I think that the word engage is one of the most overused words around. What the heck does engage actually mean?
Merriam Webster defines this intransitive verb as “to do or take part in something”. Well, that’s pretty all-encompassing, I would have to say. There are different audiences we wish to engage — prospects, donors, sponsors, volunteers, and the community-at-large. Throwing out a huge net and hoping that something gets caught in it is usually a strategy that is unsuccessfully used by many organizations in a perceived effort to be efficient.
I would suggest that what is needed is meaningful engagement. And, (un)fortunately, meaningful engagement is laborious and cannot be done effectively en masse. The more personalized the engagement (a private briefing on what challenges and opportunities lie ahead for your organization with the CEO, or a tour, or a proper report on how the funds donated were used) the more likely that the engagement will actually produce steadfast support.
I do not believe that anyone has cornered the market on engagement in a digital/social media realm. What is a Facebook like worth? What is a tweet worth? Moreover, the ice bucket challenge of a few years ago was actually a successful engagement tool — but it was totally by happenstance and has yet to be replicated (mostly due to the fact that it grew organically, as opposed to being artificially manufactured). Furthermore, the engagement was relatively short-lived — how many ice bucket donors are still engaged with ALS today? Social media engagement is seen by many (usually the non-fundraisers) as the holy grail. I would have to disagree. Social media is but one facet of a well-rounded organization — just like a traditional newsletter or thank you call.
Engaged donors or prospects or sponsors will likely be your best advocates. They will (potentially) share their great feelings of connectedness with their colleagues, friends, and family. These folks will be your #1 goodwill ambassadors. That is if engagement is done properly.
It could be as simple as sharing the vision for the organization over the next 6 months/year / 5 years. It could also be an impromptu feasibility survey about a specific fundraising project that may be coming down the road. I have mentioned before the adage that if you want advice, ask for money and if you want money, ask for advice. The engaged person will likely be able to open doors that you only dream of having opened. Remember that fundraising is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Money is the way you are going to move from where you are now to where you wish to be in the future.
So, engagement is very much akin to stewardship — and utilizes a very systemic methodology. Use the analogy of fundraising engagement like, well, being engaged to be married. There is a period of courtship, a period of getting to know what each partner wants and ultimately a commitment, followed by many discussions and ‘fine-tuning’ of the relationship. And remember that very few people get engaged on their first date.