The was a time, once long ago, when forums were the prevailing option when it came to online presence for an organisation. In those early BFB (before Facebook) days where Bebo and MySpace reigned supreme, company-hosted forums were the best way for brands (such as Nokia or Disney) to engage with their customers and audience. Now, a decade later, times have changed.

With the advent of channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn, brands can now be right in the heart of where their audience is. It’s a busy world out there. Forums have mostly become the preserve of membership organisations, sports clubs, gamers, tech-heads, Yahoo! (who hasn’t Googled an excel issue and ended up in a whole pile of Yahoo! forums) and… charities.

The reasoning for much of this is very clear – highly defined audiences with specific interests wanting to chat in a less ‘transient’ way. They want to discuss, continue discussing, seek help or advice, have access to historical solutions and… actually belong to a community. Many forums also have that added security of being closed to others, i.e. the user has to fill out their details to gain entry via a password. This is where it works incredibly well for those users who need a charity’s help – providing a supportive and relatively private safe haven.

So why aren’t there more of these online charity forums?

The practicalities

I believe the main barriers to entry, as it were, is the cost and the planning involved. We’re talking about the small to medium sized charities here – not the large ones. Why they don’t set up forums is probably a subject for another day…

Setting up a user-friendly forum can be a costly business. Note I say ‘user-friendly’ – there are many ‘quick and dirty’ forums set up on impractical structures out there. That may work very well for different sectors but would not provide the ease of use and welcoming nature that a charity forum would need to have in order to attract, and retain, their audience.

So welcome the tech design and build company. The choice of provider here is where it can all be absolutely fabulous or go horribly wrong. During my time working with both commercial and non-profit organisations, I was involved in liaising with many build companies on behalf of my clients. These companies ranged from pretty good, down to horribly obtuse and money-grabbing. The latter were more common than one would hope unfortunately. These were the kind of people who would take a charity’s hard raised funds and squander them on clunky and impractical builds that could only be tweaked by the provider and therefore incur a cost each and every time. It was heart-breaking.

However, let’s focus on the good news story – now that online knowhow is more widely shared and readymade tools are in abundance, organisations are no longer held to ransom by the unscrupulous. There are now more enlightened tech providers and more affordable options. A super example of this is the Friends in Need forum, run by Depression Alliance.

A success story

Depression Alliance has been around for almost 40 years and is the leading UK charity for people affected by depression. In November 2013 it launched a project called Friends in Need. It’s aim? To help people maintain recovery from depression and to end the loneliness and isolation that comes with depression. This was not only an online forum but also provided a way for users to connect and establish support groups in the ‘real’ world.

They worked with an agency called Ideas Made Digital who helped them not only build the forum but also redesign their website as a whole. This was carried out in an affordable and fully collaborative way. They build a user-friendly forum with a CMS that the DA team could easily use in order to fully monitor and keep safe the users.

The forum is for over 18’s only and contains many topics, from carers asking for help to threads about particular medications and their side effects. The DA team take a light touch with the moderation, getting to know the ‘regulars’ and being fully aware that medication can provoke out-of-character actions. They also went through a risk assessment and put in place a thorough escalation process for when users needed help – perhaps threatening suicide. On the whole, the community support each other when in desperate need and DA very rarely has to intervene. When they do have to, it’s to direct users to 24 hour hotlines run by organisations such as The Samaritans and SANE.

The forum now has almost 20,000 registered users. It is a shining example of how a charity can provide a tangible, practical and lasting difference to their community.

Says one user, “Friends in Need is a place you can be yourself without fear you’re being judged or told how you should act when you’re feeling depressed”

I’ll leave you with three top tips from Erin Hedger, DA’s Digital Manager:

  1. Listen to your community and develop easy ways to maintain a conversation with them. Your community should grow and develop at their own pace and organically, don’t try to artificially expand it.
  2. Your community should always be steering and in control of the direction of the forum, the organisation’s role is to provide a framework for them to do so.
  3. Allow your community to feel empowered, not stifled by over moderating. Have staff/volunteers on the site to welcome, help and nudge but never interrupt or take control of a conversation

Has your charity thought of setting up a forum? If not, why not? Your supporters will thank you.

My next blog will expand on Erin’s comments above by discussing the practicalities of running the forums day-to-day (and night)!