Back in March at NTC in D.C., my BrightPlus3 colleague Ted Fickes joined Apollo Gonzales and Shayna Englin for a really interesting panel on social media and grassroots organizing (“These Boots Are Made for Organizing, Not Just Facebooking“). Apollo is doing some great social media work at NRDC, and part of his presentation focused on their use of an engagement pyramid. A number of folks have different versions of the same idea (engagement ladders are another): engage people in some very minimal way, and then slowly increase the intensity of that engagement over time. It’s a really useful model for thinking about how to initially connect with someone and then how to increase their connection to your organization, their commitment to your cause, and the magnitude of their support.
But it’s a flawed model, as well, because it skips what I think is the critical prior question: what’s the point of the engagement in the first place?
The theory of change idea is one way to get at this, since it forces you to be clear about what outcome you are seeking and exactly what’s required to achieve it. I tend to come at this question from an organizing perspective, starting by identifying the specific decision I want specific people to make in order to achieve that outcome, then identifying the factors that will shape their decisions, and then building a strategy around effectively influencing the right people and factors. If you haven’t answered this first, an engagement pyramid approach may well lead you astray, encouraging you to overinvest in engagement efforts that don’t effectively advance your goal and miss the critical ones.
Here’s what I mean: If my goal is to persuade a member of Congress representing a rural district in the western U.S. to support a wilderness bill, then tapping people across an engagement pyramid (a large number of people sending emails, a smaller group sending personal letters, a few traveling to D.C. to meet with the Member) regardless of how many or how intensively engaged they are, is unlikely to be a successful strategy. A much more likely path to success will involve the Member of Congress hearing support for the bill from the conservative, rancher-dominated ranks that traditionally oppose such bills. Those rural county commissioners, ranchers, and other conservative rural voices don’t belong on the same engagement pyramid that you might use for your membership campaign or your “convince the City Council to create a community garden” effort . . . entirely different challenges, and the levers that can produce the outcome you want are very different.
This isn’t rocket science, by any stretch – it’s really just Organizing 101 or Political Campaign Strategy 101 – but the engagement pyramid model (and all of its sibling models) would be stronger if it clearly incorporated the critical first step of identifying what, exactly, you are trying to accomplish, and what, exactly, you need in order to do so. With that critical context, it’s a lot more likely your engagement model will actually track to the outcomes you are targeting.