In Community Events, Education and Learning

How River Network Is Building Community, Online

Connection and the open exchange of information and ideas has always been integral to water stewardship and community leadership, even before the pandemic. For this reason, River Network launched an online community for the nationwide network of water protectors in January of this year. What you might not have noticed when we launched the community was the year-long research and feedback process we conducted in order to find the right forum that would meet the network’s needs. Here, I will share what went into this process and River Network’s approach to fostering community in an online space.

Why We Launched an Online Community

As an organization that bolsters strong champions and water protectors, peer connection is a key component of River Network’s mission. Over the years we have employed many tools to make this connection possible. River Rally has been a mainstay of the water community for over 20 years, but we were missing a space to connect on these issues between annual events. Members asked for more opportunities to connect on shared interests, so we began research into online forums.

Finding the Right Solution

The project started with the team at River Network coming together to compile a list of “must haves” for an online forum. From there, we developed a matrix and dove into the research process.

A quick Google search will show you that the options for online community spaces are abundant. Our technology options included a few user-friendly listservs like Gaggle, add-ons that work with existing website frameworks like BuddyBoss, more advanced forums like Mighty Networks, and solutions as simple as LinkedIn and Facebook groups. Our research ultimately came down to one central question: which of these technology options is the most accessible for our network members? We found Mobilize through the testing process and, after internal beta testing with staff, determined that this was the right solution for us.

For more detailed information on River Network’s research and testing process, watch the recording of the January 27 roundtable, “Building Online Community.

A New Space for Discussion

The Online Community landing page set the tone and defined what this space was designed for, as well as what it was not designed for. Based on the need for this space and what we were hearing from members, we defined the community as “a place for water protectors … to connect with peers, share opportunities and address challenges, stay up to date on the latest water news, and foster partnerships for shared impact.”

After extensive beta testing, collaboration, and strategic planning, the River Network Online Community launched on January 27, 2021. The introductions poured in, letting us know how excited the community was to get to know their peers and explore how their work overlaps.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of this experience is witnessing the eagerness of network members to share and collaborate on the issues that are top-of-mind. On February 3, Anna Greenberg (Surfrider Foundation) posted “Idea Sharing for Training Volunteers in Civic Engagement.” This discussion was eventually moved to a Zoom meeting to accommodate a longer discussion on how to support grassroots volunteers. Earlier that week, Anita Daley (Huron River Watershed Council) posted a request for information about others’ microplastics pollution campaigns, and the community delivered.

Three Months In, What Have We Learned?

After three months, 450 new members from across the country, and dozens of new discussions, we have learned a great deal about what our network needs from an online forum. As members connect through the feed and private messaging, we have learned what it means to moderate a forum during a time in which many people are burnt out from online engagement.

First, we have learned the value of flexibility. This is a space for the network. Therefore, it should be governed by them and how they choose to engage. Despite a few strategic changes, we have stayed true to our goal statement. First and foremost, this space is for idea and information sharing and River Network will continue to support this primary objective.

Second, we learned that team buy-in is integral to the success of a community. We would not have our current levels of engagement if this hadn’t been such an open and collaborative decision-making process during which our entire staff felt comfortable offering feedback and challenging assumptions.

Finally, our primary takeaway is that this is truly a community of water champions who all work in unique ways to achieve the same goal: a future of healthy rivers and clean water for all. The gift has been learning about how willing this community is to be generous with their time and forthcoming with their knowledge and experience. This network knows first-hand that no victory is achieved alone, and that has become evident in these first few months of online connectivity. We cannot wait to see how this community continues to serve the network in the months and years to come.

If you haven’t already, join the online community to participate in discussion or start your own! All are welcome.

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