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Groundwire’s 10 Rules of Engagement

By September 13, 2012

Engagement PyramidThe Foundation is excited to be able to share this guest blog post by Karen Uffelman from Groundwire, a nonprofit organization that brings the power of engagement to nonprofits working on today’s greatest social and environmental challenges. Groundwire is also introducing a new engagement app for Salesforce users next week at Dreamforce 2012.

At Groundwire, we design and build strategies and tools to help organizations better engage the people that matter most to their missions.  Over the years we’ve come up with ten rules that are key to excelling as an engagement organization:

1.   Understand your theory of change

A theory of change is a roadmap, or logic model, which outlines a chain of events starting with your campaign activities or program work and leading, plausibly, to your desired goal. A theory of change helps you most efficiently use resources like money, staff, political capital, etc. It also allows you to focus the right engagement efforts on the right audiences, and ensures the work you ask those audiences to take on in support of your mission is meaningful to achieving the end goals you share with those audiences. Don’t do “engagement” for engagement’s sake – your ask or offer won’t be as compelling and you’re ultimately wasting important resources.  Make your engagement efforts count – you’ll build stronger relationships with the people you’re trying to engage and be making the most of their participation in your work.

2. Identify your key audiences

Be specific with your audience definitions. These are the people that show up in your theory of change – the people who need to educate or be educated, influence or be influenced, make decisions or take action for you to achieve your vision. The general public is not an audience (unless you are Coca-Cola or have Coca-Cola’s PR budget, in which case, carry on).

3. Know what you want them to do

For each audience, it’s important to know exactly what you’re asking of them and what role you need them to play in your theory of change.  If you’ve completed a theory of change, cataloging roles for your audiences should be easy, as they should be explicitly or implicitly described in that document.  You may have multiple roles for a specific audience member to play, and some roles may be pertinent to several or even all of your audiences.

4. Know why they would do it

This is where many nonprofit organizations fall down.  They’ve figured who needs to do what, in order to achieve their vision, but they haven’t thought through why those audiences might want to take the actions required. We talk about this in terms of “value proposition.”  If you want a legislator to champion a piece of policy, or teens to help with trail maintenance, or commuters to use public transportation, it’s important to be explicit about what they get out of it.  It’s the other side of the relationship, right?  A balanced relationship means give and take, and you have to be clear about what you offer.  Good feelings about doing the right thing can be a value proposition, but if it’s the only one you’ve got, that’s not enough (otherwise, we could all retire).  Do you offer your members decision-making authority over programs they care about, or desired training to your volunteers?  Do you provide political cover to politicians taking risky votes?  Do you offer resources to the staff of partner organizations?  Be explicit.  This is where your engagement superpower may come into play.

5. Have a plan for what’s next

Every time you ask someone to come to an event, sign up for your newsletter, or take a risky vote, you should be thinking about what’s next in your relationship with that person.  How will you acknowledge their action and how will you show them that you noticed their interest or commitment?  If you ask someone to sign a petition and then they don’t hear from you for months, it’s the equivalent of asking for someone’s phone number and then never calling.  It’s bad form in the world of romance and equally bad in the world of nonprofit sector engagement.  Don’t do it!  For each engagement you need to have a plan for what’s next.

6. Use an engagement framework

So this all sounds well and good, you say, but managing engagement across an organization is difficult.  How do you get all staff on the same page?  How do you set goals?  How do you classify contacts?  This is where a framework can really help.  There are a number of different models out there – engagement ladders, organizing circles, engagement funnels – but the one we favor is the engagement pyramid.  It helps you think about and classify the relationships you’re building across your organization and can help you set goals with your team.

7. Use an engagement platform

A framework is important, but a platform makes it possible at scale.  If you’re managing 100 relationships, you could conceivably do it with an excel spreadsheet, or even 3×5 cards.  If you’re managing 1,000 relationships or 100,000 relationships, you need technology to help you.  This is where a CRM platform like Salesforce is key, and where a product like Groundwire Engage can make all the difference.

8. Don’t forget the middle of your pyramid

So important!  Many organizations do a great job at the bottom of their pyramid, with shallow relationships (Facebook followers or email sign-ups), and at the top of their pyramid with deeply invested leaders (board chairs or significant donors).  Moving the bottom of your pyramid to more meaningful roles for your organization takes investment, but it’s absolutely worth it.  A healthy middle of the pyramid is critically important for the long-term health and impact of your organization.  Don’t spend your entire outreach budget on list building!  Make sure you have the resources and time to more deeply empower and engage the people who can and will do more to advance your mission.  Here’s more guidance if you find the middle of your pyramid on the skinny side.

9. Love your data

The best organizers and fundraisers, and the best engagement organizations, know that investing in a good database, prioritizing adequate staff time and incentives to bank data, providing training and building data expertise are key to success.  Your database is the brain of your organization – don’t neglect it.  Don’t relegate it to one or two staff.  Your database should be an organizational affair from your director to your office volunteer.  Love your data and it will love you back.

10. Constituents = friends

Finally, when you think about growing your activist base or volunteer pool or donor list, try to be in the mindset that you’re in when you make friends.  This is the most important rule, and also the easiest because we all know how to make friends, and what it takes to keep friendships strong.  You need to be a good listener, lend a hand once in a while, respect their opinions, and show gratitude when a friend does you a favor.  You need to give as much as you get.  Just imagine that database of yours and all of those contacts as folks with whom you’d like to be better friends.  Keep it in mind as you evaluate your engagement strategies and tactics, and I promise you’ll be better at creating and cultivating the critical relationships for your organization.

Happy engaging!