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Community Call How-To’s

Written by: Emily Lescak, Stefanie Butland

Stefanie Butland, former Community Manager for rOpenSci and member of the Event Fund advisory committee, led a question and answer session for event fund grantees and fiscally-sponsored project leaders focused on community calls. rOpenSci community calls are online events in which information is shared with the goals of reinforcing the organization’s mission and values,  bringing people’s perspectives to light, and identifying unmet needs on a topic. Strong social facilitation at every step is a key to successful community calls to help all participants feel like they belong and have something to contribute. Many of the same principles apply, whether the event is called a community call, panel discussion, or similar. In this blog post, we’ll review the flow of community call development, from deciding on a topic to capturing the outcomes. You can also read a modified version of this post that was written specifically for the rOpenSci community here.

Choosing a topic

Ideally you will solicit input from your team and community, but then it’s up to you to decide what topics are best to cover. It’s best to keep the topic focused rather than trying to cover too much. Stefanie has recently experimented with crowdsourcing ideas in a transparent way via GitHub. This has resulted in some rich public discussions that help prioritize topics.

She then asked her colleagues to vote for topics using emojis on Slack.

Selecting and preparing speakers

If there is an expert on your topic, then it may make sense to invite a single speaker. Otherwise, several short presentations or a panel discussion may be more appropriate, bearing in mind that organizing regular events with multiple speakers is time consuming! The open topic discussions on GitHub can reveal potential speakers or people whom she might ask to suggest others who are “not the usual suspects."

She starts planning her calls two to three months in advance so that she can find a time that works for the presenters and uses a scheduling platform (e.g., to narrow down a date and time. When scheduling, keep time zones in mind! Think about where your target audience is largely located and whether the time is welcoming for them to attend.

Stefanie schedules a one-hour pre-event meeting with the speakers to introduce them to each other, help them understand their audience and what is important to convey, ask them what questions they think should be raised, and cover logistical details of the event. She has found that these pre-event sessions lead to meaningful conversations among the panelists and actually ends up minimizing their preparation time.

Promoting the event

rOpenSci’s community calls are advertised on their website, social media, Slack workspaces and mailing lists. With many people finding increased constraints on their time and more virtual events to choose from, she emphasizes the specific value of each community call and what makes their content and style unique.

Running the event

It is important to begin with a script consisting of an introduction to your organization, code of conduct, Zoom etiquette, norms for asking questions, and introductions to the speakers. rOpenSci sessions run for an hour and consist of 40 minutes of presentation and 20 minutes for questions. Attendees are encouraged to add their questions and take notes in a collaborative doc. This results in clear and concise questions and can help lower barriers to participation. During Q&A, people are invited to unmute to ask their question, or the moderator can ask on their behalf. Stefanie typically gets about 40-50 attendees at her community calls, although the number can sometimes be as high as 90. She emphasizes that it is important to think beyond numbers of attendees; even if there is a lower turnout, those in attendance are likely gaining a lot from the discussion.

Capturing outcomes and impact

The archive page for each community call includes the video with subtitles, links to speakers’ slides, the collaborative notes doc, and resources on the topic. To encourage participation from community members, she has invited attendees to co-author a blog post with a staff member. Don’t underestimate the value of sharing your impact success stories or anecdotes with your team and your community!

It takes a lot of time to plan community calls well! However, the work can be dialed back. For example, not every call needs to have a summary blog post. If you’re new to organizing community calls, keep them simple! To streamline the effort of organizing a community call from start to finish, Stefanie works from a checklist and takes detailed planning notes.

Community calls are a great low-barrier way for new people to be exposed to your project and for you to hear what people are thinking about a topic. Here are some resources to support your community calls:

Featured Image Photo by Michael Pointner on Unsplash