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Community organizing strategies: The ladder of engagement


Community organizing strategies have developed in recent decades along two lines. Firstly, is the organizing model of creating deep personal relationships with individuals who will be a core part of the organization’s goals. The second model is around mobilization of more loosely connected supporters of the organization to take actions like donate, write a lobbying email, post on social media, etc. These two models are connected together by a ‘ladder of engagement’ that places a supporter on the ladder. Beginning at the bottom the supporter engagement might just be becoming aware of the organization, and from there they move up the ladder to donate, volunteer and perhaps even lead in the organization. Mobilization and organizing models work in tandem in most advocacy and nonprofit organizations nowadays.

Technology, of course, has impacted these two models back since mass mailers became possible in the 1960’s, through the web and software revolutions of the late 20th century to a point now where the concept of distributed organizing is beginning to be more commonplace. Distributed organizing mixes the best of organizing and mobilizing under the umbrella of a software system that allows the organization to grow as a network. This means the organization has many local ‘chapters’ that are run by local leaders, people that are core to the organization and who, in turn, manage and direct activities in their local area somewhat autonomously from HQ. If you are looking to scale your advocacy group, nonprofit or political party in 2020 then you will be using this model to get the best from supporters and to manage their climb up the ladder of engagement.

The perennial challenge for nonprofits, candidates and advocacy strategies is in trying to get supporters to actively engage with your message or cause. The key to winning the hearts and minds of the public firstly lies in an organization’s ability to motivate and mobilize core supporters. The activists are out there but the stumbling block that remains is how exactly to incentivise your supporters to go from digital defender/virtual voter to real life campaigning champions. The aim of this guide is to give you actionable steps to activate your network. Here we take you through key learnings from activists around the world who have been successful in this.

If you have experience with bringing the ladder of engagement to your organization please drop your comments in below.


The ladder of engagement is a great conceptual model for advocacy and nonprofit organizing. It helps staff to understand how strong their support network is and it gives a really easy way to make that network stronger. Supporters are on-boarded and brought up through the ladder to a point of leadership. This is a direct line and it does not change so even if you have changes of staff everyone knows what the current state of play is with supporters and what they need to do next with them. If you are starting out then ask yourself these questions:

What are your primary means of communicating with supporters?

Have you connected with supporters on your social channels?

Have you signed them up to a regular newsletter with opt-in consent?

Have you got them to answer a survey to learn more about them?

Have they been asked for a small donation?

Are they connected into your volunteer or field teams?

Do your leaders have a way of directly connecting with them either through regular meetings or network software?

Action tip: Map out your ladder of engagement with specific steps to bring supporters through. Have tags on each supporter in your software system so you know where a supporter is at any one time and so you know what to ask them next to move them up.


Before we get too process driven let’s remember that this is not an exact science and that, despite there being no right way of motivating people up the ladder, there are heaps of wrongs ways to go about it. Focus instead on authenticity and treating these supporters with respect, as it is only by doing this that you will find your way to motivating them onwards. Oh, and make sure you track everything so you are learning as you go. So the questions you need to ask yourself with regards to understanding those supporters include:

Do you know why supporters are interested in what you are doing?

Is their motivation to act the same as your reason for being?

Can you develop supporter personas to workshop the variety of motivations that might be leveraged?

How are you communicating your message to motivate individuals?

The work you have done profiling supporters, building supporter personas, and understanding different motivations will now come into play. Think about what projects might be of interest to your various personas and match projects to persona groups and motivations. You might want to send one group out on a party rally, another into the community to gather feedback through surveys, other groups might want to organize a community engagement event, others might be more interested in direct lobbying and email through multi-channel campaigning.

Action tip: Ask your supporters what motivates them? Build a spreadsheet with messaging for each supporter persona that speaks to their values.

Action tip: Set up a calendar of events that cover a range of different projects that supporters might activate on. Promote each project separately trying to target where that specific persona is online with the correct motivational messaging.

If you have experience with bringing the ladder of engagement to your organization please drop your comments in below.


Not every organization is ready to put supporters so centrally in their strategy. Maybe they are more focused on just surviving by securing funding or they are looking to engage citizens directly rather than build supporter capacity. In fact, the ladder of engagement concept needs to be carefully matched with any organization to ensure it aligns with the organization’s mission. Why not check out our Technology Change Management paper to help you get in the zone for bringing change through technology and then match that with the benefits that accrue from a focus on supporters, such as:

A stronger relationship with supporters in the community

A clear structure for engagement that transcends staff changes

A building of capacity among the support base including understanding of tech, design, legals and other useful skills.

A more robust donation and funding base

A real foothold in the community

A research and development resource


Sarah Hamilton, running for City Council, grew her team from 8 to 40 over the course of four months using Ecanvasser. She put this down to the ease of onboarding new volunteers into the campaign team.

First-time technology users found the software very user friendly and a seamless onboarding process allowed for quick mobilization. It also introduced a sense of excitement for first time campaigners and it was this blend that worked really well. Ecanvasser changed the way the Hamilton team viewed data and their voters. By delegating to local teams, it allowed the campaign to put in solid groundwork. They knocked on over 13,000 doors from a database of nearly 40,000 constituents. Hamilton received 6,156 votes while her nearest rival received just 3,626 in a total field of nine candidates.


The ultimate purpose of any community organizing model is to give autonomy and control to local organizers. Why? Not because it is a nice thing to do but because it is far more effective and it avoids bad decision making coming from a disconnected head office. This is the so-called snowflake model. Distributed leadership is at its best when the leaders of local chapters are well trained in the organizational mission and are in constant communication with head office but also, critically, with the other local chapters. This way head office can help to direct the mission and operations and the local leaders can learn from each other. If everyone is working off local databases and novel systems of management then this model simply does not work. It needs to be managed, like any large organization from a networked model of software. Things to think about when considering your distributed leadership efforts:

Know when to delegate authority through your connected organizational infrastructure

Ensure permission level access is appropriate for activists to feel empowered to act without compromising the integrity of the organization as a whole.

Create an organizational culture where effort is rewarded with movement up through the organization.

Action tip: Use software systems that connect your entire organization together and allow for individual chapters to operate independently. Ideally, you will have a map of your citizens, your supporters, your local chapters and a way to toggle between these different views. Ecanvasser Leader is the perfect software for leading your organization through this change management.

If you have experience with bringing the ladder of engagement to your organization please drop your comments in below.

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