As much as it is a helpful tool, the engagement funnel is also so common a metaphor that we are often blind to its flaws.
The funnel is a strategy that informs much of what we do in alumni relations, advancement, and alumni career services. We use it to move people from where they are to where we want them to be—engaged alumna to volunteer, engaged alumna to donor, engaged aluma to mentor. (If you want a more thorough examination of the engagement funnel, I suggest you read our previous post “Flipping the funnel: Engagement that cultivates giving in the long term.”)
Yes, the funnel is just a metaphor that we use to conceptually organize the world around us. It is not an actual, physical thing that we try to cram our alumni into. But it and the assumptions that it represents inform everything we do. Our engagement strategies are, by and large, geared toward shepherding alumni from awareness through involvement to our ask and finally to their gift. That is the funnel. And it is flawed.
I will explain how it is flawed by way of comparison. I invite you to consider an alternative metaphor: the engagement web.
Where the funnel is linear, the web is complex. The funnel is centralized, the web distributed. The funnel clogs, the web is resilient.
Remember, the web is just a metaphor, but it can help us productively reorganize how we think about engagement. Here are five points about the web to help us get started.
It has many entry points.
The funnel has limited points of entry because it forces us to adopt a linear approach to engagement. Alumni generally only move to point C after passing through points A and B. For example, we focus our volunteer recruitment efforts on alumni we already know to have engaged by attending events, etc. They have to engage with us once to get on our radar and again and again for us to decide they are worth our time and effort. There are too many alumni we could make an ask of, so we focus on those who we think have a higher chance of converting.
We generally don't ask alumni who have never engaged before if they want to serve on a committee or speak on a career panel. In reality, though, a previously unengaged alumna might be more interested in volunteering than in attending an event.
In the engagement web model, we don’t act as gatekeepers. We encourage our constituents to participate in everything we have on offer, regardless of their prior engagement. Our programming isn’t the only thing that changes our constituents and makes them more interested in or eligible for other opportunities. People grow as their lives change. A previously unengaged alumna who just finished her residency might be interested in talking to other alumni about careers in medicine even though she has never attended an event or made a gift before. If we rely on past behavior to predict future behavior, we foreclose on relationships that don’t yet exist.
It is satisfied with where people are.
The only goal of the funnel is to drive people from “shallow” engagement to “deep” engagement and, ultimately, toward making a gift. Liking our page on Facebook isn’t enough, we need you to volunteer. Volunteering isn’t enough, we need you to give. The funnel is ravenous and never satisfied. It is the giant sucking sound, the low, disquieting drone, that plays in the background of our alumni’s minds whenever we communicate with them. To them, even the most innocent of our invitations to join us for drinks is undercut by the institution’s voracious appetite for donations. Under the funnel model, we are never friends, only ever friends-for-hire.
The end goal of the engagement web is not giving—it is support. The web supports our constituents with the understanding that our institutions are only as strong as our communities. (Understood broadly, the institution itself is the web.) All alumni are welcome to participate in whatever way and at whatever level they feel most comfortable. We can then forge genuine relationships with our constituents that are unclouded by fiscal anxiety.
It meets people’s needs.
Because the end-goal of the web is not just giving, it can directly address constituents' desires and needs. When monetary contributions are not our only goal, our definition of success expands to encompass everything from students finding advice to alumni exchanging goods. Any connection that happens under the auspices of the institution is good for the institution. Every connection builds institutional affinity and promotes the personal and professional success of our constituents.
Happier, more successful alumni are more likely to give back when we offer them something first. Because they do not feel pressured to pull out their checkbook, they feel valued and respected for who they are. They feel like they did when they were students—that their alma mater cares about their wellbeing first and foremost. We know how much students love their alma maters—the web can help us maintain that sentiment after commencement.
It is sticky.
Because the web is tailored to meet the needs of our constituents rather than the short-term giving goals of the institution, our alumni continue to engage and engage in new ways with their alma mater. When we connect alumni with one another, we build connections that last and bloom into new relationships—among alumni and between alumni and the institution—over time. The web's social nature makes it self-reinforcing in this regard.
Friendship is a two-way street. We need to start treating our relationships with alumni the same way. If we do, we'll find that our alumni will stick around much longer.
It is resilient.
The funnel leaks. The web doesn’t. Failure at one point on the web does not mean failure of everything down the line because there is no single line. A leak in a traditional engagement funnel means there are fewer people at each successive stage of the funnel. The web is stronger than that because no program or strategy depends entirely on another to succeed.
When one point on the web breaks, when one program, event, or communications strategy fails, we don't have to wait until it starts to have negative effects downstream to find out.
It thrives on interconnectedness.
Points in the funnel are connected vertically but not laterally, and therefore do not get the most out of potential connections and synergies.
In an engagement web, any one of your programs can have a multitude of connections with the others. Mapping the web of your current programs and points of contact is useful for identifying those connections—and for finding missed opportunities.
Even the simplest mapping exercise, like the above example, raises productive questions. For example: Why aren't we using social media as an opportunity to share the stories of alumni who make major and minor gifts and their connections to the institution? Why aren't we feeding data from our online network into our annual giving operation? Why aren't we using reunions as an opportunity to promote our professional advice network? And so on.
The funnel, with its strict A to B to C mentality, does not invite this kind of reflection.
The engagement web is, like the funnel, just a metaphor, but one that affects how we structure and implement the services and programs we offer to our constituents.
Alternative metaphors invite us to reconsider the funnel model, its assumptions, and the unfortunate side effects those assumptions have on our relationships with alumni. Even the subtlest shifts in perspective can make obvious problems we never noticed before.
The engagement web also offers us a new way forward, and one that doesn't require us to radically revise what we're doing now. There are plenty of opportunities to strengthen our programming. All we have to do is make the connections.