Engagement — Why Should We Care?

Louis Songster currently serves as Executive Director of Philanthropy at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY.  He has fifteen years of experience in the private sector with brand strategy, marketing communications, and systems analysis and development.

Louis is profoundly interested in the social intersection of Business, Civil Society, and Government with an eye towards understanding how these three societal components can better collaborate to catalyze large-scale social change. At the Heyman Center, Louis has been distinguished by his interest in Social Enterprise and Social Entrepreneurship, and therelationship between Dialogue, Authenticity, and Community-Building. 

What is engagement exactly and why is it so important to marketers and fundraisers?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word Engage originally meant 'to pawn or pledge something', and later to 'pledge oneself (to do something),' hence 'enter into a contract.' So engagement carries with it the sense of an enduring commitment and a decisive bond; one that is not casually made but that is closer in spirit to an oath.

The French Engagé describes a writer or an artist morally committed to a particular cause. This image of a morally-based, creatively-infused commitment to something greater than one's personal advantage should hold a particular resonance for those of us who have dedicated ourselves to laboring on behalf of substantial social change.

And it makes great practical sense that marketers and fundraisers should want their respective audiences of customers and supporters to make enduring commitments to the brands and missions for which they speak, and so they hope to inspire in those audiences a deepening loyalty, preference for, and emotional attachment to their brand's missions, expressions, and offerings.

The probable results of such engagements are numerous and substantial: more products sold, greater and more frequent giving, more extensive volunteer and board service, the passionate peer-to-peer advocacy and endorsement of products and programs — all highly desirable outcomes because they reliably drive the broader public awareness of cause, message, and impact, and provide enhanced mission resources; the fuel for sustainable success.

And yet, why should those audience members be moved or persuaded to care in any particular measure about the offerings and outcomes extolled through a brand's communications outreach, however carefully crafted or conveyed?

After nearly 15 years of experience as a marketer and a fundraiser, I can tell you that the degree of engagement that may be reliably engendered within any individual correlates quite closely with the degree to which their dialogue with the organization or brand is consistently personal and, above all, authentic.

If I want you to recognize that I am speaking directly to YOU, I had better know what you care about, what moves and excites you — the core emotional constituents of who you are — and, perhaps most importantly, understand something about who you are trying to become, your aspirational self.

These days, using all the demographic profiling tools at our disposal, if we know something about you it isn't that hard to speak to your group and, by association, to you as a member of it. Who knows, you might even find it momentarily gratifying to be recognized as a member of a group that mirrors some measure of your personal values and aspirations. But that isn't nearly same as me directly engaging you in a conversation where you individually and substantially are the driver.

But how, you may ask, can we as fundraisers or marketers accomplish that inherently specific end? After all, there are so many prospects, donors, and volunteers out there, how can we possibly know them well enough to authentically engage them?

The simple, yet not easy, answer is that it is they who can tell us precisely what we need to know but only if we genuinely ask them, and then, even more genuinely, listen to what they tell us.

As a first step, it is essential to broaden the context of 'asking' away from primarily financial requests towards invitations to more intensively partner with your organization.

Perhaps you will agree that in our time 'asking' has acquired such an urgent intensity that every development office communication is inevitably haunted by helpful suggestions outlining “what you can do for us now.”

Today, we are all looking for authentic partners with whom we can collaborate to have an impact upon our challenged world, and while we may grudgingly accept the necessity of less-than-authentic partnerships in our business dealings, we will increasingly reject inauthentic partners in the world of philanthropy and social change.

So what should we do instead? What practices and principles can guide us in awakening genuine engagement in every stakeholder? There are three key components to sustainable engagement: Dialogue, Participation, and Collaboration.

The prelude to true engagement is dialogue: a transparent communication about missions, impacts, and challenges as expressed, not only through logical argument, statistics, and comparisons, but primarily through the stories of the individuals who embody the active forces of change that animate an organization.

However, as important as it obviously is to share the specifics of your organization's impacts, challenges, and dreams, it is equally crucial to ask open questions that invite a dialog based on genuine disclosure of a supporter's passions and personal approach to social change.

As an organization attempts to engage a specific stakeholder, there must be deep congruence between the participation opportunities proposed and that individual's personal narrative — taking into account both the type of service they seek to perform and the type of impact they aspire to produce.

Engagement truly begins with a genuine invitation to participate in the life of an organization. Participation isn't 'witnessing' or watching from the sidelines; participation means directly producing some of the organization's impact yourself. Front-line experiences, such as delivering services to clients, are the kind of direct participation that gives birth to enduring engagement fueled by the stakeholder's increasingly intimate knowledge of what it means to be 'one of you.' A great outcome but where can engagement go from there?

Collaboration is the second and deeper stage of engagement. At its essence, collaboration is inviting participants to take on more sustained roles that meaningfully impact the future shape of your organization. Because collaboration usually requires a loosening of internal control over how your organization changes and evolves it is often difficult for organizations to substantially embrace this level of engagement. That is unfortunate, because is no question that engagement at this level can become transformative for supporter and organization alike.

True collaborations spawn new programs and initiatives, as well as the dramatic acts of service and support that enable them. The grounding principle of collaborative engagement can perhaps be best expressed by adapting a familiar affirmation from the movie "Field of Dreams" as follows: If they build it with you, they will stay.

The above remarks constitute my recipe for sustainable engagement, but please bring your own thoughts to this conversation — I promise to diligently reply. Until then, here are my takeaways for producing engagement in your organization.

  • Engagement spans a continuum from mere 'interest' to profound 'commitment': the more personal and authentic you can make their experiences, the more engaged your stakeholders will become.
  • Genuine Dialogue leads to Direct Participation leads to Transformative Collaboration.
  • If they make it with you, they will stay.



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