Advances in technology and the emergence of social media tools make it more possible than ever for social movements and causes to quickly spread far and wide (to go "viral" in the parlance of the moment). But how do you take a cause and transform it from an idea into something with universal appeal?
In the past, the concept of organizing, fundraising, and building a movement was focused on individuals "belonging" to a cause. In the twenty-first century, however, a successful movement isn't owned by an organization or single entity; it's owned by the people who comprise the movement itself. This idea speaks to the realities of modern constituent engagement theory and how people are perceived, whether as activists, social changemakers, supporters, or donors.
Importantly, in the research we’ve conducted, it's apparent that younger people view themselves as of a cause and not for a cause. It's a critical distinction. Young people tend not to belong to a cause but rather believe in a cause — and act accordingly.
Social movement builders who understand this understand that they have to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the qualities of purpose, authenticity, and self-actualization are embedded in their messaging when engaging supporters and would-be supporters. Without these qualities, individuals are unlikely to fully appreciate the potential of the movement or their own role in its ultimate success.
The shift I'm articulating is cultural and a function (I believe) of the instantaneous digital technologies that increasingly connect us to each other and the world. It's also something that social movement builders and leaders need to grasp in all its dimensions if they hope to be successful in harnessing the power of individuals to a common purpose. What do I mean by that? And what are the signs your cause or movement may be missing the boat?
1. Your focus is on getting people to "join" the movement instead of "experiencing" it. "Joining" a social movement is a big commitment, especially for individuals who aren't yet fully engaged with it or passionate about the cause. Your social movement shouldn't require an individual to have to join or become a member in order to demonstrate his or her support. Instead, allow individual supporters and potential supporters — especially younger ones — to experience the cause through their peers and networks, personal stories on your website, and conversations taking place on social media platforms.
Providing a compelling experience is an excellent way to move an individual from interested observer to engaged supporter while also creating a new advocate for your cause who's likely to share his or her "conversion" experience with others.
2. Your supporters act without purpose. When communicating about your movement through social networks, your intent should be to help individuals understand why taking action is imperative — and to spark an empathetic response that will motivate them to reach out to others. It doesn't always work out that way, of course. At times, the messaging you've so carefully crafted and communicated can take a back seat to a personal agenda that may have little (or nothing) to do with the cause. If your supporters are responding this way — acting without purpose, as I call it — they're not adding value to the movement. Your job, in such a situation, is to re-focus your messaging in a way that emphasizes the collective nature of the cause and why the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
3. You tell supporters how to be involved instead of letting them decide for themselves. Like supporters who act without purpose, individuals who are told how to support a cause are much less likely to do so than those who are encouraged to do what they can, when they can. Social movements create opportunities for individuals to participate with a group rather than for a group. Enabling self-directed action among your supporters allows them to develop their own engagement track with the cause and greatly improves the chances they'll retain their interest and passion for it over time. And that's the best way to advance a movement organically, authentically, and with purpose.
4. You're exclusive rather than inclusive. The act of helping another person isn't an experience exclusive to those with money and connections. Indeed, the most successful social movements treat all supporters of the cause equally. Successful social movements depend on individuals who feel and believe that any level of engagement, as opposed to a certain level of engagement, will make a difference. Similarly, great social changemakers are accepting and grateful for any kind of support — and will use that enthusiasm for the cause as a platform from which to encourage individual supporters to share their excitement with others.
5. You don't give supporters sufficient opportunities to realize their potential. You can talk to supporters and would-be supporters about the cause until you're blue in the face, or you can help them connect with the issue through meaningful experiences. Think of fundraising after a natural disaster. After a disaster occurs, the vast majority of funds are raised within a couple of weeks, driven in part by first-hand accounts of the disaster and stories in the media designed to elicit an emotional response. Let's be honest: appeals to the emotions work. If they hope to be successful, however, social movements need to be careful to marry that kind of appeal with messaging that stresses the importance of direct action at the level of the individual. Most people won't follow through, but it's important they know their active participation in the cause is always welcome and, indeed, could mean the difference between success and failure.
Understanding how people engage with causes is critically important if you hope to capture their interest and enthusiasm and convert it into action. Effective leaders of social movements do whatever they can to ensure that the movement and the messaging around it is purposeful, authentic, and inclusive, and that engagement in the movement allows for self-direction and self-actualization. When they succeed, movements become what we want them to be — powerful communities of individuals who believe in and rally around a common cause to make change happen.
Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and creative agency that works with nonprofits to increase their impact, and co-author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, to be published in February by Wiley.