When it comes to member engagement, I often stumble across this nonprofit story as old as the industry itself:
It’s the belief that just the passionate expression of an organization’s mission is somehow all that's needed to be engaging. That upon hearing the mission or the work of the organization, a donor, a volunteer, a company, a foundation will simply leap into action. And that action will not only be beneficial, but befitting to the organization’s known needs.
Oh, if only it was ever that easy.
Engagement is always listed formally as a noun, but in the hands of a nonprofit or skilled professional, it is truly a verb. And a powerful one at that. For nonprofits, engagement is an action, an intent, an intended or existing state of being. Sure, it’s often thought of as simply an extension of marketing or communications, but true engagement is actually about strategic relationship design and interaction. Or what I like to call “engagement dynamics.” Simply enough, how and why you engage with stakeholders should be directly associated at every level with the strategic connections you are hoping to achieve or grow.
And there are 7 Key Levels to Engagement that need consideration:
- Writing, Talking, Showing
- Conversing, Consulting
- Integration, Empowerment
As you can see, these levels are ordered most passive to most active or invested. But let me make this a more practical discussion.
Say you’re hoping to grow your minor gift donor base. With this in mind, you need to create engagement dynamics that model your goals to acquire entry level donors. This means you can keep your engagement efforts fairly simple—say in levels 1 and 2, which might only require you to effectively showcase your mission and vision, making sure you inform donors how to best donate once and a little about the power of a single donation.
In this way, you don’t need to waste a wealth of energy building engagement dynamics that are increasingly focused on more advanced engagement goals such as conversations or partnerships.
Or, maybe you are doing this. Maybe you, like so many other nonprofits, don’t know how to avoid “going all in” when it comes to engagement. I’ve seen many nonprofits spend a wealth of energy throwing the whole engagement kitchen sink at their stakeholders, because they think they have to be fully present, fully invested, and fully engaged to attract donors, members, or volunteers.
But they don’t have to do this. Not only is it wasted energy, it’s not commanding the power of strategic engagement. And it’s almost worse when done in reverse.
Say you’re going after a four-, five-, six-, or even seven-figure gift from a major donor or corporation. Often—if not always—these gifts are seen as investments or a form of partnership by the donor. And as such, this kind of engagement requires a larger set of needs and considerations to be successful.
Here you need to build engagement dynamics that model an intent for partnership or collaboration. You need to develop communications and relationship development tools that model these engagement goals—things like personal visits and phone calls, creating mutual goals and intended outcomes, co-branding and investment strategies with their employees and customers. Unfortunately, in growing your minor donor base, some of the same tactics or tools are instead applied: general or generic solicitation tools, passive approaches, and oversimplified communication strategies.
Again, this is wasted energy, because you’ve under-performed your engagement needs. And as such, it’s unlikely that you’ll get the relationship you want, nor retain them for the future.
So when wielding engagement as a strategy, consider the following three questions as a starting point to build your engagement dynamics:
- What is the relationship I hope to have with this individual or entity?
- What makes up the necessary dynamics supporting that kind of relationship?
- How do I insure those dynamics are invested in all of our efforts to solicit, steward, or grow this relationship?