When resources, both free and paid, crop up around an industry, it’s a net positive. It means that there is growth, to the point where businesses can be built around educating, connecting and empowering those who operate in the space – or, perhaps more commonly, those thinking about entering it.

With money, can come hype. Sometimes the people behind a resource might get a little overzealous in how they promote it. Perhaps they make it sound like it is required learning if you want to excel or that, if you don’t partake in it, you are somehow inferior.

In reality, these resources are simply a component, of many, that can help you become a better community professional. Books, college courses, conferences, certifications, memberships, training programs and workshops are simply optional components. They can help you to become great, but you are not great simply because you consume them.

With community work, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that it takes money to be great. That’s just not true. Our industry was built by people who dove in, took action and shared their experiences freely. You do not need money to become a great community professional. You need time and commitment. Here’s how.

Participate in Communities

This might go without saying, but within every great community professional, you first have a participant. This is the very starting point of understanding online community. Participating in communities doesn’t qualify you to manage them, but it’s important to understand the core of our work – connecting people – and to see community from the member’s perspective.

Volunteer in Communities

When you are an active participant, you might have the opportunity to volunteer within the community, as a moderator or in some other function. If you have the time, take that opportunity. Though volunteers can fill all sorts of roles, a role like moderator is ideal because you’ll be interacting with members in a function where you have responsibility.

This will expose you to not only the positive, happy aspects of community, but also the less savory ones. You aren’t just idly watching – you actually have to get involved, talk to people and see how they react. While community is much more than moderation, moderation is very much core to our existence. Community is about creating consistent spaces where people interact with one another. One of the big ways that you achieve that consistency is moderation.

When you volunteer, you are working under a community manager or administrator. Volunteering under someone who really understands this role is a great way to learn. But even if the person leading your community isn’t that good, you can still learn from what they do, that you might do different.

Start a Community

Whether you are a student interested in community, a professional in a different discipline looking to switch, or someone who is looking to get back into the workforce, it’s important that your theoretical knowledge finds grounding in actual experience. You don’t have to wait for a job to gain that experience.

It’s easy to start an online community. In the title of this post, I said $0, and I meant it. You don’t have to spend money. You could setup a Facebook group or some other free means of hosting a community. But if you have a few bucks to spare, I would recommend doing so in a space you control. Register a domain name and setup a hosting account. If you need to, you can find free web hosting and domain name registrars often have promotions for new .com domains (as I write, you can register one at GoDaddy for $1.17). Nothing else you could spend that money on will give you as great of a return.

Do everything that you think is necessarily to prepare for launch. Investigate the free software options. Install them, test them out and make a choice. Customize the appearance. Decide how the community will be organized and where you want the first participants to focus their attention. Set guidelines. Seed the community (with real people) before you open the doors. Promote it. Welcome people. Highlight great content. Remove guideline violations and ban people, where necessary. Listen and respond to feedback. Add new features.

In short, do whatever it is you think should be done. You’ll make mistakes, we all do. But you’ll learn so much, and you might even create an amazing community. Or you might not. Every effort isn’t a successful one, but they can all make you better.

The reason I recommend creating your own community from scratch, with software you control, is because you’ll learn about community from start to finish. Sifting through software options is good experience. Being responsible for the platform is even better. You are picking up some light technical skills that can prove invaluable.

If you were to just create a Facebook group, or something like that, you wouldn’t be maximizing your experience. I want you to get your hands dirty, and Facebook really limits what you can do. Plus, once you understand how community works at this depth, you can always start a Facebook group later.

Free Resources

There are plenty of free resources online. Some are tied to paid resources, but the best ones don’t make you feel like you need to pay them to gain knowledge. Articles and blogs (like those by Bill Johnston, Carrie Jones, Evan Hamilton and Venessa Paech), podcasts and live shows (like #CMGRHangout and Community Signal), mailing lists and discussion groups (like CMX and e-mint) and Twitter feeds. The examples here are just the tip of the iceberg.

No matter you learn: by reading, watching, listening or talking to others, the free resources are out there. Be open to all knowledge, but don’t let everybody influence you. Identify the voices that resonate and find people you respect.

Since we’re talking about online community, it can be easy to forget about offline resources. Namely, your local library. It’s a great, free resource that might have books about online community (my book is in 1,240 libraries, which I’m very proud of). They will almost certainly have books about complementary subjects, like social science.

Our Space is Full of Generous People

I’ve been managing communities for a long time (coming up on 16 years, with 18 in moderation), but I’ve only been known to the wider industry for maybe 10 of that, and probably not seriously until my book came out in 2008. I wasn’t sure how people would react to me, but no matter who I met, they were almost always kind. It means a lot to me that people who came before me have embraced my work and been supportive of it.

That’s how I try to be, with all professionals that contact me, but especially newer ones. I want to help, encourage people and share my star (whatever that’s worth). Whether it’s providing some input on a challenge, answering a question or giving someone a pep talk to get through a touch of impostor syndrome, I’m there.

Our industry has no shortage of people who are generous with their time, and happy to answer questions via email or Skype or get coffee. If you find someone that you respect, reach out to them and introduce yourself. You might find yourself a mentor.

It’s Not That You Shouldn’t Spend Money

The point of this article isn’t that you shouldn’t spend money. Not at all. If your goal is to work in this industry, and especially once you are in it, you’ll probably want to spend the money you can justify on furthering yourself professionally. There are amazing (paid) resources available.

But if you set out and attended every community conference this year, bought every book, paid for every training program and joined every industry organization that charges for a membership (let’s leave aside the idea of going back school), you’d be out tens of thousands of dollars.

The next great community professional might be a senior in college on his way to a marketing degree, and already tapped out financially, who has decided that he’s more passionate about community building. It could be a 15 year old kid in a rural area, whose family can barely afford to put food on the table. It might be a single parent working 2 jobs, still paying back their student loans. It might be you.

There are well-paying jobs in community (we’re getting there), but people don’t often choose to begin in this field because they see dollar signs. They do it because it speaks to them, because it is a role they have filled in other parts of their life, and it makes so much sense for it to be what they do for a living. Because they believe it will be rewarding, meaningful work. Because they believe it has potential.

If that describes you, it’s important that you know that the opportunity is out there, no matter who you are, where you come from or how much money you have. Because while it would be foolish to suggest that money can’t help you reach that opportunity, it would be completely wrong to suggest that money is a barrier that will prevent you from doing so.