Posted by: cmtalbert | July 21, 2009

Self-Empowering Communities

Once a community grows past a certain point, you have to allow other members of the community to take on the role of engaging more members. You simply cannot be everywhere, and it is important to allow people to have that leadership role of welcoming new people into a community and mentoring them. This crucial step of trust is done so often, it is surprising to me to see how wrong it goes so much of the time.

Often, when you point out to your volunteers that they have missed some opportunity to re-engage a newer member of the community they respond with, “Oh, I didn’t realize I could do that.” Even worse, new leaders in a community often feel that they must do everything their new office requires, and they lose sight of engaging others. Even long term members of a community can get so accustomed to the way things are that they forget to think about things that a community person could do on the project, and when asked by someone “what can I do?” they merely shrug.

At the Community Leadership Summit last weekend, I may have stumbled onto a solution for this problem. It’s an exciting solution that might be able to make communities more self-empowering. It all started when I misheard Sara Ford talking about the role of personas in the site design of the CodePlex site that she works on. I thought she was talking about Community Personas. And light bulbs went off in my head like it was a photo shoot.

Let me back up, in case you’ve never designed software before. Often you think about different typical users of the software. For example, two typical users are the new user and the advanced user. These two users will have very different skill sets, expectations, and preferred interactions with the software. So, you think a lot about each of these “personas” of users and you come up with their attributes: their likes, their dislikes, their backgrounds, and you create software that meets their expectations.

What if you did that with community members?

Now, I’m not saying that we force every community member into a cookie-cutter image of a specific volunteer type. I think that would be destructive and crippling for any community. I’m proposing that you identify the role a person is acting from. By creating personas around specific roles for volunteers you can begin to think about what motivates her, what she’s interested in doing for the project, what she expects from her involvement, etc. Once you start answering these questions, you can create a handbook for your community leaders so that they can easily identify contributors in those roles and quickly know exactly what to do to engage them.

For example, a typical role on the Mozilla project is the “Techie Newbie”. Very often, this person tends to be somewhat technically savvy, a university student, and somewhat shy.  By thinking through this type of persona you can come up with a bunch of motivations and next actions for this person.  For example, they are probably working with Mozilla in the interest of beefing up their resume and learning new skills.  They would be perfect for projects with challenges and some independence rather than projects that are more straightforward and highly monitored.

A perfect example of a task for someone like this (from my test development perspective) would be working on new tests for a specific CSS feature that has just landed.

This sort of analysis is as natural as breathing to me, but I have been working on ways to engage volunteer community members for the last seven years. However, I’ve seen firsthand how unintuitive this type of thinking is to most other people.  So often, the seemingly simple question of “What can I do to help?” freezes new leaders.  They have no idea what to say because they can’t think of an appropriate project or set of tasks for the person asking.

By creating a set of these personas for our volunteers we can help new leaders understand how to engage the community and create a better experience for new members attempting to get started in the Mozilla Project.  Doing this will help our community become more self-empowering.  At least, that is my hope.  I plan to do start working on this sort of persona definitions for the Mozilla QA project to see if it is going to be helpful.

At the Community Leadership Summit, I lead a discussion on this subject. After our discussion, the other participants were so energized by the idea that they put up a “whiteboad” and started brainstorming on what these community personas might be. Stunned and honored, I couldn’t believe it when I saw it.  But, reflecting on the caliber of people that were there, I really shouldn’t have been surprised.  They were simply awesome.  Here’s a picture of the whiteboard at the end of the day:

The "whiteboard"

The "whiteboard"



  1. Hi Clint! I’m the same Firefox fan that’s always asking you for the new builds and versions. Congratulations for your success in this meeting. I’m very glad it worked so well for you!

  2. This is really interesting. It’s a great idea for how to add some framework to answering the question of how people get involved while retaining some flexibility.

    I’d like to think about this for some of the things on my mind too — like engaging people in what mozilla is about, and the connections between the sometimes abstract ideas and the concrete things we do.

    Where do i follow what you’re doing — this blog?

    • Mitchell,

      I’ll probably start a wiki page and invite people to contribute community profiles. I could almost enumerate all of them for QA, but outside of that I must admit that I am fairly clueless. Once I set up the page and seed it with a few ideas, I’ll post the location to this blog. Thanks for your support!


  3. Interesting read, Clint! It reminds me of these kind of problems during my calendar lead time, sigh..

  4. I think you hit in on the nail– people can move mountains when they are empowered and they go even further when they are self-empowered, deriving things from their own thought.

    there’s a sense of pride and unbridled commitment to whatever it may be– a cause, a project, a task, a favor, anything– when you come upon it on your own accord.

    So glad you are out there sharing this concept and help us help empower others also!

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