Engagment, or lack thereof, seems to be a very common problem for communities of all sorts, whether we’re talking about FIRST Robotics teams, non-profit volunteer groups, churches, schools, families, or any other thing that brings people together & requires them to work together. But what do we really mean by engagment? And once we know what we’re talking about, how do we get people to step up & engage?

I’ve been reading an excellent book on emotional intelligence and one of the key points that the author makes is that the first step towards solving a problem is being able to find the words to communicate that problem to other people. I think we all complain about people not being engaged, but we don’t really take the time or put the thought into defining what that really means in a way that we can actually use to move forward and help make things better.

First off, what do we mean by "community"? It’s become a word that gets thrown around to mean all kinds of things so the actual meaning has become muddy. I really like where that article from the Together Institute is going with their definition - except I disagree with their point about communities not being goal oriented. Even in the simplest communities, their internal, implicit purposes have goals built in to them. That goal may just be building relationships & bringing members of the community closer together, but it’s still a goal that takes work & effort from community members to make happen.

A community is a group of people that care about each other, feel like they belong together, and work toward common goals.

For a community to actually work - for it to be functional & sustainable - belonging to the community has to benefit its members. Without something positive to bring people in & keep them there, the community shrinks & falls apart. This also means that the members of the community have to work to maintain & improve the community. Without that effort, the benefits that come with membership tend to start disappearing. Community members also have to communicate with each other. If people aren’t talking, that probably means that problems that the community could be helping with or issues with the community itself aren’t getting dealt with and the community will start fragmenting - leading to less people, less work, and less benefit for the members.

Based on that, we have a better working definition of what it means for someone to be engaged in a community - they’re working & communicating with other members of the community for the benefit of the community & ultimately themselves. But not everyone is at that peak level of engagement - so how do we identify how engaged people are?

I stumbled across this thing called the Work Ethic Hierarchy put together by the Midland School, a boarding school in rural California, to use as a framework for how students integrate themselves into the very participatory culture of the school. I remixed that a bit to make it more generic & applicable to any community, added some emojis, and came up with what I’m calling the 8 Levels of Community Engagement.

Emoji Level Description


Not even trying to be part of the community

Showing Up

Acknowledging that you’re part of the community with minimal participation



Because not working means negative consequences



Because you want to do the work


Doing a Good Job

Because you want to be proud of your work, better work means a better community


Developing Agency

Being able to take charge of your own work, identify priorities, manage your time, know your limits


Developing Leadership

Being dependable & responsible, looking out for the well-being of both individuals & the whole community


Building a Legacy

Systemically leaving things in better shape than when you started, building sustainability

This by itself won’t solve your engagement problem, but it makes for a good way to start conversations about helping people understand where they are & helping them identify the level of engagement they want to hit & how to get there - or maybe why they’re slipping backwards and becoming less engaged.