I have always prided myself on identifying community leaders and building strong teams of volunteer moderators. I have been very fortunate to have many amazing, wonderful people join the communities that I manage and become a part of my teams.

Recently, I was thinking about my team building philosophies, and I identified a set of principles that I adhere to, that have served me well. I’d like to share these principles with you.

While some of this depends on scale, most will apply very well to 99% of online communities – and the remainder can probably be altered to apply to the rest. For instance, if your volunteer program is so large that one person can’t handle it, that might be a clue that your organization needs to commit to community in a more meaningful way… and pay more than one person.

Identifying the Right People

  • The moderator selection process involves current moderators, who identify and help evaluate potential candidates. But ultimately, I make the final call. While I wouldn’t dismiss public elections wholesale, I generally do not recommend them because they are heavily influenced by popularity. Popular members don’t normally translate to good moderators, and the average member really doesn’t fully grasp what it takes to moderate a decent-sized community.
  • Exemplary members are always the goal. Expert knowledge of the topic is cool, but we want good people who are kind and thoughtful, above all else. These are members that already follow the guidelines and set the standard.
  • My communities are what the big word users would call pseudonymous. To put plainly, we have usernames. We might not know what they look like, what their age is (beyond passing COPPA) or what gender they are. They are judged by what they have done on our community. We sometimes know more about people (plenty of our members volunteer info). That said, once promoted to a moderator, I require a name and mailing address (I like to send gifts).
  • We do not accept applications to become a moderator. I find that the best people for the role are those who wouldn’t raise their hand, unless asked.
  • We do not have quotas team-wise. I don’t think, “I need to have 7 moderators.” I simply want as many great people as possible. If that is 2 or 20 or 200, I’m good.

It’s Not a Job

  • They are not employees and should never be treated as employees (for both legal and ethical reasons). They are contributors helping to maintain the thing they love. You can’t schedule them or give them shifts, just loose requirements.
  • Volunteer moderation is a mutually beneficial arrangement. They are helping you. They are helping the community. But they are also giving back to this thing they have derived so much value from. I send my staff members gifts, recognize and celebrate them when we reach milestones as a community and when they reach milestones individually. I also help them in their careers however I can.

Oversight and Management

  • Documentation is huge. We have user guidelines, staff guidelines, a situations guide which details common scenarios, and our user documentation, where every action every moderator (including myself) takes is viewable by all moderators.
  • I monitor all of their decisions. This sounds time consuming, but it’s not that bad. Mostly, it’s just me reviewing the documentation when I visit and reading through it. Most decisions they make are the right ones, and require no further action.
  • When something wasn’t handled correctly, I step in and make it right. When you moderate content, you will make mistakes. The idea is to limit them, but also to be able to recognize them and correct them. That could mean sending the member more info or it could mean restoring content and apologizing. My goal isn’t to 100% avoid mistakes, but to, in the end, make the right call 100% of the time.
  • When they make a mistake, I never leave them out to dry. If you ever see me apologize for a moderation mistake (not hard to find), I always say “I” if I made the mistake myself, and “we,” if it was done by someone else. At the end of the day, they are just doing what they thought they were supposed to. It falls back on me.
  • I treat mistakes as learning opportunities. They are encouraged to ask questions, and I am always available to them. They have my cell phone in the event of an emergency (they know to escalate anything serious, where a person is in immediate danger). Thankfully, this has been rare for us.

Building Chemistry

  • Volunteer moderators are part of a team of people moving in one direction, that is managed by me. They are not a group of individuals with different interpretations of our guidelines or independent motives.
  • They do not manage each other. My teams have great camaraderie, and I believe that one of the biggest reasons for it is that I do not allow them to criticize each other. If they have a problem with what a fellow moderator did, they bring it to me, and I handle it. I do not tell the moderator it came from a another moderator. It’s either an issue or it isn’t, the source doesn’t matter.

Building Trust and Loyalty

  • I believe strongly in redirecting criticism onto me and shifting praise to them.
  • Thanks to the aforementioned documentation, we all know what is going on at all times. This completely removes negative emotions that would be tied to secrecy.
  • To that end, I believe in showing my moderators pretty much every action I take and every noteworthy message I receive from a member and send to one. When you hide these types of messages from your staff, they often only see the end result, which makes them question how we arrived at that point. They know that X was banned, but why? With me, my staff knows exactly where I am with every member. They see what I see. They watch me try to work with the member. They see the positive result or the negative one. This leads to them pretty much always being supportive of my decisions, which I am grateful for.
  • As part of my routine for evaluating changes to our community, I ask the staff for feedback. That’s tremendously valuable for me, and also makes them part of the process of launching the change, which leads to greater support of it. Even if I want to take an idea to our members for feedback, I’ll usually go to the staff first for the initial refining of it.

I really believe that policies, handbooks, etc. are the easy part. It’s the soft stuff that is hard. Picking the right people, talking with them constantly, monitoring what they do, supporting them and appreciating them – that’s the hard part. But if you do it right, it’s so rewarding.

Similar to the point Carrie Jones recently made on her blog, I love and am proud of what my former moderators have gone on to do, both in their lives (amazing families) and in their work. Of everything I do in community, it is one of the things that means the most to me. My moderators write books, they build businesses, they work at big, successful companies working on products you’ve probably used. They’re great people. I don’t have them forever, but I am grateful for the time I do, and my goal is for their time as a volunteer moderator to be a stepping stone in their life that they look back on fondly.