In times of hardship, uncertainty and fear, community is more important than ever. We rely on those around us for solidarity, support, guidance, information and empathy. One of the greatest challenges of the COVID-19 epidemic is that to slow the spread of the virus we must practice social distancing and forgo in-person community. But there is a reason for optimism: community and social distancing are not incompatible. Thanks to the internet, we can maintain and grow the bonds of community among us even while physically quarantined and isolated. At Philanthropy U, online community is central to our mission and vision. Below we outline some guidance for those who are new to engaging with online communities, as well as what we are doing to offer more opportunities to build community during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Basics of Online Community

Community, at its core, is a group of interconnected people that communicate with and relate to one another. When many of us think about our communities, we think of neighbors meeting at a local business, friends gathered for a shared meal and coworkers working side by side on common challenges. Community may look different online, but its essence is the same. People can connect within large groups (message boards), connect individually with other community members (through direct messages) and even work together to learn a new skill or discuss a common challenge (in an online course or community of practice). 

Tips for Navigating Online Communities

For those new to online communities, here is some guidance on getting started:

If you are convening a group of people you already know…..

  • Pick a forum. Whether it is Slack, WhatsApp, Facebook or another online provider, choose the forum for your online community. Ideally, it is a forum that will be easy for your group to join, perhaps something they are already familiar with. See our tips on tools to facilitate remote connection.
  • Establish ground rules and norms. Explicitly call out the types of behavior you want to see in your community. At Philanthropy U, every online community has basic instructions for how to get started and guidelines for how to properly use and engage with the community. 
  • Facilitate discussion and model behavior. If you want the community to be successful, it is important to engage with it yourself. From asking questions to praising the types of behaviors you want to encourage, taking an active role is crucial.

If you are joining a new online community….

  • Introduce yourself. If you were to attend an in-person event in your local community to connect with others, and spent all of your time listening to other people’s conversations without introducing yourself, you probably would not find it rewarding. The same is true online. To begin building relationships and community virtually, introduce yourself to your peers. 
  • Start a conversation. The best way to find the resources, topics and discussions that you are interested in is to create a conversation on your terms. Do you have a question on your mind? Do you want to connect with others working in a specific area or on a specific topic? Chances are you are not the only one interested in the same topic. By asking a question you are more likely to connect with others facing the same challenges you are. 
  • Find and message others who are interested in similar topics. Much like in-person communities, finding a small group of people and forming deeper relationships with them is one of the most rewarding aspects of an online community. If you read someone else’s introduction, post or biography and feel like you would like to get to know them better, reach out directly. 

Online Community at Philanthropy U

Our online learning platform is designed to empower local social impact leaders around the world. We strongly believe that connecting leaders through a virtual platform allows learners from around the world to exchange best practices, share lessons learned and form meaningful connections to elevate their work. Feedback from our learners has highlighted to us how crucial a sense of community is to us to achieve our mission and vision. There are many reasons our learners engage in the Philanthropy U community, but there are two in particular that stand out:

  • To build skills. Our online courses are all community-focused. Learners come to engage with the material, but also to form teams, post and reply to others in the course discussion board and participate in the peer-assessment process.
  • To connect with other social impact leaders. Our online communities are designed to convene those working in the same regions and / or those who are working on similar issues around the world. Leaders can connect with others to discuss what they have learned, ask questions of other leaders and form meaningful friendships.

Our Community-based COVID-19 Response

In addition to keeping our open online communities running as usual, Philanthropy U has created a series of free digital resources for our community in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. To support those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response in their communities around the world and those who are leading their local organizations through uncertain times, we have established two new digital community spaces: 

  • A COVID-19 Response community of practice on our platform for people to share updates, best practices and lessons learned from around the world with one another. It is free to join and open to all social impact leaders and professionals.
  • A COVID-19 specific channel within our mobile-friendly Slack community.

We want to hear from you

The greatest strength of our Philanthropy U community is the passion, commitment and drive of our learners. We want to hear directly from you. Are there online communities and resources that you are using during the COVID-19 response? How is COVID-19 affecting your work and your community? Let us know via private message on Facebook. Your insight will help us continue developing helpful tools for organizations like yours.

March 25, 2020


As Senior Associate of Community, Mark’s work focuses on harnessing the power of local expertise and peer-to-peer connection to empower learners addressing social issues at scale.