Communication at Every Level on the Nonprofit Ladder of Engagement

Craig Grella
December 22, 2020

This is the second in a pair of articles on the nonprofit ladder of engagement. The first article focused on defining the nonprofit ladder of engagement and showed you how to research and create one for your organization.

This article focuses more on digital marketing for nonprofits, how we use our audience personas to develop content that motivates our supporters, and how we can measure that engagement to make sure our limited resources get spent in the right places.

An audience member can enter our ladder at any stage. They can move around the ladder in any direction or remain stationary and never engage past that first interaction. You must communicate with and motivate your audience at any and every level of your nonprofit ladder of engagement in order to optimize your engagement with each supporter.


Table of Contents

A Refresher on The Nonprofit Ladder of Engagement

In the first article on the nonprofit ladder of engagement, we discussed using audience personas to tease out the influences that motivate your supporters to action. By understanding what makes the person tick, we can tailor the message to the medium to quickly get their attention. Once they’re listening, you need to have a few more notes ready to keep them engaged.

This process of motivation and communication repeats throughout the relationship with your supporters, and the more personal you can make the connection, the deeper the engagement.

You’ll need to think deeply about your communication strategy, use modern communication tools, and be diligent in measuring your success. And that’s what this second and final article on the nonprofit ladder of engagement is all about.

nonprofit ladder-of-engagement-01-ladder-infographic

How A CRM For Nonprofits Can Facilitate Communication At All Steps of the Ladder of Engagement

Fifteen years ago, if you counted more than a few thousand people among your organization’s supporters, it would have been impossible to personalize communication to every one of them. Today, you can personalized outreach to the masses with the creative use of a nonprofit CRM and the help of a digital marketing platform.

Custom fields allow us to keep track of individualized data and use that information in our various marketing pieces with minimal effort. We can keep track of a volunteer’s pet's name, their last donation amount, their favorite book, etc. This information is all part of building an audience persona.


With your audience personas in-hand, you can sit down and think about the messages that will motivate your supporters for each step of your organizational ladder or for each goal along the timeline of a specific project.

When we work that information into our communication, the result is a message that speaks to that individual reader using their unique interests and what we know they are more likely to engage with.

Once the messages are crafted, a nonprofit CRM platform like Salsa CRM+Engage will help you keep everything organized and communicate effectively no matter where your supporter is in their relationship with your team. You can see how many people are on each rung of the ladder at any given time or how many people are responding to a specific message. You can categorize messages and then measure which type of message gets the best response. You can also see which members of your audience are growing in their relationship with your nonprofit and which ones remain stationary.

Crafting Messages for Your Ladder Of Engagement

Let’s review the audience personas created in the fictional example of the first article on the nonprofit ladder of engagement and start to plan how we might best communicate with them.

The Organization for International Change (OIC) has an ideal supporter profile called Climate Carrie.

Climate Carrie is in her 20’s. She cares deeply about our environment and about protecting our natural resources. She wants to spend her time and energy on important endeavors and understands the threat that climate imbalance will pose in her lifetime. She doesn’t get bogged down with statistical data or climate models, but she can quote Thoreau and Frost with passion, and gets involved with local groups on recycling and composting efforts. She spends 3 hours a day on her phone and prefers text messaging or Whatsapp over email or Facebook. She doesn’t have a ton of disposable income, but she’s passionate for the cause and gives her time when she can.

OIC had five goals to accomplish with their campaign to ban fracking in their state:

  1. Craft a piece of legislation similar to others already in effect in other states.
  2. Educate members of the public about the importance of such legislation.
  3. Solicit state legislators to support the bill and to bring it up for a vote.
  4. Get voters to encourage their state legislators to similarly support the bill when it comes up for a vote.
  5. Bask in the glory of the safer, cleaner, more sustainable earth you have helped to preserve for generations to come.

As we mentioned in the first article on the Nonprofit Ladder of Engagement, a supporter can enter your ladder on any rung, not just the lowest. So we need to prepare messages that speak to that supporter no matter where they are, which means we need to craft messaging for EVERY rung!

Salsa Online Marketing Demo


Using Your Audience Personas to Craft Intro Messages

Since there are multiple things a person might do at any level of engagement with your organization, it follows there could be several messages that spur them to action. Let’s look at how we might do that for one of the goals for a fictional nonprofit we created in the first article called the Organization for International Change.

Goal #1: Legislation. This goal will need specialized attention, attorneys’ help, and people who know policy and the law. While you may not contact general volunteers for such a request, you can use this time to build awareness for your project. You must let your supporters and potential volunteers know what is coming early, so when the time arrives and you need them to act, they’re ready to hit the ground running.

OIC will want to let people like Climate Carrie know the gist of their policy and its implications. Here, OIC would introduce the end-goal: a ban on fracking. They’d let people know that they’re working on legislation that will bring about that end-goal, and they’ll ask for simple support with a targeted action like a petition. They can share petitions on social channels, through email, and in forums across the web. Issue advocacy tools can help them prepare the petition and collect contact information from digital signers. Anyone who comes back to their site who signs the petition is tagged with the persona “Climate Carrie” in a CRM to denote their support of OIC’s initiative and to start the process of future automation.

Automating Follow-Up Engagement with a Nonprofit CRM

Nonprofit marketing automation and email automation will help you throughout the ladder of engagement, especially after a supporter begins their journey. When Climate Carrie signs the petition, she is redirected to a confirmation page on OIC’s site with a short thank you letter and information on how she can take further action. This is an excellent spot to put a document that gives her more information on the cause. Chances are, if she’s taking action, she wants to get more involved. Give her what she wants. Expand on the introduction. Push the policy. Extoll its merits in more detail. Then give Climate Carrie some additional ways she can help. That can range from simple things like sharing the petition on social media to more involved tasks like being part of a group that would help educate legislators and members of the public (goals #2 and #3).

A good example of giving post-petition signers more information about the cause is this landing page from Save the Children Action Network’s High 5 for Kids Campaign. They present documents for learning, opportunities to join conference call training, and more.

advocacy campaigns - 01 - web page


Multiple Touches for Every Supporter at Every Level of the Ladder

It’s okay if Climate Carrie doesn’t become a super volunteer on day 1. OIC is going to have multiple chances to make that happen. And, if she never converts, that’s okay too. Her purpose on the lowest run of the ladder can be fulfilled simply by sharing some content and increasing awareness of your organization online.

OIC will get another bite at the apple when they send all the petition signers a confirmation email thanking them for taking action. That email is another opportunity for further engagement, sharing the same information as the confirmation page after the petition. Again, if anyone clicks a link in the email and returns for more info, they would be tagged “Goal 2 Download” in the CRM so at any point during the campaign you can filter your supporters based on where they might be in their level of engagement and personalize messages to them.

Another chance for engagement comes when OIC can send all the people tagged “Goal 2 Download” an email inviting them to a Zoom call to learn more about the purpose of the group, the work that it performs, and how they can be a part of it.

So, you can see, there are multiple touches - all pre-planned - just for this one goal step. There are at least three emails, two web pages, and 1 document:

  1. Email/Social - Initial message shared to existing supporters and in social networks and associated online forums
  2. Web Page - Petition Page on your website - this uses petition software like Salsa’s advocacy tools to embed a signable petition on your site.
  3. Web Page - Post-Petition Redirection Landing Page - This gives petition signers the chance to get more involved.
  4. Email - Petition Signing Confirmation Email - An email thanking the signers for taking action and giving them the same info they see on the post-petition redirection landing page.
  5. Email - Invitation to the conference call to learn more about the volunteer group educating the public and calling legislators.

If Climate Carrie never signs up for the webinar, that’s okay too. She is a petition signer, and those signatures, in aggregate, can be used to sway a legislator in this example. If she stays on that run of the ladder of engagement, OIC can continue to market to her during the year, and perhaps she’ll sign more petitions. After the campaign has ended, OIC can come back to her and ask her to get involved with or just share their next campaign.

Marketing Automation Guide


Another Example of Crafting Messages for Supporters on Your Ladder

Let’s look at another example of how OIC could automate outreach to people on a different run of the ladder.

Goal #4: Ask Voters to Encourage Legislators to Support the Bill. This goal is achieved by having volunteers call voters - these are the people to whom legislators listen the most. Procedurally, there are a few things OIC needs to do to accomplish this goal.

Once OIC completes a goal, it shifts volunteers’ focus toward the next step. If OIC doesn’t convert those volunteers to the next new goal, it will start with fresh volunteers, and that might require a new campaign and new messaging on social, maybe some additional advertising, or more outreach to their existing contacts. Some of the volunteers involved in goal #1 may not convert and therefore stay on that rung.

Revisiting Your Audience Personas Helps Keep Your Communication Fresh and Engaging

It pays to revisit the audience persona for Climate Carrie from time to time to make sure you address the proper motivation triggers that get her to engage further. Again, this is where a good CRM pays dividends. As you interact with Climate Carrie, you record information that will be useful further into the campaign and other campaigns your organization may run. That information works its way into your future communication with her and helps to generate more engagement. Check out Salsa’s webinar with Media Cause on how to develop your nonprofit audience persona.

You can repeat this planning for each goal or ladder rung for which you require your supporters to take any action; share, sign, volunteer, donate, etc. You craft the messages before the campaign begins and get everything set in your CRM. Automations like this can be very powerful. As you can see here, automation can help turn a single petition signer into a potential volunteer and advocate for your cause. At the same time, your staff spends its valuable time training and coordinating, rather than trying to figure out who needs a zoom invite and who never received the link.

A good CRM will make all this possible for you. The example we’ve been highlighting here is steeped in advocacy efforts. A Smart Engagement platform like Salsa Engage can handle advocacy campaigns, help you create and display the scripts, even place calls and send letters to legislators. Such tools help keep the project contained to just one piece of software. It also allows you quick access to data and results from your campaign, which is the next step in our process.

How to Use Nonprofit KPIs to Plan Your Strategy

Too many nonprofits spin their wheels with annual events that don’t bring in funds necessary to keep the doors open and the lights on, or they spend time on initiatives that don’t move their missions forward. That’s why it’s essential to create a series of benchmarks against which you can measure your organization’s success.

There is no shortage of books and classes on the subject of business metrics measurement. While this article is not meant to provide a deep dive into business planning, it will give you a starting point for understanding what matters in the context of your ladder of engagement and how to measure it. Perhaps employing a critical eye toward metrics in this one campaign will convince you of its merit in other areas of your organization.

There are two books you need to read to learn how to measure your effectiveness. Beth Kanter and Katie Delahaye’s Measuring the Networked Nonprofit will help you understand and plan your campaigns on social media and the web. The second book is Measure what Matters by Tom Doerr. It describes a system created by Doerr that has helped an impressive list of business leaders measure and grow their companies. The CEOs of companies like Google, Apple, and Intuit, and nonprofit leaders like U2’s Bono credit their success to Doerr’s lessons.

What Nonprofit KPIs Should You Measure?

It can be overwhelming to figure out which metrics to use and how to measure them, especially if this is your first time with data. Try not to get caught up in the terminology. Some use the term Key Performance Indicator (KPI), and others use the term Objectives and Key Results (OKR). Pick one and run with it.

Remember this one rule: keep it simple. Don’t get stuck with analysis paralysis. Start with the endgame in mind and work backward, as we did with campaign message planning above.

Let’s revisit OIC’s first goal and put some numbers to it. OIC needs to convince five legislators to support the plan for it to pass. Here’s how OIC can break down a start metric for the number of people it needs to reach to make this campaign effective:

  • OIC estimates it will take 5,000 phone calls from constituents to each legislator to convince them. That’s a total of 25,000 phone calls to make.
  • At 15 calls per hour will require approximately 1,700 hours of volunteer time.
  • Reasonably, OIC could get a single volunteer to help for approximately 1 to 2 hours per week. That means over six months, they’ll need between 35 and 70 volunteers to help reach the goal. Let’s call it 50. That seems like a good place to start.
  • If a zoom meeting/webinar typically converts 25% of attendees to action, you’ll need to get at least 200 potential volunteers to join your call and listen to what you have to say. 25% of 200 gets you the 50 signups you need.
  • Assuming a 50% email open rate, a 20% click rate, and a 5% conversion rate for joining the zoom call, you’ll need to email at least 4,000 people to get 200 on your call.

If you’d like to see those quick calculations - here’s a google sheet.

You might not currently have 4,000 people on your email list. That’s where the petitions come in. It’s an easy way to generate some new engagement with people interested in the same issue.

What do you need to do to get 4,000 people to sign your petition? If your posts on social media only generate a few hundred engagements, you’ll need to do more. Maybe paid advertising. Getting more of your staff involved in the promotion. Emailing your existing supporters to let them know about the new initiative with the specific task of sharing the new initiative, etc. There’s no doubt that things could snowball as you get the campaign rolling, and new volunteers may be added quicker if your campaign takes off and goes viral. But that’s a bonus if it happens. You can’t base your plan’s success on winning the lottery, so be conservative to start. Then measure, test, and edit.

How to Use Nonprofit KPIs with Your Ladder of Engagement

Once you’ve created a set of KPIs or key results, you can now use them as guideposts for future communications. When you start your campaign, put a tool in place to measure your numbers week by week. Track where you are according to plan. Again, a good CRM and nonprofit digital marketing tool will provide a dashboard to review these regularly. You can also use a quick spreadsheet like the one linked above to tally your results.

OIC has their start metric: 4,000 people to email should generate 50 volunteers.

Think about the goals you’ve set for your campaign and what metric you can use to measure them. Break it down into as many steps as you can manage. If your email list is at zero currently, and you are relying heavily on social media, you’ll want to work on relevant metrics there. How many zoom participants do you get per social post? Don’t be fooled by things like Facebook Subscribers or Twitter Followers. Having a million followers means nothing if you only get five shares per post.

How to Use Nonprofit KPIs to Determine When to Pivot Your Digital Marketing

Breaking down your goals into discrete steps and individual metrics can help you pivot when you fall short of your goals. Remember, coming up short on metrics does not mean all is lost. It just signals that a change must be made to get back on track.

If OIC falls short of generating 4,000 contacts to email, they’ll just need a higher conversion rate on the emails they send or a promise of more hours per volunteer. Of course, they won’t know that until they start the campaign and get results back. That’s why we track metrics.

If their plan calls for 20 new volunteers per week over the first three weeks of the campaign, but they only generate 5, they would know this very quickly. Having broken down their metrics into steps, they can quickly find the step causing issues. To see this at work, take a look at the example spreadsheet. In week 2, OIC gets no new webinar signups. They wonder why because the email open rate and click rate look good. Here's a link to our volunteer metrics tracker spreadsheet again.

Upon closer inspection, they see things break down at the webinar signup phase. OIC looks at their email copy; everything looks okay. They take a look at the form on their website and realize it’s not working as planned, preventing signups. They fix the error, and week 3 bounces back.

Similarly, in week 5, OIC notices they get 50 webinar signups, but only two converts to be volunteers that week. OIC learns that Testy Tommy was the person leading the webinar training that week, and apparently, he said something that annoyed the participants. OIC decides Tommy needs more training and puts another team member in to handle the webinar for week 6.

Using metrics can help you diagnose and fix issues quickly without derailing your project. Had OIC not tracked this information, they would have a more challenging time tracing errors and would be much slower to make changes. Or worse, they might fail in their objective and never understand why.

Get Started With Your Nonprofit Ladder of Engagement

Understanding how your audience enters your ladder of engagement and what motivates them to action is the key to creating an engaged audience that helps your nonprofit accomplish its mission.

Using the lessons in this series of articles, you understand what your ladder of engagement looks like, how people enter it, and how they might move around while on it.

You’ve created the messaging that is most likely to spark engagement no matter what rung the audience member sits on currently, and you’ve built automation in your CRM to free up your staff to focus on other things.

You chose key metrics and a timeline against which you will measure your campaign. Doing this helps you quickly diagnose issues and pivot to get a derailed project back on track.

As you start planning projects and initiatives for the new year, think about your ladder of engagement in the context of a significant organizational goal. Build your communications and metrics accordingly, and make sure to model that information in your CRM.

Make sure to drop us a note here or on our Facebook page and let us know what your ladder looks like.



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