You are here: Home » Resources » Articles » Tips for Facilitating an Environmental Email List

Tips for Facilitating an Environmental Email List

Tips for moderating environmental email discussion lists, including the "soft" skills of email list moderation, including encouraging relevant discussion, curtailing excess wordiness, and evening out the flow of discussion. Technical issues involved in email list facilitation.

The popularity of email lists within the environmental community has increased enormously in recent years and are an important organizing tool. However, as the number of email lists has proliferated, the quality and focus of these lists has not necessarily improved along with it. There is considerable duplication of effort, and well-managed email lists take a long time to find. The combination of these factors has often caused activists to spend a lot of time in front of a computer rather than building relationships with people.

This manual was created to help environmental organizers learn to use email discussion lists more effectively. Its goal is not to encourage an increased volume of email. Rather, we want to encourage more strategic use of email, to make it more effective as an organizing tool.



Please note that this document mainly addresses discussion lists (lists which allow all subscribers to post), rather than broadcast lists (one-to-many email newsletters).

Tips for Moderating Email Discussion Lists

Small to moderate-sized lists can be either moderated or unmoderated, but typically allow all subscribers to post. Regardless of whether a list is moderated, an email list moderator should play an active role in discussions, trying to promote relevant discussion and ensuring that the list is not being abused. The following sections will outline what the role of a facilitator should be in a discussion and will also provide some useful tips for email list moderators.

What Is Facilitation?

Progressive groups commonly use the term "facilitate" rather than "moderate" when referring to the person who "chairs" a meeting. Software or online services often employ the term "moderator". In common usage, the terms are nearly interchangeable.

The facilitator is concerned with promoting good process encouraging participation, allowing many people to participate and ensuring that the discussion remains democratic. Most of the software designed by various hosts usually attempts to apply some of the concepts of "in-person" facilitation to the Internet. This doesn't mean that facilitation online is the same as it would be in face-to-face situations; the medium is very different. However, email can be used successfully to encourage participatory dialogue and decision-making.

Responsibilities of a List Facilitator

Facilitation is what you make of it. On active discussions, it takes about 10 minutes a day to do a minimal job, 20 minutes to do a good job, 30 minutes to do a great job. Some discussions function as occasional alerts and the time commitment may be even lower. Facilitation is a skill that takes time to perfectthe more time you put into it, the better your discussion will be.

Key responsibilities of a list moderator/facilitator include:

1. Helping to create or revise the description used to promote your discussion and the welcome message people get when they subscribe.

2. Encouraging people to post (submit) material that is appropriate and relevant to guidelines in your welcome message -- and to be polite.

3. Cleaning the list when you get "bounces" due to bad email addresses or full mailboxes and helping users who have problems getting off the list.

4. Helping people subscribe or unsubscribe and answering any questions that pertain to that list.

5. Balancing power dynamics within the discussion -- often people who work 9-to-5 jobs that involve using computers have their opinions over-represented on lists.

6. Bringing debated topics to closure by summarizing and reposting the conclusions of important discussions.

Facilitators are also expected to be able to check their email regularly and to plan in advance when they are going to be away for more than 4 days to have someone help them. Facilitation can be shared with someone else if you configure the list hosting software to permit additional facilitators. You should also be able to make a commitment of several months.

Most people who have been involved in group meetings can exercise pretty good judgment about what is appropriate to put out on a list. The biggest obstacles are usually dealing with the email system, not because email itself is that complicated, but because the software that operates mailing lists can sometimes be confusing.

Encouraging Relevant Discussion

So, how in practice do you encourage people to send material to your list that "is appropriate and relevant to the topic of the list"? At first, the challenge is to get the discussion going. When new people subscribe, a "welcome" message could ask them to introduce themselves; since people are understandably "net-shy," a little gentle prodding may be necessary to make the introductions really happen.

Asking people questions that directly pertain to the topic of your list will help your discussion stay focused. For example, if you run a creative action list and you don't explicitly encourage people to share creative action ideas, what you end up getting on your list may mirror the rest of the Internet -- activism ideas may comprise less than 5% of the content, and creative actions less than 1%. By merely asking people to report what creative actions they have organized or participated in and then asking them to say how they were able to do it, you should be able to increase the flow of information related to "orchestrating creative actions" to at least 20%.

Here are some general suggestions on how you can open up discussion:

-- Announce on the list and elsewhere that the list will be used for discussion of a particular issue or event that is imminent and start this discussion off with an initial message introducing the issue or event and how it affects or has inspired activism

-- Establish a reserve of flyers and articles in your computer, either ones you have made or ones collected from other Web sites or lists, that you can send to the list whenever there is a lull.

-- Scan other lists on the Internet, picking out relevant articles to repost, sometimes tagging on provocative questions to generate feedback

-- Establish a list "editorial board" of some active users who are responsible for posting interesting material to the list

-- Encourage people to post drafts of their work to the list for comments (poster ideas, pamphlets, or analyses of previous actions)

-- Give private feedback to people who have posted good stuff, encouraging more

-- Advertise the list to get new subscribers with a fresh perspective

-- Conduct some sort of inquiry or survey requesting info on what's happening "out there." This can be as simple as saying "Do you know about any interesting actions or campaigns that are currently taking place?" (this works very well)

-- Remind people occasionally about the potential for email to build social movements

-- Put policies in the "welcome" file for new subscribers setting up guidelines to limit the length of messages, posted, or to prohibit the forwarding of messages, articles, etc. from other places to the discussion.

Curtailing Excess Verbiage

The flip side of the problem of getting a discussion going is the problem of preventing long discussions, which digress from the main purpose of the list. You may just have a problem with a few people posting too often, or people posting messages that are too long. Or you may have people who wish to disrupt the discussion.

History has shown that when progressive discussions on the Internet are effective, they get attacked and subverted by ideological individuals who criticize every point and every assumption, to the extent that a constructive discussion is no longer possible. For example, on the ACTNOW-L campus activism list, there were 100 messages posted per day for a few weeks debating libertarian positions on gun control. This activity effectively forced people interested in having their mailbox free for discussions about student activism to take themselves off the ACTNOW-L mailing list. Readership fell off 70% during this period.

To help your discussion stay focused, prevent it from circulating impertinent material, and to make sure it remains a friendly environment, we suggest that you adopt clearly stated list guidelines. These guidelines should be emailed to all new members, periodically be sent out to the list, be kept on a Web site for the list (if one exists).

We suggest that you consider including the following guidelines for email discussion lists.

A message may be judged inappropriate if it is:

-- not relevant to the subject of the list at hand.

-- dated (no longer relevant)

-- shameless self-promotion or a fund-raising gimmick.

-- a personal attack (it is O.K. to criticize someone's ideas, but not OK to call the person stupid.)

-- too long (anything over 35K should be checked to see if it needs to be that long)

-- contains large attachments

-- part of an endless back and forth argument that has grown tired

-- a me too message that doesnt add anything substantive to the discussion

-- part of too-frequent postings by the same individual (i.e. more than 7x a week) unless that person has made an extraordinary contribution

-- a local event of local interest posted to a non-local group

-- already cross-posted to many other discussions lists

-- in violation of guidelines you have established for your discussion.

If you need a sample set of list guidelines to work from, we have published a set of Sample Guidelines for Large Email Discussion Lists.

Even if you are running an unmoderated list and cannot prevent inappropriate messages from being posted, you can still remind people on the list about proper protocol if the list seems to be receiving too many inappropriate messages. Alternatively, you can email individuals if you see that they are repeatedly violating guidelines and, in a worst case scenario, unsubscribe them from the list.

Also, the Internet tends to produce a lot of action alerts that may draw people away from local activism. Repeatedly sending out action alerts that are about issues other than the one your list focuses on can result in your list becoming "just another hodgepodge activist list" that does not serve any specific purpose.

To help compensate for the globalizing tendency of the Internet, only post action alerts that are pertinent to your lists topic. Alerts should be relevant to your issue, constituency, or local area. By focusing on localized goals, action alerts can be much more effective. If a list is sending out ten action alerts a day notifying subscribers about another national campaign or an action that is taking place 1,500 miles away, it is unlikely that the one action alert out of 50 that is pertinent to the reader will actually get read. However, if a list focuses on a specific issue or local area, and only transmits action alerts that are relevant to that list, there is a greater probability that the action alert will be read and acted on.

Finally, a danger in Internet-inspired activism (or with groups focused exclusively on lobbying) is the tendency to bounce around to whatever "fashionable" issue has won this month's competition for national or international attention. You can counteract this tendency by periodically reminding people of the importance of staying focused on outlined goals and objectives, rather than becoming caught up in discussing the latest action-of-the-month.

Evening the Flow of Discussion

Finding the middle ground between an excess and an insufficient number of postings can be difficult. Listed below are a few suggestions that might help you to achieve equilibrium. These tips will also make messages sent by your list more absorbable.

-- Limit postings to no more than one or two per day per person (or per week for larger lists). This forces list members to wait for commentary by others and provides an opportunity for people who are able to check their email only once a day to participate equally with those members who are online 10 hours a day.

-- Set the list to default as a "digest" if your list software permits. This will cause all the messages in one day to be delivered in one large "batch" every 24 hours. The Hanford Watch list, dealing with controversies involving cleanup of radioactive waste, uses this approach. It makes the volume of 8-10 messages per day more "digestible."

Large Scale Email Organizing

Tips for lists with 500 or more subscribers

Email lists with 500 or more subscribers seldom work well as discussion lists. Therefore, large email lists need to be configured differently than smaller lists. Similarly, if a list is intended to be used for organizing large numbers of people, it must be designed in a special way. There are several ways to approach a list this size.

The easiest way to administer a list of this size is to run the list as a broadcast list. Only the list owner can post to a broadcast list. Broadcast lists are thus often known as email newsletters. How frequently email newsletters are published depends on the interest level of subscribers, the amount of information that needs to be circulated, the time sensitiveness of material and how much time the facilitator/editor can spend developing newsletters.

A second alternative, which is primarily useful for moderated discussion lists that have grown too large to be administered in the manner that they previously were, is to have multiple moderators for a single list. Moderators can then share facilitation tasks, reducing individual time commitment and improving the quality of the list. In many cases when lists have become unmanageable because the facilitator no longer can devote the time necessary for administering the list, changing the design of the list to have multiple moderators can save the list.

Breaking down discussions into smaller, more focused subgroups and then sending out the most pertinent mail from each discussion to all the lists is another way to deal with large scale e-organizing. This is a good solution because it creates a greater sense of community and allows stronger relationships to develop through the list. Encouraging specialized or local discussions is an important way to reduce the amount of email that activists receive and to streamline the Internet to make e-activism more effective. Smaller lists with a narrower topic will be able to generate the most effective and directed discussions with the least amount of traffic. For instance, it is more sensible and efficient for a teacher to join a discussion for fourth grade math teachers (assuming that this is their specialty), than it does for the same teacher to join a nationwide discussion for teachers.

This is not to say that large lists are not as effective as smaller lists or vice versa, each has their virtues. It is just to highlight the importance of having a list designed for a specific purpose and running your list according to your goal. If your objective is to keep as many people as possible informed about your organization work or recent events, than a large list is ideal.

Technical Considerations for Email List Facilitators

List facilitators are the point-people for keeping on top of the technical and administrative aspects of the list. Some suggested best practices include:

-- Include list rules and posting guidelines in the list's welcome message, and configure the list hosting software to send the welcome message to all new subscribers.

-- Make the list guidelines clear, and enforce them, but avoid being dictatorial.

-- Keep your current members informed of any changes in the guidelines.

-- If you set guidelines, follow them yourself. Don't expect that just because you're the moderator, you should be able to blatantly promote yourself, etc.

-- Include instructions for leaving the list in the footer of list messages.

-- Problems with list members should be handled off-list and kept private.

Some list facilitators put in place rather stringent technical rules to keep postings readable and to prevent confusion. These types of rules are usually most appropriate for larger lists with active moderation, but may include such practices as:

-- Email must be in plain text, not in HTML or in some other format that is not accessible by all list members.

-- Messages should include the authors full name and organizational affiliation (if any).

-- Replies should not quote an entire previous message. Unfortunately, some email programs make this easy to do by automatically including the original email at the end of all replies. You should edit the original message to only quote relevant pieces and put your comments in context.

-- Copyrighted material should not be posted to the list. In general, long articles should be referenced by URL, rather than copying large portions into an email.

-- Cross-postings (messages sent simultaneously to other lists) are discouraged.

List facilitators may also filter accidental postings, such as SPAM, list administration ("add me," "remove me," etc.) and replies mistakenly sent to the list instead of an individual.

Again, you may find it helpful to refer to our Sample Guidelines for Large Email Discussion Lists as a source of inspiration for creating your own list guidelines.


Running a successful email discussion list requires active moderation, both to draw out discussion and to keep distractions in check. Email list facilitators also have an important role to play in managing the administrative and technical aspects of discussion lists, which helps lists maintain a high "signal to noise" ratio.

Are there specific "best practices" that you've found helpful when you're facilitating email discussion lists? Do you have questions or comments about this article? Leave a comment below and we'll refine this article based on your feedback!

This article is adapted from Tips on Facilitating a Social Change Email List by Marissa King and Rich Cowan of Organizers' Collaborative, which can be found at:


Document Actions