Community-driven growth and retention (“Let’s give em somethin to talk about”)

Michael Linares
6 min readApr 10, 2021


Low-cost community tactics for nonprofits and startups

Traversing the internet is inherently lonely — it’s just you and a device — and things are doubly lonely during COVID. More and more, organizations are realizing that community can be a big differentiator for their cause or business. Indeed, “community” has become a bit of a buzzword across the industry, resulting in more than a few ham-handed or inauthentic efforts. I have quite a bit of experience building community products at Lean In, Option B, and Crisis Text Line. When done well, community can differentiate your org/product/experience and drive growth (new users), engagement (more activity), and retention (longer relationships).

Why is this relevant for nonprofits? Nonprofits have a unique advantage vis-a-vis community because one of their ‘products’ is essentially a cause — something to follow, believe in, and support. Causes give people a reason to unite; people more easily unite against climate change than they do for Pepsi or Arby’s (however nihilistc). Below are a few examples of orgs using community to its full advantage with largely low-cost and low-code, out-of-the-box tools like Facebook groups, Slack, and more.

Criterion: Fb Groups are low-commitment connection

1) Provide a venue for connection — The Criterion Channel Facebook group. A good Facebook group is a boon for community. They’re free to start, and can be run with little to no staffing. Facebook itself is ubiquitous, so people can join with their existing accounts and avoid new-account friction. Most users already have the app, so you have tools like push notifications from the get-go. A group can really lend itself to orgs with niche interests — Criterion is great because, where else would I go to debrief Tarkovsky? Film and discussion go hand-in-hand; in this case, I’d argue that Criterion FB group really helps differentiate its experience relative to other streaming sites (and in a world where movie watching is increasingly commoditized). Groups are also a popular strategy for media pubs like the Boston Globe. One thing to consider, of course, is moderation to spur conversation and prevent spam and misinformation, which we know thrives in places like FB groups. There are plenty of out-of-the-box alternatives to Facebook like Mighty Network. Whatever your cause, you can probably unite your people in a group.

2) Rally people in teams — Noom. Research shows that peer connections are a major driver for long-term retention in volunteer programs, fitness groups, and the like. Noom does a great job with this insight. They take people, who are on their own difficult individual journeys, and put them into cohorts who can chat with each through the app, sharing tips and wins. Noom’s implementation is especially thoughtful. You are only invited to your cohort after you’ve used the app for ~2 weeks (and have built up your own habit). The group is there if you want it but isn’t required. Noom does its part by assigning moderators who keep the conversation going. If you run an org, ask yourself: is there a way for community to support each other

Lean In: Target leaders as a user segment

3) Recruit leaders for network effects — Lean In Circles. Lean In Circles are peer support groups that meet once a month to support each other. I worked on Circles for a few years. And one thing we realized early was that we had two key user segments: Circle leaders, and Circle members. Part of our growth strategy was to focus on the leader segment: convince one person why leading is important, onboard them, and then help them recruit others. By focusing on leaders, we could take a higher-touch approach, and empower them to grow their own Circles and networks of Circles. One interesting thing we did here was to look at our data for a “magic number.’ We discovered that Circles were most successful once they got to 4 people. We told leaders as much (#transparency), and optimized our product experience for that. This idea is based on one Facebook’s fabled growth tactics — “7 friends in 10 days” (which is worth reading about if you haven’t). Meetup, and other community-based orgs, employ a similar growth model, targeting event organizers. From the one, many.

Peloton: Small gestures can build peer connections

4) Drive peer connections with small features — Peloton. Peer support scales. Peloton has a lightweight feature that I just love. When you sign in, or while you ride, you can give other users a “High Five,” which is like a friendlier version of the Facebook poke (remember that?). The feature is really simple: you see a user, you click their face, and they receive a high five notification. It’s a small gesture that can actually drive peer connections over time, getting users to start to follow each other and perhaps even “ride together,” another community feature. You’re essentially moving your user along an engagement funnel, where higher connections can drive retention. Think about how your product can facilitate a serendipitous one-on-one.

5) Throw events around your content — NYT Book Club. So, you have a community, you’re set up on Facebook or Slack, but you’re wondering how you can take engagement to the next level? Go offline and synchronous (techspeak for “throw an event”). Lots of companies are starting to product more digital events during COVID. I love The T Book Club because, like the Criterion FB group, it allows an org’s community go even deeper, learning alongside experts. We use these at CTL in the form of webinars around content and skill-building. Check out this First Round piece for more tactical advice on throwing virtual events.

Bed Stuy Strong: A custom tech stack from readymade tools

6) Let your community self-organize — Victory 2020. I’m a longtime canvasser, which of course wasn’t quite viable this election cycle. Instead, I took to the phones, calling and texting voters. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Biden team had set up a Slack domain that was largely self-organized. It was an easy way to connect with other volunteers and get some inspiration while I clicked “send” thousands of times. Slack can be a scalable solution for your org precisely because it is mostly self managed; your community does all the work and can expand in lots of creative ways that capitalize on individuals’ interests. The campaign did have some moderators on hand that made certain processes a lot easier (like signing up for texts), so you my want to consider that. Another excellent example is the Mind the Product Slack group for a semi-professional community of 20K+ product people.

7) Tap your community to build your own tools — Bed Stuy Strong. The last example I want to highlight is Bed Stuy Strong, a mutual aid group that sprung up during COVID. They didn’t have all the tech they needed to run their volunteer service — grocery delivery for neighbors in need — and so they hacked together a tech stack using out-of-the-box tools like Google Voice, Airtable, and Slack. The image above show how they automated their volunteer onboarding (and is taken from this great VICE piece). I love this example because it shows how resourceful people can be when united for a cause. When in doubt, ask your community for help and tap into their talents.

So those are a few examples that are top of mind for me. But, really, there are so many tactics out there. We didn’t even really touch on social/referral or growth flywheels. I’ll add to this post as stuff comes to mind. The moral here is that for cause-based organizations, there are a wealth of ways to unite your community and grow together. XML