How to Build a Mass Movement

image source: Wikipedia

by Olivia Rainford

I went to a talk at the Royal Society of Arts recently by the social entrepreneur Jeremy Heimans. It was fascinating. I came away with a better understanding of how ideas can turn into action.

Heimans has been launching social and political movements ever since he was a child (he collected a petition and sent it to the Australian Prime Minister when he was seven years old) and now he urges others to add the social tools of the web to their tool-box of building movements for social change.

The people who do this he calls ‘Movement Entrepreneurs’. These are digital savvy outsiders who want to mobilise others to influence change through engagement. He gave lots of examples of successful movements in places like India, Poland, Brazil and the United States on issues from squatters rights, gay marriage, access to housing and ethnic injustice. He asserts that using the web to promote a social or political issue should be much more than people clicking on a button and calling it ‘direct action’.

For instance, if you want to get people involved, offer them a small but meaningful task then, once you have a minimum commitment, gradually build up a variety of tasks and requests until you get people sharing, exchanging, funding and meeting up. 

Remember, that even though you might be the ‘Movement Entrepreneur’, make sure the movement is not about ‘YOU’ – it is about the issue.

Also, while you may be online and have access to the world, successful local action is the most powerful way to motivate mass involvement. 

To summarise Jeremy’s top tips:

  1. Make any mass movement about members not (charismatic) leaders
  2. Use institutional structures not institutions
  3. Movements are not internet memes. Create purpose. Build and consolidate power around issues.
  4. Connect: Online with Hyperlocal
  5. Spin is becoming less important in the 21st century. Word of mouth is more important than storytelling. You should be more A. A. Milne than Alastair Campbell.
  6. Go Transnational. That is where the greatest acts of solidarity occur.
  7. Take it straight to the people. Don’t make it a coalition.
  8. Don’t fixate on the technology. Early adopter technology is not used by the masses.
  9. Fund them well. Get professional funding – but then move to funding via the people.
  10. Build participation from the beginning.

The subsequent Q&A session opened up some key points in the debate:

  • What do you care about?
  • Where does power lie?
  • What action can you take?

The concept of ‘Power Mapping’ – finding out where the power lies was cited as an important exercise.

The discussion rounded off with a memorable phrase:

“It’s not hope that leads to action, it’s action that leads to hope.”

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