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Tapping into the Wisdom of Your Community: How We Launched the Nonprofit Leadership Webinar Series

Submitted by: Natalia Castaneda on Feb 2nd, 2012 at 12PM PST

Last year during the Leadership Learning Community board meeting we experimented with the idea of a ‘networked board’.  We wondered, “How might governing in a more networked way help us to fulfill our mission of promoting leadership approaches that are more networked and collective?” And to test the idea in real time we invited several members of the LLC community, including Renato Almanzor from LeaderSpring, Beth Kanter (author of the Networked Nonprofit), and Kathy Reich from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to join the conversation during the board meeting.  The discussion was inspiring as we started to imagine what it would be like to encourage a higher level of engagement from our community.  One of the key take-aways for me was the fact that there is an incredible wealth of information in our community, and that asking people to share can go a long way.  With this in mind, we started to think of initiatives that would greatly benefit our community and that would be feasible to implement based on the resources that we had.  And that is when the LLC Nonprofit Leadership Webinar Series was created.

In the past we have hosted learning circles, which are face-to-face learning opportunities that have ranged from 10-100 participants in the Bay Area, Boston and other regions.  However, there is a lot of planning involved in organizing face-to-face meetings, and also since we are a national organization, some of our members were not getting access to these opportunities.  We hosted a few webinars in the past and found them to be great opportunities to share ideas and interact with the community, so we decided to experiment with the idea of launching a webinar series in 2011.  We wanted to tap into the community for the content, since they include many of the thought leaders in the field.  Here are some of the learnings and results this initiative has generated so far:


  1. Generated 900+ newsletter registrations
  2. Great participation levels per webinar (70-300), over 1,000 total participants
  3. Great response rate on follow up survey (ranges from 11%-40%)
  4. Increased interest from the community to host webinars (approx. 10 members have expressed interest in hosting a webinar this year)
  5. Increased traffic to the website.  The webinar page is now the second most popular section of our website, even though it was only launched a few months ago


  1. Start Small: Since this was an experiment, we wanted to start with small, feasible goals that were aligned with our resources.  We started brainstorming key topics that our audience would be interested in, and people in the community that had expertise in those areas.  We came up with three topics and people: planning for networks (Eugene Eric Kim), collective leadership (Alain Gauthier) and systems thinking (john powell).  We launched the program with these three sessions, hoping that we would learn from those how to shape the future of the program.  The sessions were highly successful (the systems thinking session has been the best performing so far, with over 300 participants) and gave us the momentum we needed to fully develop the series.
  2. Leverage the Resources you Have: Since we have been around for over 10 years, we have been able to establish relationships with key thought leaders in the field, including the ones mentioned before – Eugene is currently our board chair, Alain has partnered with us on conferences, and john was one of the co-authors of the Leadership and Race publication.  So asking them to participate as panelists was easier.  Still, we wanted to make it simple and straightforward for them to participate, so we developed an email that outlines the purpose of the webinar series, why the topic would be interesting for our community, what we need from them (session description, time for a 30 minute practice call, and the slides before the session) and what the next steps are.
    All of the people we reached out to were interested in hosting webinars because they saw it as a valuable opportunity to reach an engaged audience of over 2,000 leadership practitioners, funders, consultants and researchers across the nation.
  3. Don’t Hesitate to Ask:  By launching the webinar series we simply activated all the knowledge that was already in our community.  The content and expertise was already available, but it was up to us to set up the right context for the audience to share the content and engage in a conversation. Again, asking – and being specific about what you are asking for, can go a long way.
  4. Offer Diverse Content: We have had 10 sessions so far, covering diverse topics such as coaching, leadership and popular education, online engagement, and network strategies.  With every webinar we get better because we are able to learn from the previous session – after each session we send a short survey where we ask people to provide feedback on the session, and also indicate what other topics they are interested in.  By collecting and analyzing this data we are able to improve each session.
  5. Be Creative about Resources: We usually have three roles in every webinar: panelist, host and tech support.  In order to optimize our resources and also leverage our community, we always try to find people to help with the panelist and host roles. The host introduces the webinar series and the Leadership Learning Community, as well as introduces the panelist(s) and webinar for the day.  The host also collects all the questions and prioritizes them, and then facilitates the Q&A.  We have been able to ask our board members to participate as hosts and help support this key initiative in that way.

Technical Advice

  1. Platform: We have been using GoToWebinars. There are many webinar providers available, but we selected this one because the interface is simple and it offers valuable features: automated reminder emails, customizable registration form, ability to record the webinars, survey and polling capabilities.  Also, we were able to get it through TechSoup for a very affordable price – many webinar providers charge for each participant that joins the webinar, but GoToWebinars only has one set fee for the entire year that includes unlimited webinars and up to 1,000 people per webinar.  The only disadvantage that the tool has is that it doesn’t allow for a high level of engagement from the audience – participants can send comments and questions via the chat, but only the panelists and webinar organizers can see them. We have started to experiment with other tools to address this issue, for instance, using a Twitter hashtag (#leadershipnet) as another, more visible, channel for discussion.
  2. Structure of the Webinar: We ask panelists to take 20-25 minutes to present their content, and then we take the last 25 minutes for Q&A.  This format works particularly well with GoToWebinars.  This enables panelists to cover all their content, and the audience to have all the information they need to ask questions.  We have used polls and those seem to work well as another way of engaging the audience.
  3. Practice, Practice, Practice: There are a lot of things to consider in terms of technology support for the webinar – both for the panelist and hosts, so we schedule a practice session at least one week in advance where we test the system, the audio, key features, and address any content questions that may come up.
  4. Documentation: It’s important to aggregate all the information that is generated through the webinars so we created a page to host all the information: upcoming and past sessions, with links to the session materials (presentations, recordings, etc.) Often, there are many questions that come up during the sessions and the panelists are not able to answer them, so we encourage them to write follow-up blog posts to address any remaining questions.  This serves to create more valuable content for the website and continue to engage the audience around that topic.
  5. Evaluation:  As I mentioned earlier, we send a short survey after each webinar to evaluate the performance of the webinar.  We share the results with the panelists to provide them immediate feedback on their session as well.

This year we plan to continue the series, with at least one topic per month.  We also want to open up the process of signing up to present a session.  For instance, we recently sent out a survey to learn more from our community and we asked our members to indicate if they want to be a panelist for a session and to propose a topic.

As is the case with many community engagement initiatives, there is still a lot to learn and ways to improve the webinar series, but we are excited by the positive response we have received and look forward to the content that we have planned for this year.  Do you have other examples of ways to tap into the wisdom of your existing community?  Share your ideas and questions!