Thomas Paine, eat your heart out.
Community organizing has come a long way since days of schlepping around soapboxes and papering neighborhoods with pamphlets.
These days, engaging likeminded people in a common goal is more likely to happen on Twitter and Facebook than it is on the nation’s street corners and office parks. And as our definition of community has changed along with how we organize, it may be better described as movement entrepreneurship — a hot pursuit, and a lucrative one, at that.
photo: Fifty & Fifty
“We’ve always had passionate people leading movements, but technology has allowed for us an empowering speed of growth,” says Javan Van Gronigen, the founder of design studio Fifty & Fifty in San Diego. His company is perhaps best known as the force behind the nonprofit Invisible Children’s runaway KONY2012 campaigns, which smashed all previous records for viral videos in its quest to end atrocities allegedly committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
“While the civil rights and women’s rights movements evolved over time, we can now instantaneously put a film in front of hundreds of millions of people,” adds Van Gronigen.
The most successful movement entrepreneurs are mash-up artists, mixing a nonprofit guru’s altruism and drive with the ad exec’s ruthless pursuit of the biggest bang. “Their experience has been forged in volunteering, and they know you have to work together,” says Dev Aujila, the co-author of Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money, and Community in a Changing World. “The problems are so huge and multifaceted, there’s more than enough room.”
Van Gronigen, for example, cut his teeth in the agency world and then spent three years in the nonprofit space, as the art/web director at Invisible Children, before starting up Fifty & Fifty in 2009. While the firm is a for-profit venture, they court caused-based initiatives. Other high-profile clients include charity: water and World Vision.
“We all see hurt and want to do something about it,” says Van Gronigen. “I realized, over time, that I’m of more value working as a web designer than I would be giving up all my possessions and moving to Uganda.”
Before Rachael Chong started the social venture Catchafire, she worked as an investment banker and then helped the microfinance giant BRAC start up its U.S. affiliate. After seeing firsthand how crucial high-level volunteers were to the success of BRAC USA, she was inspired to strike out on her own — creating a platform that matches highly skilled volunteers, one-to-one, with needy nonprofits. Now Catchafire has enlisted 10,000 people, and Chong is ready to take their mission to the next level.
“We want to reinvent what giving means,” she says. “To create the best experiences, so that talented individuals are transformed — and will contribute for the rest of their lives.”
To do so, she’ll need an approach more nuanced than simply cranking Catchafire’s Twitter account. “Numbers provide clout and credibility, but our best metric for success can’t be measured so easily,” she says. “Catchafire is still about the experience, so it’s important that our early adopters spread the word about their amazing experiences.”
The drive to connect with and motivate a constituency is what distinguishes a successful movement from a sea of impostors. “It’s very easy today to count likes and mentions, and hard to figure out quality,” says Katie Delahaye Paine, an expert on public relations and social-media measurement.
She compares “liking” something on Facebook to a construction worker leering at someone passing on the street. “There’s no relationship there,” she says. “You want them to move up the ladder of engagement — to comment on your post, and then to donate, which is the equivalent of walking down the aisle.” The repeat volunteer, says Delahaye Paine, “is having a whole damn family.”
Just as each movement has unique goals, it has a unique sweet spot for engagement, says Van Gronigen. “A ton of shares is still a ton of people doing something, but it’s important to have all levels,” he says, “We try to create an array of options — everything from give us your email address to move to San Diego to work with us.”
Aujila has seen the spectrum too. Before he started DreamNow, a nonprofit organization that helps young people pursue meaningful social-action projects, he spent a year working with the for-profit petition platform Change.org. “You win a lot of battles generating thousands of signatures, but there is another way,” he says.
The question he urges every would-be revolutionary to ask is: What scale is appropriate? “These days, I’m just as excited about the possibility of building mini-movements — person to person, conversation to conversation — that can have a massive impact.”
What makes a successful social movement in today’s world? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.