A tiger by the tail – charities and building movements

Peter Gilheany of Forster Communications reflects on the recent success of Extinction Rebellion, and explores what exactly movements are and, crucially, whether campaigning charities can - or even should - hope to start one.
Peter Gilheany, Charity Director – Forster Communications
 

I think it is fair to say that movements are very much in vogue with a lot of campaigning charities at the moment. They have been around as long as humans have come together to deliver change but, as charities have increasingly sought to build a two-way relationship with the people who support them, the desire and allure of building a movement has shot up. The remarkable recent success of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement is only to going to accelerate that trend.

I’ve worked with a few organisations recently who are actively trying to do that, and one of the first things we work through with them is making sure everyone is on same page as to what a movement is. It can be a slippery term, so I tend to start by listing the three main things that they are sometimes mistaken for:

A campaign

This tends to be led by an organisation or group who have a stated set of objectives set by the organisation or group, and encourage members, supporters or the general public to show support and take action in support of those objectives. Broadly, campaigns flow in one direction, from the organisation out, with some feedback loops for supporters but not always a role in the development and refinement of the campaign.

A community

This tends to be a collection of individuals or organisations connected by a shared interest or circumstance, e.g. you live in the same area, you work in the same industry, you are a big fan of Harry Potter. Communities can be incredibly diverse, individuals within it might not recognise they are part of it or will even reject it entirely. In many cases though, they might have a united purpose simply because of their shared interest.

A network

Effectively a community that has a purpose, whether selfish (a desire to advance your career) or altruistic, and whose members see the benefits of connecting with each other to further that purpose. LinkedIn is the obvious example of a network driven (mostly) by self-interest, but there are lots of examples relating to progressive issues.

So, what is a movement?

Movements stand apart because the power, influence and agency lie with the members. In its purest sense, it is a form of shared purpose anarchy, an organic entity that shifts and develops over time and as circumstances change, where an obvious signifier of its status as a movement is its changing public face and key players. The #Metoo movement is a case in point, started by a single individual in Tarana Burke, then co-opted, embodied and changed through the personal experience and testimony of high-profile supporters like Rose McGowan. In the UK, the movement to end period poverty has been stoked by individual campaigners like Amika George, then championed by women’s charities and progressive brands, but given energy and impact through virality and inspiring people not just to share but to campaign, self-organise and recruit others to their version of the cause. It is this last aspect that really separates a movement from a viral campaign like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. 
 
XR is the biggest movement of our times, inspiring thousands of people to be willing to get arrested and tens of thousands to take part in protests, all springing up seemingly overnight. The reality is somewhat different, the founders worked incredibly hard to look like it all happened spontaneously. Anarchy means without leaders, but it doesn’t mean without organisation. The planning that has gone into XR has been phenomenal, creating a powerful theory of change, built around non-violent civil disobedience, translating it into a coherent operational structure that gives all those involved, a voice in how it developed. 
Many organisations want the impact but might not be prepared for the implications of the approach taken by movements like XR. Organisations tend to bring hierarchies and a desire to lead or at least to direct. Organisations themselves can be part of a movement, but if they want to instigate one themselves, then the ideal role they should play is providing the catalyst and platform for people with a shared purpose to come together and take the action they want to take in support of that purpose. The organisation needs to then continually nourish the movement, providing support and resources, in the understanding that it doesn’t fully own the movement, the impact it has or the direction it might take.
 
Try selling that to a board of trustees or a funder. That is not the usual role organisations play, particularly those which have a history of campaigning. It requires a serious leap of faith to take on a role like that, and often requires a huge amount of convincing internally and externally.
 
But it is a seductive concept – groups of people coming together, self-organising, taking action, constantly evolving – all very loose limbed, very disruptive, very now. We’ve got a democratic deficit and movements are a fantastic way to put power back in the hands of the people.
 
That takes us back to XR, which in the last week has neatly illustrated both the power and fragility of movement building. It has mobilised thousands of people to take often extreme action in the UK and many other countries and planted the climate crisis near the top of the news agenda and firmly in the public consciousness. It has also shot itself in the foot with the poorly thought-through tube protests in London, creating controversy and a considerable backlash.
 
If you give people a platform and voice and empower them to take action, you shouldn’t be surprised if the action they take isn’t quite what you intended. The most important role an organisation seeking to nourish a movement can play, is building a framework for it which will give people the space and power to influence and play an active role, while minimising the risk of rogue action, the movement being taken in an unwelcome direction or it splintering under the weight of differing opinions and objectives. In practical terms, that means developing and communicating a shared vision with the people you are seeking to inspire, a roadmap to achieve that vision and very clear terms of reference, values and principles for how the movement will operate.
 
So, to paraphrase a million parenting Facebook posts, if you want your organisation to play an active role in the creation and development of a successful movement, one which won’t come back and bite you on the bum, then you need to learn to give freedom while providing supportive boundaries for that freedom. Getting that framework in place at the beginning, will significantly increase the likelihood of its success.
  

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