Non-profits are notoriously bad at measuring something that has become increasingly important - engagement. It is analogous to a company trying to measure the customer experience and creates the same question, "how do you solve for something you can't measure?". Like for-profit companies, non-profits often treat quantifiable numbers like 'revenue' as a measure of engagement, when in reality, metrics like revenue are a residual of engagement, not an equivalent of engagement. But, it's not an impossible battle, there are some things non-profits can do to start down the path of solving for this nebulous term:

  1. Define it: If you can't define what something means then you'll never be able to measure it. For non-profits, engagement is going to mean different things for different organizations. For example, event-based organizations might define engagement as repeat attendees? How many people attended multiple events during the year. A service-based organization might define engagement by the number of hours a volunteer contributes over a set period of time, and layer on a consistency aspect (e.g., 70% of our volunteers donate at least 8 hours of time per month). In any case, you have to put a stake in the ground and define what engagement means to your organization and what metrics you're going to use to measure against it.
  2. Survey Your Donors: Companies survey their customers at an increasing rate now to understand how they feel about an experience they've paid for, and non-profits should do the same with their donors.  These surveys don't have to be overly complex, but they should be consistent, which provides the ability to measure change over time. Why do you donate money to our organization? What types of things would incite you do donate more? What types of things can our organization do to grab more of your time? It seems invasive, but if done right, donors (like customers) actually appreciate getting their voices heard.
  3. Don't Equate 'Social Metrics' to Engagement: With the proliferation of always-on social media, the natural inclination for non-profits is to measure engagement by the number of followers they have on a platform or the number of 'likes' they get during a period of time. I feel that those types of metrics are overly-inflated - people follow things for many different reasons - following does not equate to engaging. No social media metric I have seen has ever convinced me that social media, in-and-of-itself, should be a standard of measuring engagement for a non-profit.
  4. Distinguish Between Campaign and Cause Engagement: The ALS 'Ice Bucket Challenge' was a huge success - perhaps the largest social-media driven fundraising campaign in history. It was such a great example of how simplicity combined with the viral nature of social media can create a huge movement that everybody knows about. That said, I question how many people that donated to ALS through the 'Ice Bucket Challenge' have interacted with ALS since then? Only ALS knows that number, but my guess is, it's not a large number. The 'Ice Bucket Challenge' created awareness and money, but did it create engagement? It likely did, but it was transaction-based, rather than a true relationship.
  5. Track Your Donors: Donors, like any type of customer, should be tracked, segmented, and analyzed. The more you know about your donor, the better off you will be in creating a methodology for measuring engagement. Not all engagement is created equally, either. The person who writes you a $100,000 check and speaks at one of your fundraisers every year for the past 10 years is likely more engaged than the person who simply just writes you the $100,000 check each year and never shows face. There's nuance in looking at engagement and there is a lot of grey area, but it shouldn't keep you from trying to understand it and measure it.

There is a disproportionate amount of time in the non-profit space right now being spent on 'blind fundraising initiatives', and not enough time being spent on measuring engagement. And by 'blind fundraising initiatives', I am talking about cold-calling, meeting with people that have money but know virtually nothing about what your organization does, etc. That is a tactical, not strategic move that relies on the 'power of persuasion', rather than on the merits of your organization - some would argue that money is money and it doesn't matter how you get it. I agree to the extent that you don't care about sustainability, which is the fundamental reason why engagement matters. Understanding and measuring engagement will enable non-profits to spend less time flying blindly and more time focused on improving the overall experience for those who are truly engaged in the cause, and that will result in the higher metrics we love to measure.

When it comes to non-profit strategy and understanding what engagement means and how to measure it, I am reminded of an Einstein quote about how he would save the world in 60 minutes:

"I Would Spend 55 Minutes Defining the Problem and then Five Minutes Solving It."