Too much time is spent in conference and meeting rooms talking about building engagement. The key to building real engagement in your business, leadership team, or family unit is to engineer shared experiences.  When you are forced to stand next to someone, shoulder to shoulder and face challenges when there is a reliance upon your neighbour we build stronger communities.

How often have you seen communities in the face of a natural disaster come together as one? People who have lived together in the same street for years and years without speaking to one another build unbreakable bonds when they face challenges together.  Sporting teams that come together and stick together for years build bonds that are appreciated only by those who on that team.

In the offices of corporations and businesses across the country there will be people working in cubicles a paper aeroplane throw away, the names of which they might know if they are lucky, any personal details beyond that, unlikely.  Yet we know our businesses operate better if there is cohesion, if there is trust and a culture that we can depend upon one another, one that says ‘I’ve got your back!’

In 2005, in response to the devastation that I witnessed working in Thailand following the South East Asian tsunami, spending months identifying those who died to repatriate them to their loved ones across the globe, I formed an Australian charity Hands Across the Water.  Hands was formed to provide a home to 32 children who had lost their homes and parents in the disaster that created such devastation and loss for the country of Thailand.

I realised that the sympathy for those who had lost so much would soon pass once the stories were no longer told.  Another disaster in another country would come and take the focus off our kids.  Just because the attention and support would pass it didn’t mean the parents of these kids would come back, of course they never would.

We needed to do something different if Hands was to remain relevant.

Our approach to remain relevant was to offer shared experiences that would build strong engagement within our supporters.  We knew that we could change the lives of the kids we were supporting.  We knew we had the people on the ground to educate, care and love the children.  But all of that was only sustainable if we engaged our donors on a different level.

We set about focusing equal efforts on offering value to our supporters as we do to caring for the kids.  When we got both sides of the equation right, the fundraising, the burden that nearly all charities carries, started to disappear.

I’d like to suggest I was smart enough to engineer this approach from the beginning, but I’m neither that smart nor claiming victory for something I can’t.  It seemed like a good idea at the time and it worked.  The genius in the concept, assuming there is one, is that we appreciated the value of what we had stumbled upon and leveraged the heck out of it.

So what do our shared experiences look like?  We started a charity bike ride in 2009 with 17 people, five of whom were my family who would ride 800kms over eight days in Thailand.   They’ve proven successful because of the inclusive model of those who ride with us and the strength of the shared experiences.  In 2018 we will have ten rides or treks, half of which are “closed or private” corporate rides.  Such has been the value of the experience we don’t have just people signing up, now we have companies and teams signing up for their own experience. And roughly three quarters of those who ride with us are return riders.  The model works because of the value back to those riding.

The conversation I have with prospective riders or their companies is about the journey, the strength of the experience, the challenge and the rewards they will derive.  The cost of the ride and the fundraising no longer becomes the ‘point’ of the conversation it’s just the details to work through.

Our riders believe in the work we do with the kids.  Many are connected to the kids as they have ridden multiple times, but when you speak honestly with them, that’s not the reason they ride.  It’s a great experience to ride into the home of the kids after 800km and see those that the hard work has been for, but the real reason they ride is for the personal reward they take, the strength of the shared experience.

It’s why companies keep coming back for another ride, because they know the way to build engagement is to engineer shared experiences.