shutterstock_256016005July 6, 2015; Wall Street Journal Blogs, “Digits”

“Building software is easy, building community is hard,” says Sam Altman of Y Combinator, a major investor in Reddit, the online link-sharing website where special interest groups called “subreddits” are moderated primarily by volunteers. He was commenting on a shutdown action by hundreds of those moderators over this past weekend in reaction to the abrupt (at least to the outside world) firing of Victoria Taylor, a staff person who was a key contact for the moderators.

Ellen Pao, the interim CEO of the company, issued a statement yesterday that was contrite not only  about the lack of communication relative to this firing but for a history of unkept promises made to moderators. Pao has been on board since November and has been kept busy in an effort to clean up harassment on the site, which hosts a mind-boggling 164 million visitors each month.

As she got started, she was also the plaintiff in a gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Reddit’s community is largely male and organized around a free speech value-set, not the “safe space for dialogue” value-set Pao has been charged with ushering in. The moderators on Reddit are suggesting (loudly) that she and her fellow administrators have been censoring the material on Reddit by, among other things, eliminating 5 subreddits deemed especially offensive. Harassment has since been directed at her, including a petition at with more than 190,000 signatures calling for Reddit’s owner, Advance Publications, to force her to resign.

At Reddit, harassment is defined as:

Systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person (1) conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or (2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.

This is not anywhere near the first revolt among the moderators at Reddit, but some believe that there may be a bell ringing somewhere as other similar sites get started and build steam.

When one develops a community of self-managing volunteers, there is generally a threshold of shared values and expectations. Once that culture has critical mass, it is well nigh impossible to turn around. With staff, you could try to fire major offenders, but even though Pao is convinced that the angst is coming from a small but vocal minority at Reddit, others in the community must to some extent support that minority as a tolerant “host.”

So the lesson for nonprofits is not to abandon working with empowered groups of self-managing participants—not at all. There is a huge amount of power inherent in such forces, but it may be that if you expect active volunteers or staff or a board to function with common purpose over time, it is best at the outset to try to tease out a value-set that perhaps can be built on and evolved over time, but that you can expect to be the tie that binds the whole together for good—or not-so-good, as unanticipated consequences are surfaced. Then, communicate, communicate, communicate.—Ruth McCambridge

Correction: This article has been altered from its original form to correct the misspelling of Ms. Taylor’s name. NPQ regrets the error.