Practical Steps to Move Supporters Up the Ladder of Engagement

Lisa Kaneff
June 3, 2014
Move your supporters up the engagement ladder with these actionable strategies for nonprofits.

For fans of the show The West Wing, the phrase “What’s next?” evokes certain nostalgia. President Bartlett, the show’s hero and the political crush of many future politicians, would transition from one trial or triumph to the next by simply asking his team, “What’s next?”

It seemed as though no matter how big the triumph (or how significant the trial) the President never rested on his laurels. Instead, he pushed forward to the next issue at hand; never stopping, never resting, and never leaving well enough alone. That was what made President Bartlett so darn lovable, and incredibly effective. 

The Curse of Success

When you kick off a fundraising appeal, advocacy campaign, or host an event, you do it with a certain goal in mind.

Trying to raise money? Get new donors!

Trying to change a policy? Get signatures!

Hosting an event? Get attendees!

All of your promotional efforts revolve around reaching that specific goal. You develop strong email blasts, get promos up on websites, post across social channels – Give! Sign! Join! And, at the end of the campaign when you reach your goals it feels great. Right?

Take a second to think back to that moment of bliss. (I’ll wait.)

Nice, right? And it’s right about that time, it hits you - that moment when you finally ask yourself, “What’s next?”

At that moment, after a person has taken action, you have their mostly undivided attention. They’ve raised their hand as someone who wants to learn more or help somehow.

But as time passes, that momentum begins to fade. And if you don't know where to funnel that energy next, then you've already begun to lose steam.

But, now imagine an alternate world where you asked yourself that all-important question "What's next?" before the campaign even started. You went into your campaign armed with the most powerful thing of all - (dah dah dah dah!) a long-term plan for success.

Not only did you and your team map out a plan to meet your campaign goals, but you charted a course for your supporters that lasts long after this specific campaign is over. Wow! (I'll give you another moment to bask in the glory.)

OK, sounds amazing, right? But where do you begin? Long-term planning always sounds great in theory, but who really has the time for that stuff!?

And it's as simple as this. Once a supporter takes that first action there are a few questions to ask:

  1. What would they want to do next?
  2. What do we want them to do next?
  3. Where can we ask them to do it/what tools can we use to engage them?

The answers to these questions won’t be the same for every action, and won’t be the same for every person who takes the same action. But through targeting and segmentation, as well as some simple planning, your organization can keep users engaged and involved by simply asking and answering, “What’s next?”

Move Along

Supporters can come into your organization’s ecosystem at multiple points of awareness and action. Maybe they have a friend who was affected by the illness your organization seeks to cure. Perhaps they came on a walk because their co-worker was walking, too.

They saw your organization mentioned in an article and stopped by your website to learn more. Maybe they like your Facebook page and have retweeted you a few times. Or signed a petition on Or searched for an organization to donate to and found you through Google.

Pop Quiz! Can you name all the ways someone could find our about your organization and at what level of engagement? Take a few minutes to jot them down. It’s a fun exercise that will come in handy soon.

Each user/future supporter enters this so-called organization ecosystem (some affiliation with your org) at a certain “level.” That’s the starting point for their relationship with your organization.

These levels of engagement probably look something like this:

  • Awareness: Saw your org’s name, knows your mission, has never taken action or spent time with your org either online or off.

  • Engagement: Visited the site, learned more, subscribed to your newsletter or email list?

  • Involvement: Signed a petition, made a donation, shares your post on social media, attended an event

  • Promotion: Hosts their own events, evangelize on your org’s behalf, volunteers, donates and even calls Congress…

Only by understanding where users begin their journey can you start to chart a course for where you want them to go. 

Sure, these users may learn more, do more, and give more to your cause, but no matter how involved someone is with your organization, there’s always something, or a set of somethings, you can ask them to do.

There’s always a “what next?” If you don’t ask for what you want (and make it really, really easy for the user to accomplish that task) you’ll never get it.


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Become Goal Oriented

By now you’re hopefully sold on the idea of moving users along a path of engagement through a series of post-action asks.

But even before we start talking about how to walk users along those paths, it’s probably a good time to stop and think about your organization’s goals – big and small – that constituents can help you accomplish. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Increase issue and brand awareness
  • Grow the email file
  • Raise money
  • Increase event attendance
  • Recruit volunteers
  • Change laws
  • What else? Add yours here…

Good. Now, to accomplish each of these goals requires users to take certain actions. For example:

  • In order for our organization to increase issue and brand awareness, users need to:
  • Visit the website
  • Read content on the website
  • Share articles on social media

  • In order for our organization to grow the email file, users need to:
  • Sign up on the website to stay connected/receive newsletter
  • Get acquired through paid media (
  • Sign a pledge or petition on social media (ActionSprout, etc.)

  • In order for our organization to raise money, users need to:
  • Make their first donation
  • Give to e-appeals
  • Increase their average gift
  • Upgrade to a sustaining donor

  • In order for our organization to increase event attendance, users need to
  • Know about the event (closest to them)
  • Register/RSVP for the event
  • Invite their network (friends, family, and colleagues) to events

  • In order for our organization to recruit volunteers, users need to
  • Understand the need for volunteers and value in volunteering
  • Know about volunteer opportunities near them
  • Easily contact the organizer to sign up

  • In order for our organization to change laws or policies, users need to
  • Sign a petition
  • Encourage their network to sign petitions
  • Contact the target (MOC, local politician, Governor, CEO, etc.) of the petition directly by phone, mail or in person
  • Contact the Media

  • Now, do this for your other goals…

Ok, it’s time to connect the dots. Literally.  In fact, bring everyone in the room. Make this a group effort. Remember during this part of the exercise that we aren’t creating a ladder at all. There is no higher or lower. There’s only a “next.”

  • Step 1: Write each goal on a piece of paper or a white board. Give them all space; we’ve got lines to draw!

  • Step 2: Draw lines between the goals to show how one may connect to the other. There will be multiple paths these users could take, so draw a couple of different scenarios.  Think about not only what your organization would want the user to do next, but also what the user would most naturally feel inspired to do next. Maybe use different colors or dotted/dashed lines for each scenario.
  • Example A: Someone learns about your organization (increase awareness), then become a lead (increase file size), then attends a local rally (increase event attendance), then makes a donation.
  • Example B: Someone volunteers with a friend (recruit volunteers), then decides to donate to the cause (raise money), then signs a petition (change laws), then attends a rally (event attendance).

  • Step 3: From each of the lines that connect the goals, write some of the ways that you could encourage users to take the next step. Those would come from the bulleted list of user actions you created above. I’ll use the same examples as above.

  • Step 4: Identify where each of those action points can take place. Jot those down, too.
  • Users can sign a petition after making a donation if there’s a link to that petition on the donation thank you page!
  • Users who sign a petition can be asked to invite their friends to learn more about the cause in the auto-responder!
  • Users can find an event to attend nearby on the same page they learn about a local volunteer opportunity!
  • Users can sign up for your newsletter the moment they are inspired by an article they are reading using overlays or sidebar promos!

  • Step 5: Make sure that at each of those digital points of contact, there’s a clear, inspiring call to action so users can easily take the next step.

Phew! All done! Well, not quite. Actually, that was just laying the groundwork for the real work that needs to get done. 

A Quick Anatomy Lesson: Calls to Action

In Step 4, you may have started to see some of the same pieces of real estate pop up over and over again -- thank you pages, auto-responder emails, overlays, sidebar promos, e-appeals, Facebook posts, tweets.

Each of these prime spots can be leveraged to move users from one action to the next, keeping that momentum, and developing deeper relationships with supporters along the way. But the key is an effective call to action.

The anatomy of a quality call to action is as follows:

  • Where you ask: This is the real estate mentioned above. Are you taking advantage of every opportunity to connect with your audience and give them an action to take?

  • Who you ask: Are you being careful to only ask relevant audience members to take an action? For instance, if someone is logged in to your website, you already have a relationship with them. Since they don’t need to join your mailing list, ask them something more relevant instead.

  • What you ask: How are you asking users to take action? Are the words inspiring? Are they relevant to the user and the content they are viewing? If a user is reading about saving puppies, ask them to sign up to learn more about the work your org is doing saving puppies.

  • What’s on the other side: The landing page is critical to successfully engaging and converting users. Make the action as easy as possible to take, and be sure it matches the call to action. Generic donation forms, for instance, could be hurting your conversion rate. Have a topical donation form. A user inspired by that puppy story  - who clicks through to make a donation after seeing a contextual promotion in the sidebar (“Help save puppies!”) - knows that part of their donation will go toward saving puppies because the copy on the form says so. 

Putting Together a Plan of Action

Let’s quickly recap. We’re in the throes of developing a plan to develop deeper, more meaningful, multi-action relationships between users and your organization. We’re doing this by asking, “What’s next?” every time a user has an interaction.

And we’re doing this because the more actions a user takes, and the deeper that relationship, the more likely they are to help achieve your organizational goals.


So far in this quest for user engagement, we’ve outlined your organizational goals, connected those goals along paths of engagement, identified how users can help achieve those goals with specific actions, thought about where those actions can be completed, and learned how to make them perform.

But how do you turn that knowledge into a plan of action?

First, set some project goals. As we talked about previously, every organization has multiple goals they are working toward achieving at any given time.

Trying to see dramatic improvements across all of them at the same time will be a) difficult to accomplish, b) difficult to measure, c) just a really stressful idea. I’m actually stressed out just thinking about it.

So, pick a scenario and work toward making incremental improvements there. Perhaps you want to see more donors taking an advocacy action. Or, you want to see more new-to-file leads donate sooner. Once you’ve set that goal, it’ll be easy to see the impact of the changes you make to your program or website.

Next, make a list of all of the so-called “properties” you want to update (thank you page, auto-responder, overlay, etc.). What can do on those properties to inspire action, and what action do you want to inspire? Refer to your big awesome chart/whiteboard masterpiece we created before for this part.

Finally, start making those changes.

Here’s how one of the scenarios we worked through might play out:

  • User Engagement Scenario: Our organization wants to increase awareness of policy issues, and increase the percent of donors who take an advocacy action.

  • Project Goals: # of donors who sign a petition, social shares of petitions.

  • Properties to Update: Donation “Thank You” Page, Donation Auto-responder, and Petition Signature Confirmation Page.

  • Updated to Make: In addition to confirming the user’s donation on the “thank you“ page, add a link or a sidebar graphic promoting a relevant petition. Help the user draw a connection between financial support and the need for policy change. Make the call to action clear – a button, perhaps. Make a similar update to the Donation auto-responder. Then, when a user signs a petition, make sure there is a confirmation page that thanks them for making a difference, and include social share links with pre-populated copy. That copy should give context to the people who may see the post once it’s been shared. Those second-degree connections may have never heard of the org before, so we’ll want to give context and a clear call for them to take action, too.

Measuring Success

Once your changes have been implemented, wait a few days – even a week or two – then check on how your audiences are performing.

Are you seeing more petition signatures? Are you seeing more social shares? Are you seeing more inbound traffic from social networks? Can you trace this increase in engagement back to your updates? What increase have you seen? Have you pat yourself on the back yet? 

But more importantly… What’s next?

If you want to unlock more online marketing and supporter engagement, check out these additional resources:

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