Rules of Engagement

multi-pronged-approachBy Lisa Sobel-Berlow

Over the past year, our team at Jewish Family & Career Services (JFCS) in Louisville, KY has conducted a deep dive into community engagement best practices. We wanted to be able to answer very specific multigenerational questions that affect our community as well as other mid-size American Jewish communities: How do people become involved in organizations, why do they stay connected, and what barriers exist to involvement? To answer these questions, we took a multi-pronged approach, read all the latest literature on engagement, conducted focus groups, and gathered a community task force, attended conferences, and spoke to over 150 community members.

Here are the top 5 things we have learned:

1. Engagement is Personal: When asked why people become involved in organizations both within the Jewish community and in general, they overwhelmingly responded that they were invited personally by a friend, colleague, or respected community member. An even more significant finding was that it wasn’t just an invitation for the sake of solicitation, but that the person who invited them related the organization’s mission and work to a passion that they both shared.

Your organization can easily add this into your outreach by sharing the power of the word “because” with your volunteers, board members, and active community members. Ask them to use the word “because” when they invite people to events or volunteer opportunities. For example, “Jodi, I just signed up to volunteer at the annual banquet, and I was wondering if you would like to volunteer with me because I know that you are passionate about helping refugees get resettled in their new home…”

2. Engagement is Relationship Based: Nonprofit organizations need to begin to think of volunteers, donors, and community members as being in a relationship with them. You have to nurture this relationship. Ask questions about why someone is involved in your organization and make sure that you share that information with the staff that interacts with each person so that they can be in the relationship with them too. We have to know our constituents and why they are passionate about our organizations so that we can offer them the right opportunities to volunteer, chair a committee, or give.

Here’s an example: You’ve had a young mom consistently volunteer for a monthly program for the last 2 years, but all of a sudden she’s regularly canceling. If you’ve been keeping in touch with her, asking her about her volunteer experience and her life, you would know that she was beginning to look for work now that her kids are older. First, thank her and remind her of all of her hours of service. Then offer an hour or two of free career coaching from your organization to help her re-enter the workforce while at the same time providing her the opportunity to continue to volunteer through a young family program that is quarterly rather than monthly. In doing this you’ve shown that you value her donation of time and talent, you’ve connected her with another part of your organization and offered her a way to continue to impact your mission while giving her a guilt-free way to step away from her other volunteer project for which she no longer has time.

3. What Gets Measured Gets Improved: Since engagement is about relationship management creating the feeling that your organization has a relationship with each volunteer, donor, community member it’s important to have an efficient system of tracking that relationship. Sharing valuable data points is imperative (i.e. personal interests, skills, birthdates, etc.) as well as what programs and how often they interact with your organization and any feedback you get from them. We know this feels a bit big brother-ish, but it’s a paradigm shift that corporate America has already made. They use Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems to track our online presence, our shopping trends, and our vacation habits to offer us the right deals at the right time. Engagement for non-profits is similar. Tracking these data points in a database system allows you to understand better overall trends that are developing. You can use it to help understand what areas of innovation would have the most traction with your constituents. You can also understand how you are doing overall with engagement because you can see those trends within your tracking system.

We know that regular follow-up allows us to stay connected to our constituents, but it also gives us valuable data points that we need to stay relevant and innovative. You may notice that all of a sudden your email newsletter open rate drops, this may indicate that many in our community have changed their email addresses or that your newsletter is tripping a spam filter. By just reaching out to a few regulars, you can figure out which is the problem and fix it. This same principle can be applied to your volunteer programs and volunteer committee work if there’s a not so sudden shift you’ll need a system of regular tracking to be able to identify it earlier.

4. Engagement is a Journey along a Spectrum: Each person involved in your organization will be at different points on the engagement spectrum or scale. A healthy organization has between 75%-80% of their constituents at the lower end of the spectrum ready to be activated if appropriate for higher levels of engagement through leadership development. Thus your staff that is involved in developing leaders in your organization is spending more of their time with 20%-25% with the understanding that through investment in these relationships they will know when to activate someone lower in the spectrum. We also know that the current generations of volunteers, donors, and community members have more activities vying for their attention, free time, and disposable income. By investing in your relationships, you will know when it’s time to give those who are very involved an easy out if needed to focus on other priorities without burning the bridge to enable them to become very active later in the future.
When was the last time one of your volunteer projects had a change in leadership? Continuity and institutional memory are necessary but so are new innovative voices. Try to identify one potential new leader each year and work with them to find the right fit.

5. Lastly, Stop Worrying so much about the Generational Differences: Yes, there are generational differences; however as we conducted our research it became apparent that all generations are looking for the same things from organizations they are involved. They want their time, talent, and treasure to be valued. They want their passions to be clearly aligned with organizations missions to feel like they are making a genuine difference. And they want to hear from you and be heard by you frequently but not overly so. The main difference to focus on is how they prefer to communicate. While there are generational trends, it is important to remember that we are dealing with individuals.

Ask your constituents what their preferred methods of communication are (phone call, text, email, physical newsletters sent through the mail), then put that into their data file so that everyone knows the best way to be in contact. Periodically check in with them to make sure their preferred method hasn’t changed.
There isn’t a silver bullet to mastering engagement. Effective engagement focused organizations have the opportunity to radically change how we as a Jewish community come together to support and strengthen our organizations.

Lisa Sobel-Berlow is an Engagement Specialist at Jewish Family & Career Services, Louisville, Kentucky.