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Social Movements for Good: What They Are and How to Lead Them

Social Movements for Good: What They Are and How to Lead Them

Expert opinion
Author and speaker

Let’s say you have an idea, a really great idea. And not just any great idea – one that’s not only revolutionary to your industry, but it also has the potential to truly affect change for an issue that needs to be addressed. So how do you start? What do you do? How do you turn your idea into a social movement for good?

Probably, you come up with a name for your idea, and you put together some messaging, like a mission statement or a tagline. Then you start talking to your friends and family, who tell you to create a logo and a brand guide. You develop a website, create some social media accounts and start a hashtag, and you start telling other people about your great idea and how much good you’re going to do, if only they’ll join up with you.

But then your idea fizzles.

Why? On one hand, maybe your great idea wasn’t actually that great. But on the other, maybe you simply needed to take a different approach to building and creating the momentum that would propel your truly great idea into a long-term, effective social movement for good.

What is a social movement for good?

In its plainest form, a movement is a group of people working together for a common social, political or cultural goal. Movements can focus on an injustice, an opportunity for change or even a promotion of a theory or concept. Whatever the focus, all movements require one key element to be transformed from an idea of a few to an idea of many: people.

A movement becomes a social movement when it requires a collective power beyond small-group organizing to build and sustain a long-term goal of change for an issue. Social movements for good, though, take this process one step further. Social movements for good are based on raising awareness of an issue to generate support for the benefit of an aggrieved group. So while social movements typically strive to generate policy or cultural change, social movements for good work to generate awareness and enact change for an issue or population in need of support and resources.

Social movements for good establish a mass platform of action for a population, which helps inform and cultivate the awareness necessary to help prevent an issue from affecting more people. True social movements for good have the power to generate awareness that produces tangible results, helping the general population live longer, more productive, happier lives. 

How does one person’s idea become a social movement for good?

Most importantly, social movements for good start with a leader or a social movement builder. Then, social movements for good take a substantial amount of human capital to generate interest from the onset or gather people who share already established common interests. Typically, these movements begin to develop a starter audience or group of early adopters. This group then inspires additional followers to join the movement in fighting for an issue, generating awareness or helping a population. From there, the group begins to accelerate through a sequence of public tools that build mass awareness and ultimately drive viral participation in an action or activity. This is the peak of the movement and what generates the general public’s interest.

Once the public’s interest is piqued, the movement ideally maintains its positioning and sustains ongoing actions through awareness efforts, activities and messages that detail the ever-growing success of the movement itself. Over time, the movement sustains its performance of being continuously able to generate headway for the issue or support for the people it benefits, becoming a long-term solution. The final outcome is a cycle of generating and building interest, heightened participation and sustained long-term growth. 

What makes a good social movement leader?

In my many discussions with the leaders and builders of today’s most successful social movements for good, I’ve noticed a number of qualities these leaders share that have contributed to their accomplishments. All of the effective leaders I’ve spoken with, the people who are able to join others and influence efforts that make the world a better place for a population in need, understand the importance of the following characteristics and actions.

1.       Have an outcome.
Before you start talking to and recruiting supporters, know where you’re going. Is your goal to provide clean water to those in need? Great – so how are you going to get water to those in need? To truly distinguish your cause as a social movement for good, determine how it provides tangible results for the issue you’re trying to address.

2.       Be with the people.
Being a leader doesn’t mean sitting behind a desk – it’s being out among the people, both those aligned with your interests who are working to make change and those who benefit from your efforts. Make an effort to understand how your supporters want to generate awareness and create change, as well as to understand what is actually needed to enact change among the beneficiaries.

3.       Ignore technology.

A hashtag doesn’t equal a social movement. True, they can help spur conversation in the digital sphere – but how does that actually make an impact on the ground? Find others whose interests align with yours by talking to them in person and growing support before taking things online. Always view technology – even social media, a website or digital ads – as a tool to enhance your offline presence rather than the only driver of your cause.

4.       Connect via empathy.

As humans, we have an innate instinct to help others whose welfare may be at risk. Don’t just talk about your cause to others, show them the faces and tell them the stories of the issue your cause addresses.

5.       Build believers.
Fundraisers and organizations often think the most important thing they can do to grow their movement is to get people to join or “belong” to it, which typically means only those who are able to volunteer or donate are of use to the organization. The problem is, leading a movement with the concept of joining doesn’t mean your participants are personally tied to your cause. Today’s social activists, supporters and donors are looking for a cause to be a part of what they believe in, so it’s up to you to make it possible for the individual to talk, share and express their belief in your cause, which can lead them to take more tangible actions.

6.       Be authentic.

People can sniff other people out, especially in business and in social movements when the real movement builders are inauthentic. Developing a movement for good is about the authentic challenge people are going through – not the personal motives or the lack of true change that should be the outcome. Authenticity builds the foundation of social movements for good.

7.       Remove yourself.
Your social movement for good isn’t about you. While it may have been your great idea, a movement becomes successful when the supporter feels directly connected to those he or she is helping, and when the supporter can help in the way he or she sees fit or is able to accomplish. Your cause is the conduit, not the middle man.

8.       Make it about others.
If your social movement for good is truly successful, there will likely be a point where your vision no longer really matters. What matters are the various visions and actions your movement’s followers see and accomplish on behalf of the issue you originally set out to address. Movements are what you make of them, and those who come together for the success of a common purpose should be considered a win.

Whether you create a movement in your neighborhood with 20 people or with 20,000, the social movements you create – no matter how big or how small – can change the world for the better. Social movement building is an exciting opportunity that anyone who believes they can help bring people together for a common good can bring on. As a leader of a social movement for good, your task is really to help unite others with a common interest and help them discover the tools to address a need – and then to champion change for the better.

Derrick Feldmann is the author of the recently released book, Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, and president of Achieve, a research and marketing agency for causes.