Online Community Structure: How To Structure A Volunteer-based Community

The value of online communities could not have been witnessed better than in the year that went by. Stuck at homes under stringent lockdowns, the world relied on online communities to simulate their offline experiences. Everything from water-cooler talks in the office to family chit-chatting migrated online. Even the classrooms and public meetings shifted to community-based platforms.

Last week, we hosted a panel discussion, called "Building Volunteer Programs For Your Community", where we learned about building a volunteer program and how it benefits the online communities.

In our previous blog on What Makes A Volunteer-based Community Successful, we talked about:

  • What Is The Role Volunteers Play In A Community?
  • Some Unique Initiatives That Volunteers Have Taken For A Community?
  • What-s The Process Of Starting A New Initiative?

And in today's blog, we will understand how these communities are structured. Because at the end of the day, the entire selection process in a community is both a push as well as a pull. The volunteers should want to stay back with the community as core team members, and the community leaders should also want these volunteers to be an active part of the community.

But before we dive deeper, if you are into community building and looking to build a volunteer program, then check out LikeMinds right now! Our platform offers great inbuilt features that will make it super easy for you to scale your community.

How To Plan Online Community Structure With Over 500 Volunteers?

Gautham told us, "We were a 100% offline community. From 2007, we used to run monthly networking meets apart from the other initiatives that we used to do. 150 months without a break, every second Saturday was a Startup Saturday."

  • So, it initially started with IIM Bangalore in the early days.
  • From 2014 to 2016, Headstart loved IBM and so, they moved to Embassy Golf links.
  • After that, they hosted the Startup Saturdays at SAP Start-up studio, for about two-three years.
  • In between, they also moved to XLR and a bunch of other things.

So, they were largely offline. And especially when they started moving beyond the metros. 2012-13 saw Headstart move beyond the metros. They had realized the need for an ecosystem enabler in metros to bring people together in 2007-08. At the end of the day, Headstart was an extended shoulder for entrepreneurs to lean on.

They were able to bring people together month on month and share their emotional trauma which families don't understand. They don't understand why you've left your job to come to a startup. A lot of things that you can't expect families to understand, Headstart was giving them a safe space.

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Headstart's Journey To Tier 2 And Tier 3 Cities

In 2012-13, there was no need for a Headstart for a Bangalore or a Delhi ecosystem to thrive. Startups were being born and were thriving even without an enabler like Headstart. So, this is where they started consciously realizing the need to go deeper into tier 2 and tier 3 cities. From 2016 to about 2018-19, Headstart spread to over 20 more cities, all driven by passionate volunteers.

And the best part about the expansion to regional chapters was the folks who were attending their startup Saturday in Bangalore and Delhi but had their hometown somewhere else. Gautham recalls a volunteer chasing him and Amit at Headstart for about six months, back in 2015-16.

He kept saying, "I've been attending Startup Saturdays in Delhi during my MBA days and it's so inspiring to just be around founders and keep listening to how they network. I want to do this in Chattisgarh." When asked, there were only two technology startups that he could name from the state at that point.

At that point, Gautham told him, "What is there in Chattisgarh for a Headstart to come. Because we are largely volunteer-driven and it's not ROI but ROE (return on the efforts) of our volunteers for us, as a community. We need to appreciate every hour or every minute that the volunteer puts in. I don't think for the effort that we may end up putting in, in Chattisgarh, there may be the return or the response from the startup people ecosystem".

But the volunteer kept mailing and chasing them for six months. Headstart had to finally give in. So, they started getting folks interested in the startup ecosystem together. Three years from then, it was the best chapter at Headstart - Raipur. And today, there are 850 startups registered in Chattisgarh. The kind of activity in Raipur is mind-boggling.

It requires an evangelist, a community guy to be there before others to trust you and say, "I think that there is a need for a community to be built here." You need the first two people to hook there and say, "I will back it till it becomes sustainable." That's what the volunteers did for Chattisgarh.

Today, if Gautham is confidently saying that Headstart had a role to play in Chattisgarh startup ecosystem growth, it is not because of Headstart, but their volunteers. And the 5-6 volunteer members ended up becoming 10-15 people in Raipur. Ultimately, if Headstart did something to help the ecosystem, it is a cumulative effort and contribution of the volunteers.

At the end of the day, the volunteers end up being the face of the community to the external ecosystem. So, there's a starting point for every organization. "You want to get started to test what your community wants, and then you scale."

Shift From Being 100% Offline To 100% Online

Pre-covid, this is how Headstart used to work:

  • They used to test the waters.
  • See where the need was.
  • Go ahead and replicate their playbooks in those chapters.
  • Start getting the other enablers to come together.

Post-covid, they stayed handicapped for about six months. On Startup Saturday, the volunteer teams used to step out of their houses at 6:30 am to head out to Embassy Golflinks. They set things up, put the chairs and the ticket counters together, whatever was required to pull off an event.

The priority was to ensure that everyone who attended the event had a good experience. And then post the event, they stayed back for 2-3 hours. In Gautham's words, "Because you were surrounded by an extremely over-ambitious set of folks that you would not meet at work. The biggest draw for volunteers is always the fellow volunteers in a community."

Fellow volunteers and the mission are the two draws that a community needs to survive. Gautham further adds, "If it is the incentives that they end up getting out of the volunteering, which is the biggest draw for a volunteer, you're somewhere wrong." His only incentive to be a part of these events, without a break, was the folks around him. Hear them talk about the big things that you never talk about at work.

Post-covid, they didn't know what to do. Headstart was completely offline for 13-14 years out there mixing with people. And suddenly, everything has to go online. So, they also struggled. It's not always a bed of roses just because you have been around for 13 years.

It's tougher for someone who is not a digital native person. For Headstart, it was about turning the entire community around, from 100% offline to 100% online, in 2 to 3 quarters. On the bright side, it allowed them to expand further into smaller towns, into the North East, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttrakhand. Headstart also expanded to Finland and Germany in the last 12 months.

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Different Types Of Online Community Structure At Headstart

Broadly speaking, there are a few layers from an org perspective. At Headstart, they have volunteers and the volunteers split into two - the Volunteers and the VIPs.

As soon as someone wants to volunteer with Headstart, he signs up a simple form for them to know him better. Because, at the end of the day, it's just people coming together. After the first level of curation, just based on the volunteer's answers, Headstart tries to see if the volunteer matches the community's expectations. And then, they set up a call to try and understand the culture fit.

In Gautham's words, "Because one rotten tomato is enough to spoil the entire passion that all volunteers are putting together." So, they allow the volunteer to settle down and figure out if Headstart is a fit for him. Of course, they also see if he is a fit for them. But more importantly, is Headstart the org that he wants to volunteer with. The limited 2 to 4 hours that a volunteer has every week, he would rather spend it with a cause that you find meaningful.

So, VIP is nothing but a volunteer on probation. No questions are asked to him, and no responsibilities are assigned. The VIPs speak to as many co-volunteers as possible, settle down, enjoy themselves, with no expectations from them.

At the end of three months, a VIP either decides to leave or gets absorbed as a volunteer. And volunteering at Headstart is training in leadership. You get to lead initiatives that you believe are of value, because 'action-oriented' is one of the biggest values at Headstart.

Come up with a plan or convince two other volunteers on why that plan will work. And then start working on it. The best part about working at Headstart is the fact that "whether you are one month into headstart or you have been there for 14 years, everyone is accessible to everyone."

On that note, we run a community called -CommunityHood-, which is an independent community with 450+ community members already a part of it! If you want to learn from the experience of leading community builders themselves or feel you can help other community builders in upskilling themselves, then join -CommunityHood- now.