If you have worked in any sort of organization that relies on people to fund your action, attend your events, or rally around an idea or cause you've probably heard the term “Ladder of Engagement.” It’s often held up as the holy standard in community organizing. For those unfamiliar it works a little like this:


  • A person is introduced to your organization or cause (in person, social media, a sign or poster, some form of media, etc.)
  • They are asked to take an initial action. Maybe it’s just sign up for info.
  • They are then asked to take a next successive action. (In modern times maybe like some content or sign a petition.)
  • They take that action and then the next action and are moved along up the ladder to some ultimate actions.

Here is where I say this idea is deeply flawed. Maybe it made sense in the pre-web-2.0 pre-accessible-data world but I imagine even then it didn't work. But this idea of a ladder is the easiest way for an organization to wrap its head around getting action or resources from people to fuel it’s mission.


But it’s time to throw away the ladder and embrace the Matrix of Engagement!


There are many reasons the ladder of engagement is flawed but here are two simple ones.

1) The ladder concept assumes everyone enters an organization from the same place. We all know this is false. Some people show up to an annual gala as their first event and others like all of your tweets without ever having signed into anything that has captured any more data about them.

2) The easiest way to know this concept is flawed is simply in the results. Be honest if you had a perfect ladder then you could set about using it to move everyone to whatever end action it is that you desired. For many organizations that’s either giving in person time or financial resources. So if your organization moves humans along the ladder like an effortless conveyor belt then I guess I’m wrong. It’s just that I’ve never heard of your flawless organization.

Here are some of the other flaws a ladder system idea more concise.
  • The ladder assumes everyone enters an organization from the same place.
  • The ladder concept assumes everyone will respond to the same incentives and motivations.
  • The ladder assumes that all actions and motions are either linear.
  • The ladder assumes the most important thing to do is to ask a person to move forward. Even if not ready or able.
  • The ladder assumes there is one similar final objective for all people.

I want to repeat one conceptual flaw of the ladder again. If it worked in a step after step process then an organization could look at the current number of let’s say rung one people (new email sign-on for example) and they could map out exactly how many people will attend their gala from this group. Because they could look at that number and know all of the exact steps that will happen. OK we aren’t robots. We don’t just follow a mindless progression. We are all driven by different incentives, interests, and have different resources. But all of use do share some similarities with others.


Matrix of Engagement


To help explain what a Matrix of Engagement is, let’s think about two really important things.

  1. How do supporters interact with your organization?
  2. What is the most critical action for your organization right now

1: How do supporters interact with your organization goes hand in hand with how did they connect to your organization. Peoples’ first interactions with your organization is as varied as the number of things your organization does.


Peoples’ first interactions with your organization is as varied as the number of things your organization does.


Some people come to a gala, others sign an online petition, others see a tweet, others a pamphlet, etc. But the big question is what do they do next? How will you engage with them again

If your only focus was pushing people up the ladder to your year end gala and someone has come there for the first interaction with your group, do you not talk to them again until gala time next year? If they tweeted with your gala’s hashtag would you just let that be it or find a way to keep them involved in lower “ladder” actions like tweeting for your organization?

2: What is the most critical action for your organization right now should always be known. Maybe today the most important thing in your organization is an important event in a city in North Carolina. You need 20 really involved people there no more, no less. Can you email people who have taken a series of engagements with your organization? Maybe you’ve never had an event like this in North Carolina before but had one in New York. Can you look at the people who showed up in New York and what their previous history looks with the organization and invite people in North Carolina who look similar based on actions first?

A Matrix of Engagement is built on data. Data about as many past actions as you can record. That data should start to build clusters and connections for you. You should then be able to take those known data clusters and find out who connected to the organization has taken certain interactions with the organization but not others. It’s those other interactions they haven’t taken that you should invite them to take. Like this example

Lets say you have 40 people who share all of your Facebook events, donate $20 or more a month, and come to every event near them. You also have a cluster of 10 people who share all of your Facebook events, donate $20 or more a month, but have yet to come to an event. You need 5 more people at your next event. Let’s start with those 10 people and see if their similarity in engagement can be translated to also coming. If not, note it. Build out the set of people who who share all of your Facebook events, donate $20 or more a month, and REFUSE to come to events. Then think about what their next engagement is and STOP asking them to come to events.

How to build a Matrix of Engagement


Now that you've thrown that ladder out you’ll need to build a Matrix of Engagement for your organization and most likely no two matrices will be exactly the same. But keep in mind this is never a finished project. That is another failure of the ladder, folks often said ok we are done here’s the ladder let’s ask for step two. The Matrix of Engagement is about continually finding what similar actions people will take and what next actions you can suggest at the right time and also what actions to stop asking some people about.

Here are the pieces of information you will need to build a successful Matrix of Engagement.

  • Organizational Mission
  • Goals to achieve your organizations mission
  • Campaigns or actions to meet goals
  • Goals and actions connected to the campaigns
  • All of the ways people get introduced to your organization

How to structure your Matrix. Let’s go back to flaw #1. “The ladder concept assumes everyone enters an organization from the same place.” Now let’s think about all the ways someone connects to an organization. Think deep about it. One of the flaws I've often seen people make is assuming that people don’t ever start at the things we think are the hardest but people do.

Think about these anecdotes:

Some people show up at fundraisers and drop a few hundred or thousands of dollars just because a friend asked them.
Some people show up and march in a parade or demonstration just because they were asked or sometimes were passing by. (I can actually name an organization that I have never gotten an email from and I’ve never donated to, that I marched with.)

Make a long list of all the places you think people connect to the organization. Start with the easy ones and keep going.

  • Social media
  • Sign on forms
  • Sign on to email
  • Signed something in person
  • Donate in person
  • Donated online
  • Bought ticket to a fundraiser

Now here is where it starts to get harder.

Start making a list of all the activities a supporter could take. Really all of them. Just like the Matrix will continually evolve it’s OK if this list does to. But build it. If you can get crazy detailed because it could teach you a lot about who your supporters are long term. And what is a good ask for which people. Anecdotal thought on this:

I’ve never seen an organization log who is willing to manage the sign-in process at an event, but these are typically people who don’t mind responsibility. What if you had a record of everyone who had ever been the sign-in person that you could reach out to when needing hosts for future events? What if you were able to know over time that someone being the sign-in person twice makes them likely to be a host. But someone being the sign-in person four or more times without having hosted any events means they are happiest at that level of responsibility and prefer not to host, then you could remove them from the list of likely hosts. What would that data mean to future people working with your organization?

Get as action detailed in this is as possible, down to the in action actions. I promise as your data and your Matrix of Engagement grows so will the meaningful engagement of your supports. Start today by breaking down your ladder and adding those actions into your Matrix. Then build your Matrix of Engagement and I promise you’ll build a more engaging organization.

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