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On Building Virtual Teams: Three Tips for Success

Social media has revolutionized our ability to connect and organize. Indeed many of today’s young activists likely don’t remember a time when instant messaging, free calls to anywhere on the globe, and online citizen media weren’t the norm. Yet many organizations struggle to cultivate effective online communities. While conferencing is free, participants feel disconnected (in every way! While it’s hard to get to know people, sometimes it can be really hard connecting too). And while citizen media is easy to create, the conversations that propel ideas forward too often fail to happen. Indeed the culture of these spaces can too often remain disjointed, impersonal and ultimately uninspiring.

AMP Global Youth was launched as a virtual community, and we’ve spent equal time refining both our programs and our virtual approach over the years. Here are few lessons we’ve learned along the way.

People engage in different ways, and a loose but clear structure is essential. Our members engage via email, text, Facebook and Twitter. While some are quick to respond to emails, others seem to never notice them. While we do operate across all four channels, it’s a challenge to do so with equal accuracy. So it’s essential for us to establish communications standards from the get-go, and be really redundant with what we do. For example we explain what kinds of communications people can expect to see, and when, during their very first call, via email, and via the volunteer resource page on our website. We share program updates and weekly assignments through calls, Facebook, Google Docs and emails, too. As we’re pumping information out through a minimum of three channels, it’s nearly impossible for our volunteers to miss it. Now I’ve definitely worked for organization in which this planned redundancy might seem annoying or inefficient. At AMP we see it as par for the course.

Relationships underpin everything. Build them. While the act of communicating can be amazingly efficient, the substance shouldn’t always be. In fact it’s really easy for people to multitask, tune out or get lost in a virtual network. We always begin our calls by checking in with folks, and send monthly emails doing the same, too. We encourage our leaders to get to know their teams on a personal level. And we strive to cultivate a “no-fault” vibe within our community, assuming that if someone is falling behind in tasks it’s either a function of 1) their being truly overwhelmed in their broader life (we know we’re not first on the priority list), and/or 2) our not having done a good-enough job explaining them. When we check in with volunteers who are falling behind it’s always with a friendly, how-can-we-help attitude. They notice and they respond.

Give feedback across the board. We’ve struggled with this a lot, often focusing more on producing content then recognizing it. But we’ve learned that providing positive feedback on all successes, no matter how small, can make a big difference. We truly believe that every accomplishment is notable. We recognize great blog posts, graphics, strategies and more through our weekly calls, in emails and via our private Facebook group. That said, we think it’s equally important to be fair and give credit where credit is due, so are sure to give some extra love to those who’ve truly gone above and beyond, too.

To be clear: AMP is still a work in progress. While we’ve made great strides forward in many areas, we struggle to fully nail others. We definitely face challenges like ghosting, varying comfort levels with various platforms, and more. That’s the nature of the beast, I guess, and the journey is without doubt a fun one. We know that the end goal – cultivating a fun, effective virtual community that has real impact – is so worth the effort.

About Karen Showalter

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