Your Ladder of Engagement is Holding You Back

November 10, 2016 Austen Levihn-Coon

The “Ladder of Engagement” has become a common part of the digital organizer’s vernacular.  Every nonprofit campaigner with a year of experience in the sector is familiar with the concept, and has likely plotted one out for their organization.

However, as the Ladder of Engagement has proliferated, the design of the different steps on the advancement path are often assigned in a way that does not support the achievement of an organization’s mission.  Many of the engagement ladders that I’ve seen are in fact passive advancement paths that neither build up supporters nor help an organization to win campaigns. Is it time to overhaul your ladder of engagement? Below I’ve compiled some of the common pitfalls that contribute to a ladder of engagement that does not work to build power and capacity for your organization.

Problems with the Ladder Analogy & Execution

  • Supporters don’t know they are deepening their relationship with an organization
  • Doesn’t build supporter capacity
  • Doesn’t meet supporters where they are—having differents steps on the ladder doesn’t cut it
  • Organization’s don’t gauge availability and capabilities

Making the Invisible Visible

The ladder of engagement is often imagined as the least common denominator of supporter activities.  It includes the things that anybody could do, and that could be done without someone even realizing they are climbing a ladder. Some of these passive activities often include:

  1. Notice your organization on social media  
  2. Sign a petition
  3. Make a donation
  4. Attend an event
  5. Become a recurring donor

A common mistake that is made in designing a ladder of engagement is that ascending the ladder is passive.  The ladder of engagement is in fact often invisible for supporters. While going up the ladder, supporters aren’t consciously increasing their commitment to the organization, they aren’t building a greater knowledge of the organization or the cause, they aren’t becoming more skilled in how they can support the cause.

An invisible ladder doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help an organization build capacity, it doesn’t help supporters grow, it doesn’t build community or generate momentum.  

Meeting Supporters Where They Are (And Helping Them Grow)

As an organizer, and as a digital organizer you’ve likely heard the common trope, “Meet your supporters where they are.”  However, in the transition to a digital organizing model, we often fail to listen to our supporters, and have lost sight of one of the most basic onboarding tactics: aligning supporters calls to action with their availability, capabilities, and resources.

This could include asking:

  • “When can you be available?”
  • “What are you interested in doing?”
  • “How else can you support the cause?”

It might be helpful to think about it in the context of a political campaign office where a volunteer might come into a physical office and the staff ask, “Can you be available in the mornings, afternoons, or evenings? Would you prefer to phone bank, enter data, or canvass?  Do you have any other resources you could contribute to the campaign?”

Just because we are now interacting with new supporters online doesn’t mean we can’t be asking them how best they can support the campaign.  Ultimately, the key to building an army of grassroots supporters that can help you win is to effectively match each supporter’s availability, interest, and skills with the organization’s mission and then help supporters to grow.

The Role of Capacity Building and Training

Rarely does the ladder of engagement actually reflect any real progression of experience or skill that an organization would want a supporter to build over time.  Signing a petition once, making a donation, and then attending an in-person event does not necessarily require any additional level of skill, expertise, or commitment.  Instead it is actually just a reflection of what any particular supporter is best equipped to do at that particular point in time.  

If a ladder of engagement were actually designed to most effectively support an organization, a key aspect of moving supporters up the ladder would be to contribute to building your organization’s capacity by helping supporters to grow.  An optimized ladder of engagement would likely look more like a training program.  If you are going to grow your volunteers and activists effectively, your ladder of engagement shouldn’t be an escalator that can be ascended passively, it should be designed based on teamwork, with your organization’s staff and volunteers helping to lift other supporters up the ladder.  

The Limitations of the Ladder Metaphor

Once you start to engage supporters based on availability, interest, and skills you are going to realize that there are different ladders of engagement for different supporters.  Ultimately the goal should not be to create a single Ladder of Engagement that all your supporters must follow, but to design the different paths that will match your supporters capabilities, support your organization and the campaigns you are running, and help your supporters to grow through their involvement with your campaign.  As you think about identifying super volunteers and developing training programs, don’t be confined by the concept of a singular ladder.

At Fission, we prefer to think about Pathways of Engagement for supporters. Depending on abilities, availability, and resources you will want to develop different pathways for people. For those who can volunteer in person you may ask them to turn out to events, help organize events, or support with canvassing. For those who can volunteer from home, you may be able to have people help with phone banking, data entry, or other things that can be done remotely. For supporters who have more access to money than to time, you may have a path (or several paths) for how they can help by funding specific initiatives, becoming recurring donors, or recruiting others with access to funds. For each potential pathway, you can start to create a persona for that supporter archetype and a supporter journey or pathway that outlines how each kind of supporter can best contribute to your organization or cause’s campaigns.

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