How to Build a Vibrant Online Philanthropy Network

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Diana Scearce of the Monitor Institute.

By Diana Scearce

image How do you effectively steward technology for online communities? For the past year I’ve been facilitating a community of practice (CoP) for funders. While much of our work has been designed around in-person convenings, we have also been connecting using a group on WiserEarth. WiserEarth is an online social networking platform, similar to Ning, but it’s dedicated to social change.

Our space on Wiser has served us well. Many members of the CoP have been using it to connect and build a shared repository of resources. It’s a simple way to deepen and extend our reach, and from my perspective, as the person managing the CoP day-to-day, it has been critical for coordination. Yet, I’m plagued by doubts. Are people using it enough? What is enough? Is there another way we should be connecting and coordinating? No one needs yet another username and password, not to mention another membership to another online community that they can then feel guilty about not using.

At the GEO conference this week I attended a session on “Virtual Global Learning Networks.” The session gave some useful food for thought as I try to answer these questions. Two excellent case studies were shared – Claire Fallender on how Ashoka has networked its fellows and Shalini Nataraj on the Global Fund for Women’s network of advisors that connect GFW with the nearly 4,000 groups they’ve funded in 171 countries around the world. Both Ashoka and GFW are wrestling with tough questions of connectivity and engagement in a global context. They’re dealing with considerable language barriers and digital connectivity challenges that make my concerns of engagement among a highly wired group of funders seem luxurious. And, they surfaced a number of principles for stewarding online communities that have wide applicability:

  • Focus on the principles, not the platform. Your community should be technology served, not technology driven.
  • Prioritize trust and relationship building. As you do so, make sure you’re clear about boundaries. Is your network closed? Open? Porous?
  • Frame a clear value proposition so the give / get is obvious to participants.
  • Create a user-driven design. Ashoka is co-creating their platform with 25 fellows who asked for it.
  • Design a space that enables many-to-many connections. Don’t act a gatekeeper. Facilitate direct connections in your network.
  • Make it easy to belong. Invite participants to opt in and opt out as makes sense for them.
  • Take a ‘combo-platter’ approach. Create different channels for your network to connect – in-person, through conference calls, webinars, Facebook, your group’s dedicated online space.

And one addition as I reflect on this: the role of the network weaver – the person or people taking responsibility for making and strengthening connections across the network – is critical. The tools won’t suddenly motivate full and regular participation, but individuals reaching out and inviting people to engage can make a real difference.

You can read more blog posts from Diana and her Monitor Institute colleagues at


  1. Jeff Jackson says:

    Hi Diana. Nice blog post on using on-line communities with philanthropy. I especially liked the final comments on the role of the network weaver. I wasn’t able to join the GEO conference, but I joined virtually from Mexico by reading and commenting on this blog.

    Since blogger pictures were provided, I noticed all bloggers but one were white (pictures might be deceptive) and by reading content, I noticed all seemed fairly well-off (though I could be wrong here too). I also noticed that as of today, all blogs had only 0-2 comments with the exception of Kathy Reich’s posting on Philanthropy and Race and the posting by the one “blogger of color” – both of which had 4 comments. I’m curious about how this can happen on-line with such a “diversity-focused” group of people?

    For me, the above observations on race and perhaps class bring me back to the role of the network weaver, especially in on-line communities. On-line communities present wonderful opportunities to diversify that we may not normally make for ourselves in person (good or bad). They also allow us to reinforce our ruts if we don’t pay attention. I notice daily that I’ve woven a more diverse patchwork of FB friends together than I have of my regular circle of live friends. It seems like network weavers can add tremendous value, like any good change facilitators, of bringing diversity to the table and raising the voices of the marginalized. I would think an on-line network weaver needs “diversity skills” like a live network weaver.

    Besides the role of the network weaver, my above observations of the very small sample of initial data offer a hypothesis about the interest level in race and diversity and the perspectives from people of color.

    Reading this blog over the past few days has been inspiring and offered some challenges. Thanks for your posting on using on-line networks. I’m inspired to weave more networks – especially those that look more like a patchwork quilt.

  2. Jeff, I agree 100% on the importance of network weavers. dana boyd found that the tendency to group with others like you is really strong online — as opposed to the misconception of technology as an equalizer (she looked at the class divides between MySpace and Facebook. Here’s her presentation: This underscores, for me, the need to be even more intentional about weaving together and bridging differences of all kinds online.

  3. Jeff Jackson says:

    Thanks for the resource Diana. Looking foward to more work together. Jeff