Shaking The Donor Engagement Ladder

What’s trending in donor engagement? Cone Communications Social Impact expert Emily Nichols offers some insight in this week’s newsletter.

For most nonprofits today, cultivating an active presence on social media is table stakes for donor engagement. But what organizations often fail to ask is – to what end?

Nonprofit fundraisers traditionally visualize the process of donor engagement as a ladder, with supporters entering via simple "gateway" activities on the bottom rung (e.g., social media activities such as a Facebook "like") and moving up to the pinnacle of support at the top (e.g., committed major donor endowing ground-breaking new program). However, the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) recently featured research that threatens to wobble this proverbial ladder. The findings show that lower-stakes engagement via social media is not where donors actually begin engagement with a nonprofit. People are still first engaging via traditional means (e.g., making monetary or in-kind donations, talking to people about the cause, reading/researching, signing a petition, etc.). In fact, just 9% first engage with a cause on a social media platform.

But don't give up on your social presence just yet. The good news is that nonprofit supporters today are deepening their engagement by increasing the variety of ways they get involved in causes. While social media hasn't revolutionized the way people first get involved with causes, it has changed the way they stay involved. According to the SSRI article, those who also engage with a brand on social media are just as likely to donate as others; twice as likely to volunteer/participate in an event, and three times as likely to solicit donations on behalf of a cause.

So fear not. Know that when you ask fans for more than just financial support, their sense of contribution to and impact on the cause can grow. Use social and other channels to deliver a "surround sound" approach to engage donors for the long haul:

  • Keep donors informed about the impact or return of their support like charity:water has set the standard in doing – providing ongoing updates until they finally closed the loop on my friend's well-building fundraiser two years later!
  • Mix requests for financial support with low-involvement, high-influence activities like forwarding an email with a small action request to a friend. Make it simple by following the lead of programs like International Justice Mission's Freedom Commons, a portal for consumer advocacy campaigns that gives people across the country a menu of activities they can take to help fight a variety of human rights issues.

The SSIR article features a modern alternative to the ladder model (a "vortex") – allowing for multiple activities at once and measuring the relative influencing power of the individual. The authors' theory is a point well-taken, but at the end of the day, the model your organization chooses to follow isn't what matters. The concept that donor engagement has a "top rung" is simply no longer valid. Remember – you are building relationships. Achieving lifelong friendship with your donors may require jumping off the ladder.


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