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Sparking Social Change Movements

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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Resetting the Capital Approach

There is concern lately about how much worse it is going to get for nonprofits because of Obama’s new budget proposal, which will limit the value of the tax break for wealthy donors, from 35% to 28%. Many nonprofits are even more worried than they were before about revenue, for example the nonprofit Executive Director whose comments to the Daily Dish caused a firestorm of replies:

A couple of our usual big donors have indicated we should be prepared for smaller donations this year, and possibly none in the next couple of years.  They are mentioning Obama’s tax plans and their need to save money now in anticipation of that.  A lot of my colleagues in the not-for-profit world are really scared right now, and we are not happy with Obama…Organizations are going to be killed under Obama’s plan…Frankly, this sucks.

All of this talk about a deepening poor revenue picture for nonprofits makes some, like Perla Ni, founding publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, think there will be a shift in how nonprofits raise money.  Perla wrote recently that nonprofits should shift their appeals away from metrics and towards emotion:

During these difficult economic times, when all of us know someone who has or is at risk of losing their job, it’s much easier for us to relate to the appeals to our conscience and our heart. That’s not to say that there is no room for “expert” evaluations and quantitative metrics. It’s about degree and balance of the heart and the head.

Seriously?  We’re going to squander this opportunity that the crisis in our financial system affords and go back to the tin-cup mentality of nonprofit revenue generation?  I completely disagree with this notion.  Nonprofits may think that appealing to emotion is the way to go, but that will only set them back.  To me, it is akin to Marty Linsky’s recent piece about hunkering down versus resetting in these difficult times.  As Linsky puts it, we have two choices and the “hunkering down” option looks like:

Stephanie Strom’s piece in the Times on Friday of last week showering sympathy on the well-intentioned charities going belly up, rather than seeing this moment as an opportunity to rethink their priorities, eliminate duplication, introduce good management practices, and get rid of programs and people who are not performing well.

Whereas resetting is about understanding how systems are changing and that we have to adapt to the longterm.  We must embrace the change and move with it:

Here’s what Reset might look like…(1) Funding risk-takers, creators, and inventors, small and large, in manufacturing, financial services, nonprofits, and even academia…(2) targeting…spending and investing now for the long term, like…supporting new faces and burgeoning success stories in education, people and ideas to help rescue the current school-age generation…

Focusing on emotion and heart-strings in order to try to keep a fledgling nonprofit operating might be appealing, but it is a hunkering down mentality. These times call for a complete resetting of how we do things.  Nonprofit fundraisers and Executive Directors don’t have the luxury of “appeal[ing] to our conscience and our heart.”

Nonprofit leaders and board members often tell me that XYZ nonprofit is easier to fundraise for because their cause is an “easier sell,” for example children and puppies.  I don’t think that a particular cause is inherently easier to sell because it has more of a pull on heartstrings. Rather, those organizations that can demonstrate, yes through metrics and outcomes, that they are positively impacting and reversing a disequilibrium will have much more success at appealing to donors.

But also, and more importantly, organizations that demonstrate their impact are better positioned to attract new kinds of revenue which this financial crisis will create.  I truly believe that the “resetting” that is occuring in our financial markets will create an opportunity and demand for more social impact capital, which is money that used to be channeled purely towards financial profit, but now is looking for a more complex blending of profit and social impact.  I don’t mean just social enterprises, I’m talking about a complete restructuring of capital markets that allows philanthropists, venture capitalists, angel investors, foundations, wealthy individuals, traditional nonprofit donors to be more innovative with their capital and invest in organizations that are proving social impact, again through metrics and outcomes, and are willing to understand, address and appeal to those who want to see more (social returns) done with their money.

By going back to the heart strings and the tin cup, social impact organizations miss out on the great opportunity that lies in this capital market restructuring and the greater resources that will follow.

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