Every once in awhile the hurdles seem insurmountable, and we reach a point where the forces of ill seem to overpower the forces for good. Friday was perhaps one of those moments. As a mother of elementary school children, Friday’s events cut me to the core.
But I think it is worth remembering that it is these very moments that can be the impetus for social change. A singular event can galvanize people to work towards something better. Indeed countless social movements have materialized because of some injustice, some unspeakable act, some horrifying event. It remains to be seen if this will be a watershed moment for gun control activists or mental health advocates, whether new legislation will be passed or new organizations and movements born. Just as Mr. Rogers told us to “look for the helpers” when something bad happens, I think it is wise to look for the change. What will come out of this horrific event? How will our society be changed because of what happened?
And while we wait, I find comfort in Mr. Roger’s Messsage of Hope, recorded shortly after 9/11.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Aria Finger, COO of DoSomething.org. Aria oversees the programmatic and business development activities that empower millions of young people to take action each year around causes they’re passionate about. She reads economic theory for fun, loves vanilla cupcakes and thinks that “After Innocence” should be required movie viewing for anyone who cares about social justice. Aria currently serves on the board of Care for the Homeless, is an adjunct professor at New York University and was recently named to Crain’s New York Business list of “40 under 40″.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: DoSomething was founded almost 20 years ago, long before the explosion of social entrepreneurship and social media. How has the organization evolved and kept up with the new energy and excitement around social change and new technologies for connecting people?
Aria: DoSomething.org has always had the same goal – enable young people to take action around the causes that they’re passion about. The exciting part is that now, in 2012, we have an entirely new toolkit at our fingertips – mobile, social, the web, etc – to reach millions of young people who want to make a difference. Experimentation and iteration keeps us on our toes. About a year ago, we decided to text 500 of our users who we hadn’t heard from via email in 6+ months. We sent them a text message and in 9 minutes, we had a 20% response rate. Just incredible. We found that with texting we could activate 20% of a group of “defunct” users. This SMS test was the basis for our pivot to mobile – using cell phones as a means to activate and engage teens. We now text out to over 220,000 teens on a weekly basis.
Nell: How does an organization like DoSomething, that is all about the youngest generation, remain relevant as the organization and its staff age?
Aria: One word: interns. At any given time, we have 20-30 college students working for the organization. And we pay them. These interns are coming to pitch meetings, becoming instant focus groups, creating full-fledged national campaigns and being the frontline of interaction with our users.
In addition, in this new world where everything can be crowd-sourced, we use that to our full advantage. When we were re-launching our website, we put the mocks on Facebook and asked our fans what they thought. When we’re stuck on a campaign name, we go out to our 500,000+ twitter followers and ask them what we should call it.
Nell: At DoSomething you are committed to metrics and have some impressive quarterly performance dashboards. How do you balance what is easy to measure, like outputs (# of members, # of campaigns), with what’s harder to measure like outcomes (what social change DoSomething is creating)?
Aria: At DoSomething.org, we LOVE data. In fact, we have two data analysts on a staff of 40. They inform everything we do and we love that we get to show off their awesomeness in our quarterly dashboards. That being said, you can’t always measure in numbers the value of a warm and fuzzy story about a teen’s first volunteerism experience being with our Teens for Jeans campaign. Qualitative anecdotes do have a place in performance dashboards as well. What I’m really excited about is 5 years down the road when we’ll be able to track our young people long-term – see them go from engagement in one campaign to five campaigns to perhaps starting their own Do Something Club when they go off to college. It will be really exciting to measure whether DoSomething.org members are happier, healthier, participate in their communities more, register to vote more, etc.
Nell: In the last few years there has been a huge increase in online action platforms like Change.org that organize people around causes. How does DoSomething compete with or complement these new channels and movements?
Aria: We love the Change.org folks and all of the other fabulous online platforms that are promoting social change (half of our staff found their job on Idealist.org!). For the most part, the thing that sets DoSomething.org apart is our focus on teenagers. A lot of the other sites do a great job activating older folks – mid 20somethings and beyond – and our focus has remained on high school and college students.
Nell: The Occupy Wall Street movement is largely driven by dissatisfaction among the Millennial generation. What are your thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, how they’ve organized and their potential to make change happen?
Aria: Personally, I’m a supporter of any movement that tries to change this world for the better, as long as they’re doing so in a peaceful and constructive way. A lot of millennials are pissed off because they perceive that the “older folks” have done a good job screwing up our world and now they’re left to pick up the pieces. We see a lot of young people really tuning out politics because they don’t see any good coming out of it and they think they can do a better job trying to fix things themselves. There has been plenty of criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I’m sure many of them are valid, although I do think they created a national conversation around income distribution, fairness, jobs for middle class people, etc that wasn’t happening before them.
There is no shortage of great ideas to change the world. I get countless emails and calls each week from passionate, committed people who see a need in their community, in their world, and have an idea for solving it. But they are frustrated because they can’t find the funding to get their idea off the ground.
Well, funding follows social change momentum. If you lack money it is merely a symptom of a larger lack of momentum. To create social change it is not enough to be a single person with an idea, or even a single person with an idea and a group of friends.
You need to put some key pieces together to create real social change momentum:
A Significant Problem
It is not enough that you and your friends care deeply about some social ill. It needs to be a problem that is significant enough to get those outside of your world interested. It has to be a problem that a larger group cares about and sees a need to solve. And in order to get there you need to break the problem down. Who has a vested interest in people in Africa getting clean water, or unemployed youth getting jobs, or inner city kids learning to read? Segment the market and think about the kinds of people you need to get on board with your solution. Then go after them.
A Proven Solution
And you have to offer a real solution. Ideas are great, but people don’t invest in ideas, at least not since the dot com bust. You have to stop talking about how great things will be and start piloting the idea. Until you have some results to point to (like changed lives) it will be hard for people to take you seriously. I’m not suggesting that you need a comprehensive evaluation study. But you do need to move beyond “Let me tell you this great idea I have” to some concrete demonstration that the solution you are suggesting has actually worked somewhere and for someone.
A Compelling Case
You must craft your solution and the significant need it addresses into a compelling story. Your passion, enthusiasm and commitment need to be contagious. Some people are born with a natural charisma, and I’ve seen many social entrepreneurs who have it. They believe so strongly in what they are doing and tell such a compelling story that those around them can’t help but join the cause. But if that doesn’t come naturally to you, you still have to figure out a way to break out of the “but it’s so obvious that people should just automatically get it,” and learn how to create a story that convinces people to join.
A Diverse Group
Finally, but most importantly, it has to be more than just you and your friends. Momentum comes from building a committed army of supporters with diversity of experience and networks. While the Occupy movement has some strength in numbers it remains to be seen whether it will actually result in any significant change. This is partly because the movement has not broken through to networks beyond the young and disenfranchised. Until they can get people within the “establishment” to really take them seriously and become as passionate as they are about the ideas behind the movement, I don’t know if they will get any traction.
Passion is an absolutely critical ingredient to creating social change, but it will only get you so far. To build real momentum, and the funding to survive and thrive, you need to assemble a diverse network of supporters who believe in your solution and are committed to seeing it grow.
Photo Credit: ccpixel.net
Scott Goodson’s new book, Uprising: How to Build a Brand – And Change the World – by Sparking Cultural Movements, has an ambitious goal that eventually falls flat. Goodson provides an excellent analysis of the new movements sweeping the globe and how social change organizations can learn from them. However, when he tries to connect that reality to corporate brand building, the book becomes more about exploiting social movements for profit, rather than for social good.
The first half of Goodson’s book is eye-opening. He describes what he calls “our current movement mania.” The Egyptian uprising, Occupy Wall Street, Etsy, the Tea Party, the Pepsi Refresh Project are all examples of movements. He argues that we are seeing an explosion of movements because of a confluence of trends:
The Internet, and particular the rise of social media, has made it easy to find and connect with like-minded souls. And that same technology makes it possible for a group, once formed, to organize, plan and take action.
Goodson examines countless examples of movements sparked by individuals, nonprofits and companies.
The bulk of Goodson’s case studies are what I would call “social entrepreneurs.” Some of these are for-profit (like TOMS Shoes), many are nonprofit (like KaBoom!, FIRST, and DoSomething), and many are not really legal entities at all (like the Occupy movements). All of these examples are fascinating when understood through Goodson’s “movement” lens. He helps us understand how these movements form, how they build momentum and find direction and how they’ve resulted in some serious change. In particular his discussion of “the swarm effect” is fascinating. He explains how these social movements behave like a swarm of insects:
A swarm moves in one direction as a group, and although it has no leader, it is capable of changing directions quickly to avoid a threat or pursue an opportunity…the group is able to share information instantly, based on tiny individual interactions…that allow members to guide each other as to what to do next…This combination of being adept at picking up on cues all around and being able to share that information quickly enables the swarm to be highly productive and move with great purpose and momentum.
But I wish the book could have ended there.
In the second half of the book, Goodson equates these social entrepreneurial movements to corporate re-branding efforts. The movements launched by companies which he profiles feel contrived. He points to Frito Lay, Pepsi and Jim Bean whiskey as great examples of companies that built their brand by sparking a movement. Frito Lay launched the “True North” movement for their health-conscious snack food line targeting baby boomers. I don’t quite understand how this dressed up ad campaign is a social movement.
What if instead Frito Lay recognized the growing epidemic of obesity and revamped their business model to create and market ONLY healthy snacks? It would be far more interesting to encourage companies that are interested in tapping into social movement “mania” to start by authentically re-evaluating their business model and then working to bake social good into it. Instead Goodson seems to be suggesting that corporate brands try to hijack a growing interest in social good for their own profit. To connect exciting, game-changing social entrepreneurial movements to things like Microsoft dropping copies of Office Accounting software via parachute just doesn’t compute (interestingly Microsoft has since discontinued the Office Accounting product).
But what I take from this book is that we are living in a new reality. Social media, a growing restlessness with the world as we know it, a struggling economy, and a passion for social change that defines Generation Y, have combined to make movements a powerful new trend. It is no longer the purview of the nonprofit or government sectors to create social change. Anyone sitting in front of their computer can tap into a latent dissatisfaction, get people talking, and spark a game-changing movement. Nonprofits, government and business alike should take note.
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