Leading through uncertainty: Navigate your community through a crisis

Here’s a blog post I never thought I’d write. Running a community through my worst-ever crisis while it’s still ongoing. If you have been a community leader or member during COVID, it might not be a surprise for you. Not for me either. It’s not the first time that I’ve facilitated spaces during tense times, times of uncertainty, or even war, but now is certainly the most difficult one.

I have always emphasized how communities can serve as a space for support. While I work mostly with professional communities, I always witness the magic when a community becomes an open space where members feel comfortable sharing challenges and asking for advice. In many professional communities, members become so connected that professional and personal borders blur, and the connections tighten.

In times of crisis, these communities, these special spaces, can provide the support that people need and create collective sturdiness. That’s why I’ve gathered some thoughts, tips, and examples of running a community during times of crises. I hope you won’t have to use them, but crises are part of our lives, and we should understand how to navigate through them.

Looking for some inspiration in these tough times?

Read about the power of community with 4 examples from around the globe

Take a look inside

Crisis times don’t differentiate between people and, in communities, between community leaders and members. So when we talk about leading communities during times of crisis, we should remember what leadership is about.

Leadership starts from within.

If we don’t feel safe or lack the necessary energy, skills, and ability to lead, it won’t work during normal times, and it certainly won’t work in a crisis. Even the airlines say that in an emergency we should put our oxygen masks on first, before we help others. In order to give, we need to know that we’re in a good, stable place to begin with.

Even the airlines say that in an emergency we should put our oxygen masks on first | Photo: Hanson Lu

Before taking any step in adjusting your community to the crisis, here are some questions that you should ask yourself:

  • How do you feel right now?
  • What do YOU need now as a community leader in order to lead the community?
  • Can you dedicate the energy and time to the community?
  • Can someone else take your role temporarily?

You don’t have to immediately answer these questions. In the current war, everyone I knew was in such a state of shock that their immediate response was to assist others and begin initiatives related to the war – our communities turned into spaces for sharing needs and finding solutions. I asked myself too – how can I use my skills to support others? I joined managing a new volunteer Facebook group that grew from 2,000 members to 30,000 in one day.

I saw how our communities provided information, exchanged tips, initiated projects, and even played a role in saving lives (!). Facebook and WhatsApp features, for example, were utilized to create ad-hoc solutions, connecting volunteers to initiatives, delivering food to families in need, or simply offering support during sleepless nights caused by trauma or anxiety.

While my community was active with these new activities, during the first weeks, without a doubt, I wasn’t dedicated to lead it, enforce the rules, or reach out to community members.
My point is, although I expressed no leadership in my own community, it worked for the members. For me, it looked like chaotic information, but it worked. That’s why there was no point, for example, in being quiet during the weekend because people needed help NOW. It’s also okay to do nothing. It’s okay to be overwhelmed and not be able to lead. It’s okay to take other priorities, especially if you’re leading a community as a volunteer or as a side project.

At some point, I asked myself the following questions because I realized that I can’t help anyone if I eat junk food all day, don’t sleep, and don’t take care of my mental health. It’s important to ask yourself too:

  • Do you have a routine of healthy eating?
  • How do you take care of your mental health?
  • Do you manage to dedicate time to exercise or at least take a walk in the fresh air?
  • What will help you be resilient?

Now, after you’ve taken a look inside and you have the capacity to dedicate the time and energy to thinking about the community, let’s explore how you can adjust it to the new situation and to the uncertain times.

How can you adjust your community to the crisis?

It’s okay to leave your strategy on the side.

It’s okay to not follow your KPIs.

It’s okay to leave the content that you planned on your planning board without executing it. What’s relevant now is providing your members the support they need. Some of you might feel that you have to stop the community activity until the crisis passes. Remaining flexible and attentive to the changes is key. If you do find a space for adjusting your community, let’s get into some specific aspects of running the community during a crisis. All of them are based on the 9 components of community building strategy.

Members: 

Leading a community is about leading people. The members are always on top. Without members, there’s no community, so they should always be the priority.

  • What do the members need now?
  • What are their fears and challenges?
  • What can help them in this situation?

There’s no one answer. Once the crisis turns into a crisis routine, you might find the challenges prior to the crisis are the same or even worse. For example, people lose jobs and they desperately look for new ones. To tackle that, you can think creatively about how to provide them access to jobs or how they can support each other in the search process.

Provide the community members the support they need | Photo: Dim Hou

Activities: 

One of the most challenging aspects of being a community leader is adapting community activities to the current situation, particularly when you’ve already planned and worked hard on some amazing events that had to be postponed or canceled. These questions can help you figure out what to do next:

  • Which activities are relevant now and which aren’t?
  • If you can’t do in-person activities, are you able to move your activities online?
  • Is there a new activity that you can do that is relevant or even critical for the current situation?
  • Which activities will increase the sense of belonging among your members?

During a crisis, you can bring in a keynote speaker to talk about mental health. Maybe it will be useful for your members to know their legal rights or receive financial aid knowledge. Perhaps you can gather and facilitate a session where they simply share their thoughts and needs. It will help increase the sense of belonging.

Rituals: 

Community rituals help to shape and preserve the community’s cultures and values. You may take a look at them and ask yourself:

  • Are the current community’s rituals still working in the new reality?
  • Are there any new rituals that you can start to support your members?

For example, if you used to create a monthly call for 1:1 coffee, where members share which person they would love to meet and network with, maybe now is not the time. But you can start a weekly spotlight to help members find hope in the harsh days. “What made you feel good this week?” can help members remember that not everything is crushed, even when news and social media look alike.

Policy: 

While the community policy is meant to structure the community and give clear rules of Do’s and Don’ts, you can rethink the policy and adjust it during a crisis.

  • Is it a must to enforce the current rules?
  • Do the rules need to change?
  • What are the red lines?

It’s okay if, temporarily, you shouldn’t enforce the rules if the community doesn’t serve its own purpose. For example, if your community is around a professional topic but members are asking non-relevant questions – maybe you would consider “flexing” the rules. As long as the community is a safe space for its members to take care of what they need right now, and everybody is aligned with that.

Even if your community turns into a chaos of information without rules and it’s working, make sure to watch the language used. Keep the discourse positive and provide a space for a range of emotions so the members can feel safe to share them.

As a community leader, you should navigate your community to the place that you think is best | Photo: Joshua Woroniecki

Platforms: 

Our community platform was meant to support community goals, activities, and drive engagement. Once you figure out what your members need right now and how you align your community activities with the current situation, it’s crucial to take a look at your platform and see whether it serves your members at its best.

  • How can your community platform support the crisis times and your current goals?
  • Do you need to adjust the platform’s features?
  • Are there features that you haven’t used yet but are worth trying now?


Here’s another real example, unfortunately: turning an online community’s platform from public to private because of cyber attacks and fake profiles caused by the crisis. You should keep your members safe with all available means.

Running a community during a crisis and feeling as busy as ever?

Here are tips to manage your community in busy times

Navigating your community into a crisis routine

A crisis routine is an awkward expression but a practical one. It means that the crisis is not over, but we learn how to tackle its challenges. It means that we slowly bring back the community to a routine by relaunching community activities, reinforcing rules that were lost during the crisis, and reminding the members what the community is about.

Use your leadership skills as a community leader and navigate your community to the place that you think is best. As a leader, it’s crucial for you to be sensitive and empathetic while encouraging your members to behave the same way. You don’t know who among your members were affected by the crisis. Additionally, use creativity to provide your members with the support they need and be as flexible as possible.

Lastly, always go back to the start – leadership starts from within.

Take breaks and take care of yourself, mentally and physically, and ask for help when needed.
Celebrate small achievements along the way. Yes, there are achievements despite a crisis! You’ve made a profound impact on people’s lives during their most challenging times, and that’s true leadership.

Acknowledge and celebrate your community as a whole. Remember, your community doesn’t exist in isolation. By fostering a space of mutual support, empathy, collaboration, and problem-solving, you contribute positivity to both your community and your community members’ surroundings and to a collective sturdiness. Take pride in your accomplishments; they are not merely obvious.

And always keep in mind – the crisis will pass, and more stable times will come. If you’re seeking to brainstorm your challenges, reach out to me. Together, we’ll explore the best approach. Wishing you a lot of good news.

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