The Pyramid of Engagement

Community Catalyst has created a framework called the Pyramid of Engagement that we use to describe the various levels of engagement by different organizations involved in a coalition. As we discussed, coalition development is distinct from grassroots organizing. However, the Pyramid of Engagement is easily applied to grassroots organizing. The key concept is that cultivating an activist is a process, not a one-time conversation. People move up the Pyramid of Engagement by first becoming aware of an issue, then coming to understand its importance and relevance to their lives, then deciding to participate in a campaign and, only over time, developing leadership status within that movement.
This process may or may not be linear, and not everyone continues to move up the pyramid. Some people will find the spot that is comfortable for them and stay there. That is fine - the pyramid is not meant to imply that one level of engagement is better than another. A strong base needs individuals at all the levels of the pyramid

In an effort to more fully flesh out the pyramid and apply it to grassroots organizing, we have listed below a few examples of the types of activities in which an individual may participate at each level of the pyramid. We have also provided some suggestions for tactics that organizers can use to encourage grassroots constituents to move up to higher levels of engagement over time.

TakeAction Minnesota (TAMN) has a well-honed methodology for developing grassroots leaders and moving them progressively up a “ladder of leadership” from names on a list to active, skilled, powerful community leaders. They initially identify prospects through outreach in communities, contacts made by providing social services, and through larger events and gatherings. Once they’ve identified potential activists, they invite them to one-on-one conversations. During these conversations, the TAMN organizer will invite community members to engage in a town hall or similar activity. They will also encourage them to take on a role at the event, such as staffing a welcome table, or sharing their personal story. As people become more committed, TAMN creates opportunities to train them so they can learn more about the issue, deepen their political understanding, and develop leadership skills like leading a meeting or talking to reporters. Those leaders who continue to build their skills will end up giving testimony at public hearings, speaking at press conferences on local television, or taking an active role in making strategic decisions. Some of the people who first engaged in public life as grassroots leaders with TAMN have since gone on to become Board members, staff members, and elected officials.

Awareness - Has knowledge of an issue or cause

This is probably already happening regardless of your grassroots organizing capacity. Public events such as rallies, along with press and other communications, are part of how you make sure that people know about an issue and why it is important.

Examples of how people engage with an issue or movement on the awareness level are:

Interest - Understands the cause and is interested in learning more and perhaps participating

Once someone is aware, there is an opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of the issue to an individual and to help them understand what concrete actions they could take to get involved. To move people up the pyramid, you must engage grassroots constituents in relationship-building conversations. You can have these conversations by:

Organizers should be both providing and collecting information during this process. Make it easy for people to find your social media pages, sign up for relevant email lists, and know who to reach out to for more information. Avoid extending vague, open-ended invitations. Ask for something specific, and always collect contact information from interested or potentially interested parties. Follow up with additional resources and opportunities, including but not limited to email blasts, social media, newsletters, volunteer opportunities, and phone calls.

Examples of how people engage with an issue or movement on the interest level include:

Participation - Contributes time, money, or social capital to the organization or campaign

This level of the pyramid usually marks the transition to activism. There are a multitude of ways for individuals to participate, and it is important to remember that not all activities will be equally attractive to everyone. Some people have time to make a call to their legislator but work a late shift that makes it difficult to attend a rally. If you are providing your grassroots constituents with adequate support, you will often find that their participation in one type of activity (for example, making a phone call) will be so empowering that the individual is inspired to do more next time (for example, meeting with a legislator).

Examples of how people engage with an issue or movement at the participation level include:

Commitment - Fully invested in the mission & success of the organization or campaign

Whether an individual moves beyond the participation level of the pyramid depends largely on the experience they have with the organization. A skilled organizer makes sure that people are having fun and supports grassroots constituents every step of the way. Before an event, organizers work closely with volunteers to clarify messaging and explain the individual’s specific role. During the event, organizers are present while grassroots volunteers participate, walking with them during a march or rally or accompanying them on a legislative visit. Following up afterwards with words of thanks and a description of the impact of their participation will make volunteers feel valued, increase the likelihood of future participation and cement their commitment to the organization or campaign.

Those who become committed to the mission and success of an organization, program, or campaign are sometimes called “super volunteers.” These are the people who step forward in multiple ways on multiple occasions over time. They are the most involved, and they are the people an organizer knows they can count on to show up and make an impact. As is true at the participation level, it is crucial that grassroots community members who engage at the commitment level have fun, feel valued and appreciated, and find their experiences empowering.

Examples of how people engage with an issue or movement at the commitment level include:

Leadership - Becomes a decision-maker or thought leader and engages and/or leads others

One of the most important aspects of organizing is cultivating leadership among the grassroots. Leadership involves decision-making and the ability to excite and engage others in doing the work of the movement. A community member turned grassroots leader is much more likely to create this kind of momentum in their community than an outsider. It is important to make space for emerging leaders to take on new responsibilities and to stand in the spotlight, and to provide opportunities for skill-building and guidance to grassroots leaders as they emerge.

Examples of how people engage with an issue or movement on the leadership level include:

Once grassroots leaders have been established, they can begin the work of organizing others and usher other grassroots constituents up each level of the pyramid until they, too, are ready to actively participate and potentially become leaders themselves.