Is It Time To Stop Thinking About a Ladder of Engagement?

Most of us working in digital campaigning and fundraising are familiar with the concept of a ladder of engagement.

It’s the idea that you take supporters on a journey, where they’ll ascend through a series of different asks. 

From things that are very quick and easy – adding their name to a petition, for example, or chipping in a couple of pounds – to bigger asks, such as volunteering, or making a regular monthly donation.

This can be a really useful way to plan out digital content. It makes us consider the range of ways people can help our cause, and the different levels of commitment they require.

It also speaks to a really important principle – that, after people take an action, you should always give them somewhere else to go, another action they can take at the point where they’re already feeling engaged and motivated.

But if we take the ladder of engagement too literally, we can run the risk of trying to put our supporters in boxes, and actually limiting the number of ways they can get involved.

Why the ladder doesn’t always work

We often see organisations buy into the idea that they can’t ask users to donate until they’ve taken a certain number of campaign actions. Or they shouldn’t ask people to volunteer until they’ve been on their email list for a certain amount of time.

In other words, that people have to ascend each rung of the ladder in sequence, before ‘unlocking’ the next type of action they can take.

This might seem logical – but in real life, it’s not so simple. We’re all different, and there are so many factors that may influence our behaviour, and the actions we’re willing to take at a given moment, that no digital team can possibly measure, no matter how good their data is.

Supporter A might be someone with some spare time on their hands, who’s been actively looking for meaningful volunteering opportunities. So while they may have only just had their first interaction with our charity and subscribed to our email list, if we give them the chance, they’re ready to get stuck in immediately.

Supporter B could be someone who’s just had a profound personal experience that’s brought them very close to our cause – such as losing a loved one to cancer. Again, they may be new to our organisation, but they’re suddenly committed to making a difference, and primed to take the most meaningful actions we can give them.


Let your supporters surprise you

In a world where we’re all (rightly) focussed on data-driven insights, this uncertainty can be unsettling.

It might leave us at a loss about how we can ever create journeys that are relevant for everyone – or reaching for more and more ways to try to measure and categorise our audiences accurately.

But the answer can actually be much more straightforward. Don’t make assumptions about what actions people will or won’t do.

Recognise that people are on their own journeys – with a particular issue, or with activism and campaigning in general – which are far outside of what we can see or control.

Instead, our role should be to make a wide range of opportunities available to them, so they always have the option to take an action that’s right for them, and the next step is there for when they’re ready.

Dignity in Dying, for example, asked people immediately after first signing up to the organisation to go away and set up an in-person meeting with their MP – an action that takes considerable commitment and even courage to carry out.

Lots of supporters weren’t ready to take this type of action so soon. But enough of them did, that it was extremely worthwhile to have asked, especially as having a conversation with an MP is the single most important way to further the campaign.



Another example from a different charity, was the half a million-pound legacy gift that arrived out of the blue – from a supporter who had only ever made a single modest, one-off donation before.

The information we had about her previous behaviour wouldn’t have suggested that she was ready to make a very serious commitment to the charity in her will, but clearly the issue was deeply important to her, in ways that our limited data didn’t show.

Re-thinking how we look at supporter engagement

At Forward Action, we like to think of engagement as more of a ‘dancefloor’ than a ladder (a delightful metaphor coined by our colleague Hannah Lownsborough).

In other words, we shouldn’t be pushing people down a single, linear path. Instead, we extend an open invitation to them to engage with us, in the way they want. Some might immediately seize our hand and waltz straight across to the other side. Others might want to spend more time standing on the edge, observing, before they venture in.

The benefits of creating a ‘dancefloor’ instead of a ladder are huge. It means you won’t miss out on the passion, energy and commitment some of your supporters can bring to your cause right from the start.

Plus, you’ll build a better long-term relationship with your audiences by treating them as complex individuals and giving them choices about what actions to engage with.

What does this look like in practical terms? Here are a few tips we’ve found work well, to create long-term programmes that encourage supporters to step up and increase their engagement in a structured way, without sending them down a too narrowly defined path.

Things you can try:

  • Map out a variety of meaningful low- medium- and high-bar actions that supporters can take. Include a mixture of these throughout your long-term email programme. Just don’t assume that people are going to respond to them in a linear sequence.
  • Think about the single most impactful thing someone can do to support your cause based on what will actually make a difference. Then don’t be afraid to ask them to do it, rather than hesitating in case they’re not ready.
  • Acknowledge previous actions supporters have taken for you wherever you can. Feeling like our actions have been seen and recognised is a powerful motivator for us to do more of them. Plus, it’s just good manners.
  • Make sure that someone always knows how they can step up and do more – as and when they’re ready to.

Things to avoid:

  • Don’t limit the types of ask you present people with, simply based on what they’ve done before.
  • Don’t dismiss supporters or audiences who don’t take a particular action, or type of action, the first time you ask them to do it.
  • Don’t think you can measure everything. Use data wisely, but recognise the limits of what you can know about your supporters. Leave space for them to surprise you.

If you’d like to chat more about supporter engagement, and how to achieve your campaign and fundraising goals by getting more people on the dancefloor – you can get in touch with us here.

Written by Anne Clark, Digital Strategy Manager at Forward Action.