Page Turners: Social Movements for Good

Everybody who read the Jungle Book
Knows that Riki Tiki Tavi‘s a mongoose who kills snakes
When I was a young man I was led to believe
There were organizations to kill my snakes for me
i.e. the church, i.e, the government, i.e. the school
But when I got a little older I learned how to kill them myself

Donovan, Riki Tiki Tavi, 1970

'Social Movements for Good' author, Derrick Feldmann

‘Social Movements for Good’ author, Derrick Feldmann

Derrick Feldmann’s meticulous research around cause engagement doesn’t lend itself to quick summary, but here’s an attempt anyway: this is the age of movements and organizations would be wise to take note.

With practically limitless access to information and human capital – and, more importantly, digital tools to instantly connect people to ideas, activities, and each other – movement building has quickly become a, if not the, mainstream way to affect social change.

In his new book, Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, Derrick Feldmann explores the mechanics of movement building. What makes them work? What makes them stick? And, of critical significance to the charitable sector, what do they suggest about the future of traditional organizations?

To set the framework, Feldmann clarifies a matter that’s more than simple semantics – social movements are different than social movements for good.

“Most of the disruption that exists from social movements is over changing the discourse or generating awareness,” he explains. “What’s interesting about social movements for good though is that the awareness is typically around a population – it isn’t just around an idea. It’s about helping a collective group of people overcome something. If you think about some of Independent Sector’s members, that’s how nonprofits were actually started…of course, over time, organizations get more and more staff and they professionalize.”

Feldmann argues that professionalization, and the control that comes with it, has become an alienating factor. “As you look at the progression of our field, many institutions have started to remove the one thing that made us who we are, and that is people. Who owns the brand of the issue? Is it the people or is it the institution?”

For successful movements – whether they alter the foundation of society like the marriage equality movement or generate a surge of engagement like the Ice Bucket Challenge – Feldmann says that the answer is clear. It’s all about the individual.

From a distance, it might seem like movements suddenly spring up, but that’s far from the truth. “The visionaries behind social movements for good work years upon years to try to build the collective power of the group. That means bringing the group together, starting grassroots activity on the hyper-local level, and [attracting] the people who believe strongly that the issue is imperative.”

That initial groundwork of gathering people, the part that doesn’t usually wind up in a social media newsfeed, is the first of Feldmann’s four phases of social movements for good and a familiar one for the charitable sector. As Feldmann puts it, “It’s almost a return to the historic roots of our field.”

The second phase is where movements and institutions diverge. Once a movement has gathered its participants, Feldmann says that the key is to transfer power from the leaders to the participants. “We have to let people move from belonging to things to truly believing in the issue so that they own it themselves. The only way they can own it themselves is if they have the power to undertake activities, raise their own funds, and talk about the issue from their own perspective.”

Feldmann contends that organizations have a tough time doing that. “If you’re recruiting people and say that you just want them to respond to what you put out there – ‘you do it our way’ – you’re never going to be able to move people from belonging to what you have to truly owning it and believing in it themselves. The greatest opportunity that exists for members of Independent Sector is to look at how we begin to allow people to own [the work], where we aren’t always directing the activity but allowing people to self-direct on the issue.”

Once a movement has spread its ownership, the challenge becomes finding the right moment for a “pinnacle action” like posting a symbol on social media when the Supreme Court is about to rule on a landmark case. It requires patience, awareness, and some luck, but when the time comes you have to be ready. “The social movements that have a lot of impact on society – the ones you retain – already existed, took advantage of [their preparedness] and said, ‘now is the time to act and mobilize everyone we have.’” Feldmann says that opportunism and flexibility stands in contrast to overly-structured organizations. “The ones that try to manufacture the pinnacle moment on their own might make a few splashes, but they quickly dissolve because they have nothing to sustain them going forward.”

While the pinnacle action might be the most dynamic moment of a social movement for good, it’s neither the beginning nor end, and Feldmann emphasizes lasting movements sustain themselves in phase four through carefully planned activities – often the kind that end up in your inbox and show you how a few dollars can make a big difference. The strongest movements continue to attract, convert, and empower new believers.

Of course, not all movements are created equal and only a few achieve the impact that they seek. But lest the charitable sector be tempted to dismiss the vitality of social movements for good, consider the volume of activity taking place. Feldmann notes that more than 3,000 events and rallies take place every year on the National Mall. These movements take aim at the same challenges that the institutions that comprise the charitable sector seek to overcome, and the number of movements will continue to grow.

So, how do organizations remain relevant as individuals push to change things on their own? As we look to the years and decades ahead, the truth about traditional organizations might actually lie in the past.

“I encourage the membership of Independent Sector to think about going back to how we built the field,” Feldmann says. “We’re going to get closer and closer to removing the barrier between donor/volunteer/constituent and beneficiary…how do we begin to remove ourselves and become the conduit for people to work through to accomplish what they want for the issue? At some point, the founding individual or entity has to let go and let the movement grow on its own.”

Derrick Feldmann’s Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change was published in February 2016 by Wiley.

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