How do you scale your community activities? Community playbooks map the pathways

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Science Borealis works with the new AAAS Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement to develop a community playbook

Sarah Boon and Kimberly Moynahan

In 2013, a small group of Canadian science communicators set out to find a way to collate all Canadian science blogs in one online location, envisioning a hub for Canadian science communications. Over the course of just 10 months, that little group attracted volunteers to help with the cause, acquired sponsorship to create a website, and made a splash at the 2013 Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto, where Science Borealis was officially launched.

Fast forward to 2018. Today, Science Borealis is no longer a scrappy startup but a registered non-profit corporation with over 40 volunteers. Internally, we have directors, officers, and a core management team who oversee and lead the business and operations; we have team managers and coordinators who wrangle our many volunteers across our editorial, outreach, and social media teams. We email each other, chat on Slack, manage shared drives, attend regular phone meetings, and sometimes meet up in person.

Externally, we offer student training in science communication, an effort that involves outreach to universities, information packets, and one-on-one interactions with students. We also deal with sponsors, potential advertisers, media, volunteer applicants, and partners such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Genome Alberta (our long-time sponsor), and the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.

All of this means that things have gotten much more complicated. It’s one thing to operate ad hoc when you’re a small team and a new startup. But our growth in the last few years has raised many new challenges and we’ve come to realize that we have to formalize and codify … well, everything.

How do you do this?

We were very fortunate to receive advice on this from Lou Woodley and Rebecca Aicher from the newly launched Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The Center consolidates work already underway in three areas: i) the AAAS Community Engagement Fellowship program, ii) on-demand trainings and other support activities for scientific community managers and organisations looking to build communities and collaborations, and iii) a basic research program including a small visiting scholars program.

In our case, they hosted a one-hour webinar training with our team last month on “Creating a Community Playbook.”

A playbook is a living resource (in any format) that makes all of the workings of an organization accessible to the entire community. At a high level, this includes documenting things like the mission statement, strategies, codes of conduct, best practices, and ethics. At the operational level, it includes organization charts, roles and responsibilities, team handbooks, templates and tools, and other material relevant to day-to-day operations.

While this all sounds daunting, Woodley and Aicher broke down playbook development into six manageable pieces for us — Why, Who, How, Where, What, and When.

  • WHY: This is the place to lay out the community vision and value. Included here is a description of what the community is, who it’s for, and what it aims to do.
  • WHO: This “who’s who” section lists all the community members, stakeholders and affiliates and describes their key roles and responsibilities.
  • HOW: This section outlines how the community will reach its goals and provides guidelines on how it functions. This might include things like templates, FAQs, standard processes, and best practices.
  • WHERE: Here’s where we identify where the community comes together, online and in-person, why we use certain tools, and how to best reach team members.
  • WHAT: This section identifies key metrics to be used to evaluate whether or not a community is doing what it set out to do.
  • WHEN: This is a roadmap that shows how the organization will move forward over the next 12+ months. It defines the timing of key events, opportunities, and deadlines.

Woodley and Aicher explained that Playbooks are not one-size-fits all and are also not top-down edicts. They are shaped for and by their communities, and are delivered in the way that best serves that community.

For example, Jennifer Davison, AAAS 2017 Community Engagement Fellow ’17, developed the Urban@UW Playbook, which is a Google document from which anyone can learn more about how the group works. Woodley and Aicher highlighted other examples including communities that issue printed or pdf documents to be shared in-house only, wiki pages, and private logins to web-based documentation.

Woodley and Aicher broke down the playbook process into a series of easily identifiable steps, so that what seemed impossibly complicated before we chatted with them, now seems manageable. We now feel ready to tackle our Science Borealis Playbook, and are looking forward to the increased clarity and vision it will bring to our enterprise.

If you’re interested in learning more about community management, Lou Woodley noted that they’ve opened the call for applications for their second cohort of AAAS Community Engagement Fellows, who’ll start in January 2019. If you’re interested in community engagement beyond just a community playbook, be sure to apply.


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