What is a virtual community?

The concept of online communities was first championed by Howard Rheingold in the 1980s. Howard has since re-imagined the virtual community concept calling it The New Power of Collaboration. “Acknowledging the importance of collaboration with our stakeholders and how to participate has suddenly become not only an individual survival skill but a key to large scale social change.” Howard Rheingold.

While many older people have been digitally excluded, those involved in the non- profit sector recognise that digital inclusion has benefits for all, regardless of their age. And now is the right time to motivate our workers, volunteers, donors, supporters, passionate friends, and philanthropists to be inside the digital tent with our particular cause. Bringing together all these interested and committed supporters into one space, and to give them a voice, is the purpose of building a virtual community.

We are often asked whether a website, social media, online newsletters, or webinars are not sufficient for generating relationships with our supporters. Unfortunately, these online tools alone do not build the relationships necessary for creating a community of interested people. On their own, and without the input of a skilled communication expert, they lack the interactivity that defines a “relationship” or a real community. In fact, some of our supporters do not wish to engage through social media applications. In addition, what we see or read through social media can provide us with a warped concept of how we are seen by all audiences. There is substantial clutter in the social media market and it’s an expensive exercise to engage experts in all available media.

So how could a virtual community impact your organisation for the better?


In the physical world, we brought people together in face-to-face meetings, special events, an annual conference, donor visits. While these are still ideal ways of communicating, they can be replicated in a virtual environment where no one worries about health issues.

In the virtual community, individual relationships are created through online sessions and meetings, forums, special interest groups and online events. A key advantage online is that some of these are time specific interactions, and some can be accessed at a time suitable for the participant.

2)Devolved power

The power to drive and manage the community is no longer the sole responsibility of the organisation’s CEO, administrator or communications manager. Instead, the members of the community are just as able to select topics of interest, manage issues, share their experiences, and tell stories. This could lead to some efficiencies within the organisation. It requires a cultural change and a confident Board to release control.

3)Front Footedness

You no longer need to wait for your next face to face get together to address a crisis, challenge, or issue. If you schedule an online learning session on a regular basis you can easily raise or address any issues while they are still relevant. And your members can alert you to an issue or growing problem. People can react, share, communicate or provide feedback at a time suitable to them.


We must not forget that human beings in general need social contact. During the covid pandemic in particular, many older people became socially isolated, sometimes by choice. An online community provides the ability for social gathering with like-minded people.  A pilot undertaken by the SeniorNet Federation in 2021- 2022 found that older people would join in a daily session from their armchairs, from cars, from libraries and even a hospital bed! People feel more confident and reassured when they are in a comfortable and safe environment.

“During lockdown this was my lifeline to the outside world” – a comment from a participant in the SeniorNet pilot programme

5)Culture Building

Organisational culture is the collection of values, beliefs, ethics, and attitudes that characterise your organisation. Often, it’s described in your values and mission statement but sometimes that’s where it stays and is only reviewed at strategic planning sessions. In a virtual community you can live and breathe life into your culture and even adapt and evolve through the input of your supporters and those you serve.

5)addressing motivation

Being motivated is one of the most important solutions to digital inclusion. Whether it’s the fear of missing out, or the desire to socialise, some people will see your virtual community as the motivation they need to be digitally included. It’s about learning and not teaching! In the virtual community, people learn from each other, not from a “teacher”. Encourage people to share their own experiences without critique. Keep your learning sessions engaging with lots of opportunity for feedback, polite commentary, and questions. Keep it short. Our attention spans are short, and our Wi-Fi access might be curtailed. Do not aim for perfection because it will be unachievable. Technical glitches, interruptions and forgetfulness only emphasise that your presenters and participants are human.

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