A ladder of participation is a tool that can help us understand how our organisations offer opportunities to the people we come into contact with to take meaningful action. It can help us to understand the relationship between the opportunities for action that we offer, how well it meets the expectations of our members/volunteers, and whether what we offer is broad enough to offer opportunities to a wide number of people.
The model assumes that we want to be offering a wide variety of different opportunities, depending on the availability of skills, time, commitment, motivation, etc, and that we appreciate that any contribution is valid. It can also be used to show how people recruited into our work might be supported to take on more responsibility or contribute more significantly, and how we can build this movement up and down the ladder into our planning and strategising. The ladder can help us to understand where power and responsibility lies within our organisations, and how people can be encouraged to contribute more if their capacity allows for it.
Ultimately, it roots movement building directly into our work at every level.
Our organisations will likely come into contact with relatively large numbers of people in one-off, low intensity interactions (people who are “observing” and “following” our work), and fewer people who are able to commit increasingly large amounts of time, money or energy (those with the capacity to take on “leading” and “owning” levels of participation).
Lets break down each of the levels in a bit more detail.
Observing and following
The bottom rungs ask nothing or relatively little of the people on those rungs, which is why it’s easier to encounter more people there. These interactions might occur online (e.g. they see a post from our Facebook page) or in person (e.g. they see a stall at a community event). These bottom rungs mean people are aware of your organisation and might be able to say a little about what it does, but haven’t really interacted with it or contributed significantly. They are important first steps though - if someone decides they want to take some sort of action in the future, they’ll know where to turn!
Key ways people to support people to observe and follow:
Accessible, engaging communication material that people can navigate quickly in various forms, with a strong “brand”
Clear “next steps” that don’t overburden but offer meaningful opportunities to engage in your organisations work
Endorsing and contributing
People start to take more meaningful action on the next level: “endorsing”. The actions people take on this rung don’t expect huge amounts of energy or commitment, and will be heavily directed by the organisation leading them, such as signing a petition or making a small donation. The action is probably a “one-off”, or at least isn’t sustained or regularly taking place. Some organisations focus on building very large bodies of people at this level (e.g. online petition sites such as change.org).
People move onto the “contributing” rung when they step into more significant levels of commitment. They might join the group if it has a membership system, or become more regularly or actively involved in a voluntary role. They probably now have a sustained relationship with others within the group.
Key ways people to support people to endorse and contribute:
Make sure you have a variety of different ways people can meaningfully contribute to your work
Aim to build strong personal relationships and make sure people feel valued - people contributing to your work should feel “known” by your organisation and know who to turn to for help.
Good data management, so you know who is contributing what.
Clear volunteer policies and procedures to ensure people are managed consistently across your organisation.
Owning and leading
Those on the higher rungs are taking on more responsibility, with greater expectations and a bigger call on their capacity. Someone shifts from “contributing” to “owning” when they start to take more initiative in planning and taking action. For example, they no longer simply attend a volunteer activity, they have an active role in organising and planning for it.
When someone is on the “owning” rung, the group or organisation is a key part of that person’s life - the organisation is probably one of their most significant uses of time and energy outside work and family commitments, and reflects what they are passionate about.
The “leading” rung is where people are setting strategic direction. They might take on responsibility for the organisation’s long term finances, policies, and other roles that the long term sustainability of the organisation are reliant on. These might be specific roles, such as being a trustee or treasurer, and/or put in large amounts of energy (such as organising large scale events). They help to recruit and induct new people to the group, identifying opportunities and roles.
Key ways people to support people to own and lead:
Have clear expectations on the responsibilities people are taking on, so that you and they know what is expected.
Regular check-in to make sure that people don’t feel overburdened (a particular risk as people become more passionate and stretch themselves).
Identify needs for training or other support, t ensure people in positions of power and responsibility have the skills they need.
Moving up and down the ladder
While the various roles and actions someone might engage with on the ladder are important, the tool can also be used to consider how we support individuals to move up - or down - the ladder, finding a place that makes sense for them and the organisation.
People might move up the ladder when their time, energy, confidence or skills mean there is an opportunity to do so. They might move down the ladder because they find themselves without the time, energy, confidence or skills to remain as involved in the work!
Considering how this occurs is key. Sometimes there will be a formal process to place someone in a particular role (such as elections for trustees at an AGM). Often it will be more informal or relational, and in these cases the role of organisers is very important. Identifying the people who may be ready to take on more responsibility, communicating with them in a way that works for them, and finding them a role within the organisation that makes sense for everyone is what will build bigger, stronger movements.
Here are some examples of how someone might move up the ladder:
Endorsing to contributing: Someone occasionally attends events organised by your group, but isn’t otherwise involved. Over a cup of tea after an event it turns out they have a skill they could offer that the group is lacking in. The organiser sets up a follow up meeting and makes a plan for how to support this individual into taking on the role.
Observing to following: Someone browsing Facebook sees a post from your organisation. They “like” the post and the organisation’s social media team then invites them to “follow” the page.
And down the ladder:
Leading to endorsing: A trustee of your organisation decides they don’t have the capacity to be involved any more, and feels a bit burnt out. They decide to step back, remaining on mailing lists and occasionally attending events.
Endorsing to following: After attending a few events, someone misses an invite to the next meeting, and ends up feeling less energised to be part of the group.
They can be really good reasons for someone wanting to move up or down the ladder, but there can also be reasons that aren't that great: they might also like the idea of being in a position of power and push to be on a steering group they don't have the capacity for, or become detached from the group for one reason or another and simply "drop off".
Power, privilege, and rank
A risk many organisations will face is around issues of power and rank. Those with more responsibility (i.e. higher up the ladder) will be aware that they have more power, and may be able to “pull rank”, over others. In some cases this might be warranted or necessary, but it can also be a source of tension and conflict. Sometimes, people might find themselves very attached to the power or rank that their position in an organisation and struggle to let go of this even though it would make sense for them (or the organisation!) to do so. Managing these very human issues takes sensitivity and good communication.
Another way power and privilege might play out is how people come to move up and down the ladder. Organisers need to be very aware of how they might be more likely to approach people they find it easier to communicate with, or because of ingrained sexism, racism, ageism, or other deeply harmful forms of discrimination. There is a significant risk that organisers come to exclude people who have a lot to offer.
One way of using the ladder is to consider: what is stopping some people who have the capacity to, from moving up the ladder? Considering where these “blocks” might be can help us to then reconsider our structures and processes to make it easier for people to apply their skills and energy.
Also, consider there may be multiple ladders within one organisation or group. For example, there may be areas of work that some folks are leaders on that others only have an incidental relationship with, while they are much active in other areas. This may be particularly relevant to organisations that use a working group model to structure their work, giving lots of space for different opportunities to engage with the organisation, and for different people to lead in areas that are relevant to the individuals involved.
A Climate Action Leeds ladder
Below is an example of what a ladder of participation for CAL might look like. It identifies some of the opportunities the programme offers to individuals to engage with our work.
Rung of the ladder
Actions/opportunities in CAL
And of course, people's position on the ladder isn't static! Here are some examples of how someone might move up the ladder, but there are many more.
From observing to following: Chooses to follow CAL on social media
From endorsing to contributing: Decides to attend an event advertised on
From contributing to owning: Starts to regularly attend volunteer sessions. The individuals skills/capacities are identified by a hub worker, who encourages them to take on a particular role.
From owning to leading: A regular volunteer is invited to start attending meetings for a steering group.
The question we have to ask ourselves as organisers is: how can we best support members of our groups and organisations to find a position that works for them, and for our work?