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How to Increase Supporter and Donor Action Using an Engagement Pyramid

A nonprofit engagement pyramid empowers your social impact organization to grow relationships and support. Learn how and why to leverage this powerful tool.

Eric Ressler
February 3, 2021
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For a nonprofit, increasing and sustaining engagement can be one of the most challenging parts of the job. Building a strong community of supporters is essential for your success, but it’s no small feat.

How do you hook casual followers and shepherd them toward being your biggest champions? And what about everyone in between? The first step in gaining support is to establish your organization’s purpose, vision, and mission. But the following steps of engagement may be simpler than you think.

Many nonprofit organizations utilize a framework called a “pyramid” or “ladder” of engagement to help them envision how to get their supporters to that next tier of participation. This framework gives nonprofits a visual to break down each phase of supporter growth, engagement, and commitment, creating space for practical calls to action each step of the way.

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What’s a Pyramid of Engagement for Nonprofits?

  • Awareness. Your audience goes from ‘unaware’ of your organization to ‘aware.’
  • Interest. Your audience, already aware of your cause, becomes value-aligned with your cause.
    • Example action: Following your organization through social media, signing up for your newsletter, or otherwise making a communication connection.
  • Participation. Your audience becomes actively involved in furthering your cause.
    • Example action: Volunteering, donating, spreading the word, sharing with friends, or showing up to an event.
  • Champion. Your audience participates for a sustained and committed amount of time.
    • Example action: Becoming a member, “super volunteer,” or committed volunteer.
  • Leadership. Your audience is anyone involved in making strategic decisions that drive your organization forward.
    • Example action: Serving on your organization’s board, becoming a trustee, or joining the team.

There are many benefits of utilizing the engagement pyramid. Apart from building sustainable relationships, a pyramid of engagement supports your organization in practical ways.

It's more efficient and cost-effective to nurture a supporter up the ladder than it is to recruit a new one. Your digital strategy and communications plans are more robust based on insights from your target audience definitions and your pyramid of engagement. When you have a strong relationship with your supporters and funders, it's easier to support an ongoing revenue stream. Finally, you have supporters ready and willing to engage in the real world when the time comes for mobilization.

Your Organization’s Pyramid as a Keystone for Sustained Engagement

Creating and fostering long-term relationships with your supporters, donors, and funders are central to achieving your nonprofit’s purpose. Not only that, but you are also working to create an active community where your various supporter levels are regularly engaging and interacting with your team. It’s how your relationship evolves.

The goal then is to get your supporters invested enough in your cause to shift from one tier of engagement to a higher, more involved level. The pyramid of engagement gives your organization and its supporters a way to do just that.

There will be some who will work their way to the top of the pyramid, becoming leaders in the community. But others will be happily engaged at a simpler level. And that’s OK. You need supporters at all levels to have a healthy balance, otherwise, your pyramid crumbles.

As you seek to drive change, your social impact organization has a lot of work to do and needs a lot of support. Everything from letter writing to policymaking takes time, effort, and funding. All of this requires your supporters to assume different levels of action at different times. Ideally, over time, you want your supporters to willingly take both active and passive actions.

What does this mean? At one point you will ask your supporters to, say, start a fundraiser (active). Other times you’ll need them to participate by donating to one (passive). Both levels of action are equally important to make an impact and will require utilizing people on different levels of the pyramid — the “awareness” supporters and “leaders” alike.

How to Align Your Engagement Pyramid to Your Nonprofit’s Purpose, Vision & Mission

The bedrock of your pyramid is your organization’s purpose, vision, and mission. You really can’t start building out your pyramid without determining those first. Once you’re steadfast in what those three elements mean for your organization, constructing a strong and realistic framework will come easier. Equally important is your theory of change in all of this. It’s just as paramount in building your pyramid and charting the course for your engagement strategy going forward.

When you’re ready to map out the levels of your pyramid, keep the following in mind:

  • Cover. Cover your asks. What do they look like for each level of engagement moving up to the next? In other words, what are you hoping to have someone do when moving them up from an awareness level to a higher level? Awareness is at the bottom of the pyramid, but it’s where every supporter’s relationship with your organization starts. Moving from awareness to interest will require different asks than moving from interests to participation. Asks from this level on up get more involved: champion and leadership.
  • Connect. Connect your organization’s purpose, vision, and mission to logic, emotion, and strategy. Logic, emotion, and strategy drive your purpose, vision, and mission, and your pyramid should reflect that. Providing a logical, realistic framework for the tasks ahead keeps your supporters grounded, trusting, and focused. Producing emotional messaging connects your supporters with you on a deeper level, ideally converting them into advocates for your cause. A strategy gives your supporters a way forward, a map to see where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

In order for the balance of work to remain steady, the trick here is to sync your editorial calendar, events calendar, and fundraising initiatives with your pyramid. This allows you to suss out anything that feels a little off-kilter. When you do this, you’ll find your requests to supporters and donors more effective and maintain (and grow) your engagement with those out doing the work for your cause.

Your social impact organization can’t get far without a sustained revenue stream. The same goes for sustained engagement. You know this. The good thing is a pyramid provides a strategic guide for how to make sustained giving and doing a reality for your cause. Here’s what that means for each group:

  • Supporters. Not everyone has money to give. With this in mind, providing ways for your supporters to help you fundraise should be included. This can be asking them to share content on social media, which may then entice them to attend an event. From there, possibilities can snowball. They can invite their network, with the hopes that within their network are more who start at awareness and move up.

  • Donors. Your goal for donors should be to increase their monetary level of giving and the frequency at which they give. A fully engaged supporter will shift from personally donating to leading donation drives or running digital fundraising events — leveraging their personal connections to get things done. This is the jump from interest to champion or leadership on your pyramid (depending on your strategic asks).

  • Funders. Funders like to know how they’re making an impact. They need to see proof of positive outcomes. The pyramid is a great way for your funders to see the framework of engagement and see the progress made. The engagement pyramid helps them see the logical strategy put to work. Membership programs should be included in the champion and leadership levels as a smart revenue stream; those who are fully invested (emotionally and financially) can stake a bigger claim.

The ability to see your organization's mission come to fruition is only as strong as the support and strategy behind it. By building a strong relationship with your supporters, donors, and funders and providing them a framework for engagement, you give your organization a way to move forward. You give those who are invested — even at the awareness level — a way to become more involved in making real and lasting change happen.

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