This morning, I had the huge honor of presenting the keynote at the 2011 MyCharityConnects Conference in Toronto, ON. I am so thrilled to have the chance to participate in this event and thankful for the invitation. The full keynote and presentation are below. Whether you were here in Toronto or not, I’d love to hear your ideas, feedback, and goals for change!
I started the keynote by reading a poem by Deanna Zandt, a friend and the author of Share This! You can read her poem, Untitled, here.
What is a movement?
Let’s start at the most fundamental place for this conversation. What is a movement? How many people hear that word and think it is just as generic as the word community? Or engagement? Exactly. As much as we intend to have real meaning in these words, we use them so often and when talking about such varying levels of similar things that we dilute our own meaning.
For this conversation, and those to have over the course of the next two days together at least, let’s work from the place that a movement is larger than coalitions. It’s deeper than engagement, and longer than campaigns. A movement is inherently counter to branding and needs more than a few inspired individuals.
What that translates to is that a movement is built on collaboration, incorporates co-design between individuals and organizations, and remains focused, even during an event or campaign, on lasting, real impact. To that end, siloed brands are replaced by unifying goals that rally more than select individuals but entire communities.
In the most simple terms, a movement is when organizations work with, and not for, the community. We need to let go of the idea that we are serving our constituents, and recognize the ways we could be working together to change their lives, their neighborhoods, and beyond. We we use the “with” instead of the “for” perspective, we are able to see skills and contributions the community can make, opportunities for growth outside of your programs or your walls; we are able to see that we are part of a solution and not responsible for engineering the entire fix. That’s when the movement building can begin.
What’s our role?
If organizations are a part of the solution, a part of the process, what does that role really look like?
Instead of asking what’s our role, let’s look at what the opportunity is. Outside of our organizations, we have government institutions, and service providers. We have community groups, schools, local leaders and people at every age, interest, and skill level. All those people and groups have just as many different goals, small and large. Your organization has goals, too. And it is completely okay, required even, that all those goals are different to some degree. But, they really do intersect. Some of the goals your organizations has for the community and the future are shared by that same community and other groups. Focusing on those areas where your goals overlap enables you to create a common ground, share a purpose; and that’s where you can build a movement.
I like to think of it this way: Organizations may have the research or data, the capacity and staff, to identify problems and opportunities, to build messages, calls to action and campaigns. But, alone, the organization can’t make the change. The community, partners, government, are all necessary for really making a change. So, organizations need to let the community drive. That doesn’t mean organizations sit back, relinquish all responsibility and control, and wait for the community to take action. Quite the opposite. The organizations get to do everything BUT drive: you are the vehicle, the gas, the map, the snacks even! But if the community isn’t in the driver’s seat, you won’t have the engagement or power to get anywhere alone.
What does it look like?
Obviously, we can all picture a car. But, that isn’t exactly what it looks like when we go back to our offices. How does movement building really look? Before exploring the questions around limitations and needs, I want to share a couple examples of things happening right now to remind us that even though it will take a lot of work, and honestly a good bit of time, that we are already moving.
Have people heard of 350.org before? Have you heard the number 350 parts per million? 350.org has had an interesting history, but one that shows us just what that car really looks like: as climate policy, disasters and environmental debates began building a number of years ago, 350ppm was used a tag on blog posts, on photos, as a tracking and signposting mechanism for people following and contributing to the unfolding conversation to find each other and each other’s content online. As the issues became more public and more people started looking for others and taking action, it was necessary for an organization to form that could provide some of the infrastructure and administration of the community and it’s work.
But, the organization remained community driven. Regional and local leaders were supported and given the opportunity to shine. Actions and messages were contextualized based on the issues and discussions taking place at both the global and local level. Campaigns were designed with the community and required the community’s engagement to implement. And everything was shareable, collaborative, contagious.
On the organizational side of things, the staff at 350 continued to explore ways to grow and build momentum that was larger than just their organization or reach. For example, they partnered with groups like Focus the Nation and 1Sky so that they could share a backend database ensuring that they were then able to share calls to action and garner far more numbers together than as competitors. In 2009, 350, working in tandem with communities around the world and partner organizations aligned on the shared goal of creating a global movement to solve the climate crisis, ignited the largest collective action that has ever been taken around the world with their 10/10/10 Day of Action. A year later, in 2010, it was even bigger.
And then something exciting happened. 1Sky and 350 merged. Instead of fundraising separately, activating communities separately, connecting with legislators separately, the organizations recognized a unique opportunity they had to come together.
They didn’t make too much of the merger, as there’s lots of work to do. But they were transparent, and excited about all the potential the merger opened up.
Just last week, another exciting merger was announced with BlueGreen Alliance and Apollo Alliance. I live now in New York, but before moving there in the autumn, I was based in London for a few years. The landscape has changed dramatically for the nonprofit, charity, and voluntary sector in the UK and I heard people across the country raise the question many times and with many different intentions, asking if there were simply “too many” organizations. With the budget issues that have faced the world, it’s a question people in many sectors, including in our own, have raised.
I’m not sharing these examples of mergers as a way of saying I believe there are too many organizations. Instead, they are examples of what it looks like when we double down on our focus to make change. And, just as David Foster shared in the merger announcement, building a movement will require partnerships and risks.
But movement building doesn’t only look like large organizations merging. Movement building also requires that focus on real action at the nexus of our collective goals. The Alliance for Climate Education is a great example of that. They provide many calls to action, and showcase lots of examples of how the youth they work with and reach can get involved wherever they are. But they also recognize they won’t build a movement by asking teenagers to change light bulbs in their homes. They have to let the community drive. So they provide the examples and maps, but they let the youth pick and pledge whatever it is they want to do to make a difference. And over 10,000 youth later, they have the start of a movement in the next generation, inspiring them and supporting them in staying on course for the future they want.
When it comes to the 350 network, the branding is really the branding of the community, long before any organization had formed to support it. 350ppm was the rallying point and as such remains so today. Just like 350 ppm, there are tremendous opportunities for starting and growing movements by focusing on the singular action. This is a facebook page where many organizations across the environment, climate and animal welfare sectors came together to share news, updates, action alerts, and much more after the BP Oil Spill. But, you’ll see it’s focused on action – there’s a petition built into the page and the page doesn’t have an organization’s name and it doesn’t even have anything about BP in the name.
What’s holding us back?
I haven’t said anything revolutionary, and I haven’t said anything new. But, most of us aren’t building movements. Why? There are a number of things holding us back. I want to touch on just a few of them.
Who’s heard the term ‘slacktivism’? Who’s read a blog post about it? Who’s read a tweet about it? Okay. Who’s changed their organization’s online communications because of it?
I very rarely encounter individuals complaining of slacktivism. But organizations? Gosh, it’s every day. And, to use a crude expression from the playground: whoever smelt, it dealt it. Actions, whether you consider them passive, inspiring, or anywhere in between, are coming from someone. And that person or entity putting out the call, has a tremendous amount of power. If you ask people to like your facebook page, and they respond, what they are saying isn’t that all they ever want to do is like your page. They are saying, just like in Deanna’s poem I started with: we’re here, we’re listening, call us to real action.
Organizations need to take responsibility for their role in creating and sustaining slacktivism. Yes we have an accessible and attention span limited world thanks in great deal to the internet. And yes, individuals have a stake in the emergence and proliferation of slacktivism. But I’m not talking to random individuals. I’m talking to organization that have inspiring stories, are doing incredibly important work, and have very real opportunities for the community to join in action. If it was a 12-step program to get over slacktivism, we’d be here to embrace the first step: admitting we have a problem and that it is a problem we can own and change.
How do we move away from slacktivism? Just like the larger principle supporting movement building, we need to focus on action. Look first at your organizational metrics. What do you measure every day, week, month, year? What do you point to when funders, donors, board members and the community ask if you are making a difference? How do you evaluate your programs and services? Those metrics and accompanying goals are the best resources for identifying the focus and the calls to action for your campaigns and even daily communications.
Remember the examples from before? Whether it was 350 or ACE, or a group like Epic Change and their annual To Mama With Love projects. To Mama With Love is an online fundraising effort focused on supporting women entrepreneurs caring for and supporting communities of youth around the world. The event happens in the week leading up to Mother’s Day and provides a platform where anyone can build a heartspace with text, photos and videos to show their love for their mother, an important woman in their life, or even people that inspire them. It is less about the number of people to retweet or like or blog. What is it about? Helping the women receiving the funds. They don’t focus on a dollar number, they focus on the women’s stories and communication all that they wish they could do. The more is raised, the more impact they can make. There’s no limit to either. Instead of saying in the middle of the campaign “we need $X”, they share an interview with one of the beneficiaries, or invite people to connect directly via twitter with children in Tanzania who attend the school funded through the campaign. It instantly becomes less about numbers and more about impact. And that’s hard to ignore.
Epic Change can’t do it alone, and neither can we. Remember the car? We have to get the community into that driver’s seat. But, we have to train them! Leadership development is incredibly important for our movements to build and grow and succeed.
We have to train our communities to drive with us. It isn’t exactly in our nature as an organization, but it is key to the ethos of a movement builder. One way to start is to encourage interaction without you. If you’re making connections and supporting conversations across the network, you’re helping the community create strong ties that will not require your time and energy to maintain. This may mean making introductions, starting conversations, asking for help, providing leadership opportunities that aren’t on staff. Remember the action-focused facebook page? That was a place where many organizations and groups could come together, but so could individuals – equally.
Striving to be replaced also means rewarding and spotlighting the leaders as they emerge. Positive reinforcement is one of the best leadership development practices you can build into your movement, whether it’s online or offline, on a facebook page, newsletter, annual fundraiser or neighborhood events. Giving public recognition for action and leadership empowers more action and more leadership – both from those in the spotlight and those that will come next. You want to be weary of hero worship in a movement, but that’s addressed by constantly changing out the spotlight – shining a light on people, partners, organizations and policy makers, actions local and global. The more people that you can showcase as symbols of the movement, the more diverse and tangible your movement becomes.
Lastly, in order to train the community to drive, you have to share your tools. You can model behavior all you want but if no one can tell how to actually take action, or how to really get the work done, there’s no way they can jump in and help step the movement forward. Think of when you learned to drive – you’d seen a car before, your parent or friend had told you what the various nobs and levers did. You can’t expect communities to share your goal and vision and automatically know how to act on your behalf in their villages and cities around the world. It doesn’t matter if you have a billion friends on facebook – what matters is how many know how to drive and are part of making change.
Another barrier is the idea that we are all so different. I have heard before: we are an organization working in the schools in a very urban community, so I can’t learn from or build on the work from the rural school programs because it is just so different here. I agree that every organization, city, region, and culture have differences that make us unique. And I’m glad we do. But when it comes to creating movements for the future, we can’t limit the places where we take inspiration or we limit the options for collaborators and innovation.
Like I said at the beginning, we all have a different set of goals, but ultimately there are very real intersections. Those are the areas where we can operate larger than ourselves, move from one-time efforts to long-term impact. It’s in that intersection we have the power to start a movement.
Our fear should not be of losing branding, not having “control” of the conversation, or having someone post a negative comment on our blog or facebook wall; but only in not changing the world, right?
As an example, let’s think about a community library. I’ve worked with them on various programs and strategies and something I’ve heard many times is: If we promote our space, everyone will try to come here; if we promote our services, everyone will try to use them. Instead of that fear that there will be too many people, too much interest, that library – or, really, that organization, service provider, government agency – is losing the opportunity to catalyze change and ignite a movement with just the existing infrastructure and capacity that’s in place.
Just as we need to take this as step 1 in our process of moving beyond slacktivism, we also need to be fearless. We cannot be scared that if we ask people to take action, instead of simply like our page, that they won’t do it. Instead, we need to train them to drive, or give them the tools to actually respond to our call to action, and then spotlight the leaders and impact they create when they do respond to our call.
What do we need?
I know that we have the energy and will and power to build real movements. But, we are still in need of some changes and important ingredients.
Those of us in this room today could be excited, inspired to support a community-driven approach in your organization. Maybe you’re even in a leadership position already and ready to start reaching out to potential partners with a larger offer than you were thinking of before. But for any change to happen in the way we operate now, and for movements really to form, we need a culture that will support it. And I don’t mean a public culture, but the mindset of our organizations and boards, and in our sector.
We need to be listening for action. Not just monitoring twitter or tracking who the influential reporters and bloggers are that discuss our programs or issues. But listening to the community, to the news, to the larger conversation on and offline and identifying where the opportunities are. We have the very fun chance to put pieces together and connect dots that others aren’t seeing. But we need to be sure we create a culture within our organizations where we can do that kind of listening and exploring.
We also need to support a culture of collaboration in our actions, not just our words. When we are focused on impact, we are able to see potential collaborations we may have missed before when we looked only at our programs or services. Maybe you’re a homeless shelter, and you want to partner with a shelter on the other side of town to better track and understand the community experiencing homelessness in your city. But when you look at it from the goal of ending homelessness, you see partnerships with those other shelters, as well as the job training centers, the food bank, and even the library.
Lastly, we need to increase our capacity for change. If we have our staffs listening and engaging with the community but don’t allow for our programs, services, or direction to change in response and in tandem with the community, we might as well not even be listening to them. And that doesn’t just go for organizations. Just as David Foster said, if we don’t create the capacity as a sector and as communities to change the way we operate, we won’t ever change the way we make change.
Our toolboxes are filled with some of our favorite tools and lots of toys we have never even tried before. But there are very few technology resources at our disposal today that are working with the organizations and communities that use them to ensure they are building to our needs. If we want to build movements, we need our infrastructure and applications to change the way they function as a tool and the way they operate as organizations. But they don’t have the real incentive to change until we ask for it. As organizations that collectively invest billions every year in our technology infrastructure, think of the power we could have if we collectively asked for, or pledged only to invest in, a database that supported the kinds of functions and tracking we needed? What about a fundraising tool?
Just as Epic Change can’t support entrepreneurs all on their own, nor can we assume we can make these changes by ourselves. We need organizations, like 350.org and 1Sky to lead by merging. We also need other organizations to lead by teaching us how to communicate, others to lead by creating models of analysis and measurement, and so on. There are many roles to cast and one isn’t necessarily more important than the other. What is important is the recognition that together those roles, those actions at the highest level, will help set in motion the opportunity for organizations and people to join us.
If there was only one thing that we needed above all those other pieces, it would be for us to start the next chapter. We can plan, we can strategize, we can justify moving slowly. But we can also just turn the page, and dive in to what’s ahead. Some call it a paradigm shift, others look at it as the next generation of social impact. Regardless of how you define what’s next, there’s no debating it’s next.
My father has this saying he uses whenever the rest of us would have our coast on and be standing at the door ready to leave, “if you’re waiting on me, you’re wasting your time.” That’s when he’d jump in front of us and race us to the car. It’s the same feeling we have right now. If we are waiting on another organization to take action first, we are wasting our time. There are organizations acting. And there will be organizations that act after you. But it’s time to start.
The sessions today and tomorrow will cover all kinds of ways you can start taking action and making change. But, I don’t want to close without giving some examples right now. You know, while we’re on the subject…
- Ask for help. Ask your community, your partners, your funders, your friends. Say you want to build a movement, and you want their help.
- Really listen to what your community and the organizations around you are saying – find the common goals where you can build on each other’s momentum.
- Trust more. Trust that if you asked for help, people would respond. Trust that if you called for real action, people would act. Trust that you can build a movement.
- Stop filing and attaching and saving and start sharing. Post your data, share ideas that aren’t fully formed, discuss something by asking questions first.
- Let go of some of the pressure you put on yourself and try following some times. It can be the buoy that helps create new partners and builds bridges.
- And ask for help. I have to say this twice, because people just don’t want to do it. But it’s good for you.