Is it a movement or a moment?

Movements are having a moment.

In 2022, the term “social movement” generated more internet searches than in the previous five years according to Google Trends. Given this level of interest, some nonprofits are applying the phrase to such a broad range of activities it is becoming watered down.

When it comes to raising visibility on a given issue, nonprofits often strive to achieve broader impact—the kind of change that comes through collective action. So, it’s worth considering what a social movement is and isn’t, as well as how movements can be built and sustained.

Movements often involve a rallying cry, a widely recognized iconography, often a color (think pink for breast cancer), meaningful dates, repeated activities (from Freedom Rides to annual walks), and a shared goal for the common good.

Yet, by definition, true movements are more than a catchy phrase to solicit donations or promote an event. They are more than short-term protests, jump-on-the-bandwagon commitments, or one-off events. Movements take collective effort and transcend the organization that inspired them. And, their impacts last.

That said, we can capitalize on the moments that can help movements grow. Recent years have seen several examples of moments that captured public attention—typically after years-long efforts and organizing before they burst into wider awareness. Examples include #BlackLivesMatter, #MADD, and #FlintWaterCrisis.

Experts say social movements, like these, end in one of four ways: repression, co-optation, failure, or success. To become one of the success stories, it helps to work from the bottom up, top-down, and inside out.

Building from the bottom-up 

Movements from the ground up typically begin with individuals who have a message that gains momentum and, ultimately, spawns organizations and members to sustain the momentum.

These movements typically don’t start with a structured entity, but with inspired individuals who see what needs to change in their communities and decide to act on it. We see the end results of young leaders, like Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg, and their incredible influence. They are now larger-than-life figures who started from humble beginnings.

Moments can start with unexpected champions. Our “boots on the ground” colleagues are often working alongside community leaders to help residents advocate for change.

For example, across East Africa, our teams work with Youth Champions to elevate awareness of the drivers of hunger, including the climate crisis, conflict, and chronic inequality. They all have a strong desire to mobilize public interest and advocate for systemic change. The champions transform local attitudes and behaviors related to nutrition, help foster collaboration, and engage decision-makers.

This program illustrates another key point: The long-term success of bottom-up efforts can be bolstered by top-down support.

Supporting from the top down

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (and their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals), are an example of top-down organizing for impact. Their development was shepherded by one of the largest, most global organizations out there. The UN used its reach to consult with a variety of stakeholders and develop a framework for collective action that was unprecedented at the time.

This kind of top-down effort provides a platform for change, taps into existing networks, offers structured leadership, and generates essential resources.  It is a model that nonprofits can seek to emulate, providing engagement opportunities that help shift masses of people from casual observers to passionate supporters.

Consider the way that corporate pioneers, like Avon, came together with  Susan G. Komen for the Cure to spark a social movement. Their efforts galvanized engagement from hundreds  of other companies, nonprofits, and people from all walks of life, permeating popular culture and fundamentally changing the landscape around breast cancer in the U.S.

Another iconic nonprofit example is the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women, which rallied millions of women at in-person events, generated billions of media impressions, advanced significant legislation, and led to 21% fewer women dying from heart disease.

Growing from the inside out

Typically, movements first engage those most directly affected by the cause, radiating out in concentric circles.

To work from the inside out, it can help to have a convening and networking hub, a place to come together, analyze areas of intersection, review issues and challenges, and to strategize on shared goals. This can go beyond other nonprofits to include government, academia, and the private sector.

For example, last year, Action Against Hunger began working with six other nonprofits, companies, government agencies, academia, activists, and media to identify opportunities for collective action.  We called it Together Against Hunger, and a high point of the year was a convening of practitioners, policymakers, activists, and the next generation of leaders to reevaluate and reboot the fight against hunger. We know hunger is preventable, and the event offered an opportunity to rethink how we approach the issue.

The strength of a social movement depends on the breadth and genuine commitment of its participants. With a strong call to action—and by connecting unlikely partners—we can improve the chances that moments become movements that realize lasting change. To build a true movement requires a mix of perseverance and patience. As the African proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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