centres over here in the UK. it’s a pain really. It always seems to be the same tiny little band of willing volunteers who are prepared to make a go of things in any community. One of the hardest things seems to be getting a group of people together with the right mix of skills. A couple of times in the past year – I’ve almost had to turn people away from my weight loss support groups because it looked like the community centres were going to fold up before we got half way through the next course. Hey ho – the joys of social enterprise. I hope it goes well if you decide to try again.

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