Frameworks of engagement. Choose your shape: ladder, pyramid, onion, or circle.

Contributor: Weronika Paszewska

The work of making change is always a challenge. While there are many components we know fundamentally one thing is key: people. Unfortunately, a lot of organisations focus just on just reaching and recruiting - often via social media. But just building lists itself won’t make a movement in the world. Supporter’s engagement levels and involvement must be focussed strategically to build people’s power. While this is not something that happens on its own, there are a number of great models already out there which can be used and we’re proposing them here. 

Each of the frameworks has various representative shapes and present different approaches towards people around us and their activities. Depending on which framework you choose, you will end up in different places. Do you use any of them currently at your work? Check out which one speaks to you the most. 

Ladder and pyramid

Its legacy of the ladder is rooted in Sherry Arnstein’s work from 1969 - A Ladder of Citizen Participation and refers to citizens’ participation in democratic institutions. She identified 8 rungs and the higher you climb as a citizen the more agency, control, and power you have. She also made a very fundamental point that accurately distinguishes between organising and mobilising: “participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless”. At Tectonica we believe that to have a good organising program, you need to think about redistribution of power in your movement, organisation, or party. Wherever you come from. 

This framework was very popular and has few adaptations like Ladder of Empowerment or Ladder of Children’s Participation. As digital campaigning was getting more attention, campaigners started to use it as a ladder of engagement. This starts with asking people to do something small like signing a petition and then moving them up with some more engaging activities like sharing content, donating money, or becoming a volunteer. Here you can check out The Obama Campaign Ladder of Engagement

A pyramid adds to this idea that the number of people we are having at the bottom is bigger, and the higher we get, the fewer people are willing to answer for a call to action. You can check out Gideon Rosenblatt’s detailed description of each level of the pyramid or assign specific metrics to each level of the pyramid.

Ladder and pyramid of engagement are a simplified metaphor and it has its limitations. Rungs suggest that there is a clear distinction between each step (which is not an adequate description of our complex reality). The second limitation is that we tend to think about rungs that the higher ones are better than the lower ones (in fact it depends on the moment of our campaign and objectives we have). The third thing is people do not necessarily climb. Sometimes they magically end up doing the most engaging things like being a super-volunteer, leading a local group, or a thematic program. This is becoming more and more true as i.e. the awareness of racism and climate catastrophe are increasing and many folks do not want to respond to them by signing a petition. From an organising perspective, you should consider asking people about doing big things, following Becky Bond’s and Zack Exley’s advice from Rules for Revolutionaries. How big organizing can change everything book

Onion and circle

Due to some limitations mentioned above, let us move to some more rounded shapes. Onions and circles are rejecting classic hierarchy and reflect better on the human activity, and complexity of our engagement. Onion from Wellcome Trust was developed to show how the public can engage in research.


It has a useful dimension that portrays the level of power that is shared with the public and places the activities on the spectrum from receiving information to engaging in dialogue. You can also check Flow Associates’s Engagement Thresholds that focus on the quality of experience that people have at the different stages of their engagement. It is super useful to look at activities through the lenses of people who are the most important here (organising puts them in the center!). 

We find the most useful The Circles of Commitment developed by Rick Warren based on his experience from church organising (we feel that progressives have a lot to learn from religious organising groups). Rick identifies 5 circles: Community, Crowd, Congregation, Committed, and Core. Each of them has its own specific and different needs.


Source: Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Church” via Purpose Driven Campaigning, Australian Progress

Note: we regard Rick Warren to be an effective movement-builder, but we do not endorse in any way his political views.

From our experience, we either focus mostly at the Core - where we train our super-volunteers and work with local leaders, or we work mostly on the Community (the outermost circle) - where we set up goals to reach big numbers of people but with shallow engagement like social media engagement, signing online petitions or simple recognition of your brand. This framework puts importance on all circles and design programs, activities and communication specific to every group. Feel free to play with it and adopt it to your needs and organisation as i.e. The Wilderness Society did.

Do you have a framework that you use? You can share it with Tectonica Organising Network by joining our Slack community.