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Author’s Note: This post is the seventh part in an eight-part series on the strategic framework of the nonprofit organization United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Click here to read the full series.

Engagement = Relationship + Action

Both the private and nonprofit sectors work toward public engagement, whether it’s focused on customers, donors, or the community at large. However, few organizations do it very well.

Why? Because an organization’s entire ethos must be dedicated to public engagement if it is to take deep root. Leaders would have to make changes to people, culture, processes, and technology to achieve this, and many don’t want to do such “heavy lifting.” Also, many leaders don’t recognize that engagement can be a valuable tool for solving problems, and they often relegate it to a matter of programming.

I have spent the last year “unlearning” my beliefs about what engagement is and isn’t. I have been helped along the way by a group called Grassroots Solutions, subject matter experts in the field of engagement. In the social sector, public engagement traditionally has been defined as individuals being engaged with the organization, for example by volunteering on a project or serving on a committee.

The engagement pyramid stretches this view out in both directions. At the base of the pyramid, individuals or organizations are engaged by simply following or observing. Think about something you observe, but you aren’t instigating or actively participating in yourself. The example I often think of is people who receive periodic emails from a mailing list but only read the subject line or occasionally skim the message. They don’t unsubscribe from the email list, but they don’t engage either. They observe. They become followers.

The peak point of the pyramid is leading. These are the individuals who have a deep personal mission aligned with the organizational mission. They are self-motivated to advance the mission in their daily lives. They have no need for an elevator speech card. They “get it.” They can engage others in the work of the organization. They consistently add value to the organization and others look to them as role models.

The engagement cycle, or how we carry out engagement, is fairly straightforward, although it can be difficult to consistently follow this structure: Plan-Target-Recruit-Assess-Engage-Assess-Celebrate/Evaluate-Plan. We have spent the past year:

  • understanding what engagement is and isn’t;
  • auditing our current practices and creating road maps for future strategies;
  • investing in hiring talent that has deep experience in engagement work;
  • launching our CRM system to support the work, and training staff on the role of CRM in engagement;
  • reworking our structure to ensure the whole organization is pulling in this direction;
  • mapping 60,000 donors and stakeholders to the engagement pyramid;
  • practicing specific strategies and measuring their results.

We only began this journey 18 months ago but this is work for the long haul. I fundamentally believe that we can’t achieve social change on tough issues unless we have the capacity to engage the “caring power” of individuals. Our goal on engagement is not only to have an effective program, but to embed engagement in our DNA so that it can help us reach optimal outcomes.

Other blog posts on Building a Strong Nonprofit

Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 1: Our Mission to Empower Metro Detroit Communities
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 2: What’s a BHAG?
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 3: Core Values
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 4: Crafting a Purpose Statement
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 5: Our Theory Of Change
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 6: Strategic Anchors
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 8: Board Roles

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