Cultivating engagement: what do you care about?

Care/Don't Care by Jamie Pawlus • Indianapolis Cultural Trail
Think of the last time that someone asked you about your passions.  I'm guessing you really got engaged in the conversation. You probably had a lot to share.  What you talked about was purposeful, personal, and powerful.

Now think of a time when you've been with a small group of people with whom you share a passion.  Not just a common interest, but a shared passion, one that has significant meaning for you.  Being with those folks felt very welcoming and generated a real sense of belonging. It was exciting and rewarding to experience the mutual reinforcement that comes from talking about your passion with like-minded individuals.

So why is it that despite knowing all the positive energy connecting to people's hearts can produce, so many of our efforts to learn about individuals focuses on their heads?  In short, why do we spend so little time as organizations asking people what they care about?

In my last post I focused on possible catalysts that cause people to act, the potential short-term trigger that leads them to buy a resource or come to an event.  If that post was about timeliness; this one is more about timelessness.  We should learn about what is potentially more long-term, enduring, and comprehensive: discovering what people care about most.  But I think we're going to have to let go of the means the organization might use to address that caring and instead ask more about the ends that individuals might most support.

Example: advocacy.  Of all the things that professional organizations do this is the one I care about least.  The thought of going to an Association Advocacy Day on the Hill holds no interest for me.  I remain thankful that for others, this is a primary passion from which I benefit.

But do I care about ensuring that we as professionals have the right to exist and do our work free of unnecessary or unhelpful regulation?  Well, actually I do.  Interestingly, what association efforts help produce that end result that I care about?  Advocacy.  Well, I'll be.

Example: professional development.  We're pretty good surveying people to learn what topics they think should be presented at the next Annual Meeting.  I think we're less effective (if anyone even tries) learning what's behind their selections.  Catching up on skills and knowledge they feel they need right now in order to just do their job is a different learning motivation than looking to stay on the cutting edge and to discover next practices they will use in the future. 

As we learned (or or likely, should have learned) in the 2007 ASAE Foundation environmental scan, behind every means (the workshop topics, lobbying on the hill) is meaning.  If we want to cultivate engagement, we need to learn what people find meaningful and not just whether or not the way we might deliver that meaning is of interest.

Understanding the meaning that people care about is expansive: we can do a lot with that information.  Understand which means are of interest to them is useful, but restrictive and narrowing.

You see where I'm going with this right?  Less initial focus on the means, and more attention on the ends as we try to cultivate engagement with individuals.  Use more stories about the meaning (the ends) to invite more actions connected to the means (come to a meeting, donate money, recruit a colleague to join).

In one relatively short conversation with colleagues you could identify a list of 7-10 "ends" statements that encapsulate much of what your organization is trying to accomplish.  Once you've done so, it's simply time to share them with those you want to engage and to discover how much they care about each one.

Again, the survey experts can probably inform the ideal design of this. But I think we keep this cultivation effort to a very simple 60-second survey, one that people are likely to respond to in real-time because it is so easy to do so.

All it would contain is the list of the ends you've identified with some sort of scale that respondents use to indicate how much they care about each one. I'd probably ask one other quick question: looking at the items you just rated, which of those do you care most about and why?

It's ironic, isn't it.  All the hours volunteers and staff spend trying to figure out which programs or services people want, what content in magazines or newsletter they will read, which volunteer opportunities will be most appealing ... all things directly tied to meaning and what people care about.  But we so rarely come out and ask them the direct question.

Did you hear that?  I believe that was opportunity knocking.


This post is a part of a short series of daily posts on cultivating engagement.  Your comments, reactions, and refinements are encouraged in the comments. I am not a marketing, data or information analysis, or membership specialist. I am a practitioner in the trenches, sharing what makes sense based on my experiences and observations of others’ efforts. I am a deep believer in trying a lot of stuff to learn what works.  These posts are in support of that commitment.