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How to start a movement

How to start a movement

If there is a strong trend in the civic and social landscape in 2020 it is towards starting and building movements. In the past nonprofits, advocacy and issue groups were formed in similar ways but did not have as much emphasis on community engagement or media narratives. In the past few years movements have grown incredibly quickly online and in the real world environment. We are all familiar with #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo or #ClimateStrike and how different they are from traditional advocacy or issue organizations. This piece looks at 5 things to think about when starting a movement.

1. Your movement already exists

If you are looking around for an issue on which to create a movement you are probably in the wrong place. The key feature of movements as opposed to lobby groups or traditional advocacy groups is that the sense of urgency is immediate and apparent. In this sense you are not looking to start the movement so much as get in on the ground floor. Identifying the beginnings of a movement means looking for a pain point in the social landscape that is already apparent to you, it might be climate, or race, or inequity but it is likely to be something that you have thought about or discussed with friends.

Understanding where the movement is in its development is important. Derek Sivers has a great Ted Talk that uses a dancing man as an analogy to describe the inflection points in a movement. In it he talks about the lone person who begins the movement but he talks about the key moment as being when a second or third person joins the movement and gives it support and credibility.

Assuming it is clear to you what issue it is that you are compelled to work on, it is now your task to join that person or group while the movement is still very early stage and apply yourself to growing it. Applying a vision of where the movement needs to go and how to achieve its objectives might be the first step in having an impact.

Action tip: At this point sketch out a strategy and plan for the movement growing quickly that can help early members of the team. Ecanvasser’s Leader software allows movements to scale quickly building on grassroots mobilization and local autonomy.

2. Find your allies

If you care about your issue, it is highly likely that others do to, or that others care about similar issues. It is important therefore to go through the process of identifying the landscape of potential allies that might help you in your work. This might be a list or map of similar grassroots activists, groups with a similar demographic of members to yours, or it might be individuals who could be influential in highlighting the issue.

Draw a map of those stakeholders starting with the ones closest to you ideologically and geographically and then move out from there. The idea of profiling stakeholders should help you to create a picture of your likely or ideal supporters. Maybe they are all from a demographic group that are uniquely affected or it might be drawn from past experience of those people who are most likely to support you. You might want to break this supporter profiling exercise into those most likely to donate versus those most likely to volunteer and assess where you are most likely to find these people online or in the real world. With an organizational allies map and supporters profiles completed you have the beginnings of where to go with your messaging to get support and amplification of the cause.

Be on the lookout for super-connectors who have large pre-existing networks of activists that they are in touch with. See if they are willing to support you. You may already be aware of them as civic leaders with a well-known profile. And finally, be open to bringing in brand ambassadors as allies. These are well-known people who might be affected by the issue themselves and they would be willing to make themselves the face of a campaign or simply endorse the movement.

Action tip: Create your allies map of organizations and groups. Build a picture of a likely or ideal supporter and where they live online.

3. Hyper-communicate

If you don’t communicate effectively you cannot become a movement. Without clearly communicating the reason for your movement’s existence, nobody else can buy into it. In fact, the recent history of movements and the speed of their development has been a story of communication, whether that is through social media or a compelling story or a rising media narrative. Movements are carried forward on waves of communication. The more compelling, clear and loud the communication the faster you will grow.

So, develop your communication abilities across various media. Think about storytelling ability in word and speech. Think about powerful images or video to make your point. Trust the people involved in your movement to communicate for you, everyone’s perspective and passion is needed. Movements tend to be decentralized with many local chapters making up the communication output so you might want to formulate loose talking points or directions around which diverse activists can coalesce.

Figure out which social and media channels you want to operate on primarily. Maybe stay narrow at the beginning and understand your supporters will find their own channels to communicate on too. Think in terms of your movement’s brand and its mission. Do you have a logo, do you have a mission statement and do you need to distinguish your movement from similar movements? If you can sell merchandise you have a brand so be conscious that the brand is a powerful communication tool and should be worked on by your team to capture what the movement is about.

Growing any organization, but especially a movement, is about adaptability and willingness to change so be conscious that you will need to reinvent your mission statement, your brand and your talking points on a weekly basis depending on changing events and the direction the supporters take it in.

Action tip: Outline your mission and a brand positioning statement to establish a fundamental communication point to come back to. Create visual elements to represent your movement and communicate your message.

4. New power not old power

When we talk about the most famous movements of our time #metoo #blm and #climatestrike we are talking about new power models where the movement grows quickly on the back of engagement from large groups of people. This is in contrast to old power models like organizations that are directed from the top by people who do not trust ‘the crowd’. Think about conservative political parties, military structures and education for old power models. In new power models you are working with large groups of people and figuring out ways to direct them without controlling them. With the new power models you have movements like #MAGA where Donald Trump harnessed the power of a crowd but maintained all the control. On the other hand you have Black Lives Matter which has harnessed the crowd but essentially is not about any one leader, it is made up of many chapters internationally and speaks through many different people. New power is driving movements and is arguably essential to new supporter recruitment. It is worth remembering that most people do not want to get involved in an issue organization where they will be told what to do, they want to feel they are directly involved and leading.

The huge benefit to new power is the access it gives to supporter’s skills and talents. Skills-raising, not fundraising, becomes the driving force behind the movement and it is a place where conflicting opinions and perspectives actually round out the movement rather than hold it back as they might do in an old power organization.

Action tip: New power models are multi-chapter, multi-leader structures that require digital systems to coordinate that without being too controlling. Put the system in place and empower local chapters to take action with the mission statement in mind.

5. Flatten the ladder of engagement

Movements and organizations are entirely different in that movements are driven by a mission and seek sweeping changes. Organizations are about setting up infrastructure and processes to allow actions to be taken and effect incremental change. They are both valid but they are different.

The ladder of engagement model is one that really helps organizations to recruit new supporters and develop them into leaders. However, in movements that ladder of engagement is flattened. Here’s what I mean by that. If you are recruited to a movement or have just joined it is because you are aligned to the movement’s mission and you want to see change happen. In this sense you are capable of leadership from the beginning because you know what is required and the most important thing is that you are willing to take action.

Rather than asking, “How can I get all these people to do what I want them to?” savvy leaders begin to ask, “How can I help all these people do what they want to do? - The Billions Institute

If you are starting a movement you need to understand that your leaders don’t have to be cultivated, they can arrive fully formed. Allowing them the autonomy to take action is critical and is in keeping with how a movement should grow. It also aligns with the idea of skills-raising, using the talents and drive that new supporters bring to the table. So, how do you foster this flattened ladder of engagement and find new leaders instantly. Create a permission structure that is open and make it part of your onboarding process to cultivate immediate action. If you are using a community software try to open up the permission levels of supporters to allow them to take actions, even if they don’t have access to other aspects of the database. [Talk to us and we can describe this in more detail].

Starting a movement is an exciting challenge and we want to help you in any way we can. If you’d like to talk to us about anything tech or structures related we would be happy to pass on the knowledge we have built up from working on projects around the world.

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