Are you ready to engage?

Alumni engagement. Parent engagement. Community engagement. Constituent engagement. The list of people institutions are trying to “engage” these days is exhausting. But what does it mean to be engaged?

Do you want engagement or just more people doing the thing you want them to do?

This question is deeper than it may seem. You see, engagement is really about a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s about dialogue. It’s about inviting people not just to support, but to actively participate in your organization. It’s not just about you (your institution), it’s about “us.” If you are thinking strictly in terms of more for you (gifts, applications, visitors or volunteers), your engagement efforts will fall flat.

Earn Attention. Invite Participation.

Whether you’re focused on alumni, parents, prospective students, or community members, never take their attention for granted. Never. Just because they may have been supportive or positive in the past, they deserve your best every time you connect with them. Again, it comes back to relationships.

When you look at your communications and programming, do you see places where you have let things get dusty or tired? Do you sit back and think hard about the person on the other end of the conversation before you start talking, or just repeat what was done—and even worked—last time?

I’m not advocating for operating in a constant state of upheaval (though I do advocate for relying on metrics when making these decisions), but I do urge you to think about each touchpoint as a moment in an ongoing conversation.

This means you have to be consistent with your narrative (what do you stand for?) and your calls to action (how can I help?). You have to be precise with your language and know when enough is enough (how many times are you asking people to do something?). You have to show that you intend to earn attention by being relevant, interesting, and interested in those you seek to engage.

Inviting participation is more than a call to action. It is a move away from thinking in terms of audience and towards stakeholders – those who are invested in a shared future with you.

Participation requires leaders who are responsive to their community. An engaged alumnus has a point of view and, in some cases, even the most loyal graduate may see a different path to the same solution. Are you willing to listen, understand, and even pivot toward his or her thinking? Or are your structures and processes such that, once a path is chosen, varying from it is too disruptive? If the latter is the case, you will still have loyal supporters but your potential to grow beyond your base will be limited.

Time is often the greatest impediment to engagement. We just don’t have… strike that… we just don’t make the time to listen, to process, and consider the path forward. The pressures are great and these important pauses are often considered to be nice to have instead of necessary.

Next time you are in a conversation about [insert your constituency here] engagement, consider the following:

  • What’s in it for us? Why are we seeking engagement? What problem do we need help solving?
  • What’s in it for them? Have we been clear in making our case to our constituents? Have we inspired them to the point where they see themselves as part of the solution, as our partner?
  • Have I made time to listen? Have we asked their thoughts on the path forward? If so, did we express appreciation for their input and reflect back the ways in which they helped shape the path?

There is truth to the adage, people support that which they help build. The question is how willing are you to share the workload?

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