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Movements – the Holy Grail for social change or the voluntary sector’s magic unicorn?

By Peter Gilheany

29 July 2019

I was recently asked to come and do a short talk about movements at a civil society event, partly because I’ve worked on a few recently for charities and businesses, and partly because Forster has a long history of developing and promoting movements for social change.

The first thing I do before giving a talk like that is remind myself exactly what I think is meant by a movement. 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, 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 lot of organisations talk about a movement when they really mean a campaign. This is particularly true in FMCG brand campaigns, where the buying of a consumer good constitutes the membership of a movement.

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 – e.g. a desire to increase our understanding of how to treat cancer amongst a community of families affected by cancer.  However, communities are steady state, a desire for change is not a requirement. Just calling your community a movement doesn’t make it so.

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. Networks are often responsible for creating campaigns and encouraging other members to support and promote them, but networks are mostly about relationships within their membership and are not outward looking enough to be considered a movement.

So, if it isn’t any of these things, what is a movement? At it’s most simplistic, a movement is a group of people with a particular set of aims. This sounds a bit like the descriptions I’ve given above so perhaps it’s not surprising that the terms get mixed up. Movements stand apart because the power, influence and agency lies with the members. In its purest sense, it is a form of shared purpose anarchy and is perhaps best exemplified by the recent impact of XR which very much cleaves to this approach.

However, when it comes to the relationship between organisations and movements, that’s where the trouble starts. 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 full understanding that it doesn’t 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 on the part of an organisation to take on a role like that, and often requires a huge amount of convincing internally and externally.

So, if it is such a challenging role for organisations to take on, why is there so much talk about movements within the voluntary sector?

Well, 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. The success of XR has only added to that allure.

Also, it can look like a fairly cheap way to deliver substantial change – people coming together under their own steam, self-organising, developing strategy and tactics, even generating income – you know, all the bits organisations do which cost them time and money.

As already established though, this isn’t generally true – stoking the fires of a movement can take a huge amount of time, effort and resources and the real kick in the teeth is, after all that, the movement itself may turn its back on the organisation, turn on it or start doing things that run counter to the organisation’s own objectives.

So, to paraphrase a million parenting Facebook posts, if you want your organisation to play a role in the creation and development of a movement, you need to learn to let go. For the many civil society organisations steeped in the metrics of KPIs, measurable return on investment and brand value, that might be a challenge too far.