April 30, 2016
When I think back to the social movements I learned about as a kid — from women's suffrage to civil rights — I picture grainy, black-and-white photos of people, young and old, with picket signs marching through the streets. While social movements today share many of the same elements, they would be largely unrecognizable to the early to mid-twentieth century leaders and social reformers who paved the way for today's activists. In Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, Derrick Feldmann adeptly dissects many of the social movements we've become familiar with, distinguishing them from movements of the past and, in so doing, reveals how contemporary social movements emerge, gain momentum, and, in some cases, sustain themselves long enough to change the world.
Feldmann, the founder of cause engagement firm Achieve (and a regular contributor to Philanthropy News Digest), begins by drawing a distinction between the social movement traditionally understood and social movements for good. The latter, argues Feldmann, "establish a platform of awareness, individual action, outcomes, and sustainable change beyond initial participation and triumph," in contrast to social movements "focused solely on injustice and policy change in the immediate term." Indeed, the ultimate outcome of a social movement for good may not be policy change but rather continued support and awareness at the level of the individual, as is the case with the "Movember" prostate-awareness campaign that takes place during the month of November.
In addition to this difference in end goals, the vehicles through which social movements for good tend to disseminate their message also differ from those used by more traditional social movements. In an age in which it affects nearly every aspect of our lives, it shouldn't surprise anyone that technology has become a key driver of the way we champion the issues we care about. In fact, our ability to reach potential supporters and champions for the causes we care about has never been greater, thanks to the virtual social networks that connect us. More than mere distribution channels, those networks and platforms have changed the nature of how we communicate. And yet, as Feldmann notes, social movements today "are more challenged than ever to get to the viral stage, given the rise in mass media outlets and the onslaught of shorter messages."
What makes Feldmann's narrative believable is his inclusion of first-person accounts. His interviews with individuals who have actually succeeded in catalyzing social change range from social sector celebrities such as Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water, to passionate millennials on college campuses. And while they've all managed to garner a fair amount of public attention and inspire individuals to take action, their narratives also demonstrate that there are many ways to get there. Indeed, their stories reinforce a point that Feldmann makes from the beginning: empathy — a trait we all possess, regardless of age, race, or gender — is at the heart of all social movements. To illustrate his point, Feldmann tells the story of a marketing campaign that asked Alaskans to donate some of the annual payout they receive from the Alaska Permanent Fund, an endowment funded by the state's mineral royalties, to a nonprofit of their choice. The campaign featured two different messages: "Make Alaska Better" and "Warm Your Heart." The latter resulted in a higher response rate of more than 30 percent than the former and a donation rate of 55 percent — proof, of sorts, that the "warm glow" feeling one gets from helping others isn't just something concocted by fundraising professionals to separate you from your hard-earned cash, but rather one of the key building blocks of any social movement.
The Alaska example also illustrates the importance of clever and pithy messaging to the success of any social movement strategy. Thanks to my background in communications, I eagerly devoured the chapters of the book devoted to messaging and took plenty of notes on the communications tips and tricks Feldmann provides throughout. I found the following to be particularly salient: use an individual's story to illustrate your cause, focus on the power of just one person to create change, and be purposeful with the selection of your "participatory" words. I also appreciated his advice to include visual media such as photos and videos into your overall communications strategy, as they tend to do as much as any well-chosen pitch or descriptive paragraph to connect potential supporters with the people you are trying to help. At the end of the day, however, it all boils down to the basics: Without the right messaging and tools to convey those messages, most causes simply fade away, each fighting to poke its head above the waves before it sinks, unnoticed, into an endless sea of causes.
While Feldmann does not focus on corporations that are driving social change until the midpoint of the book, it's worth the wait — not least because corporate social responsibility, impact investing, and double- and triple-bottom-line approaches are changing the way society tackles social issues. He starts by acknowledging the traditional view of the corporation as a vehicle for profit-maximization but quickly shifts his attention to the expectation of progressive-minded readers that companies today should serve shareholders, consumers, employees, and the communities in which they operate. Feldmann focuses on what that evolution looks like from the inside, starting with Gen X and millennial company founders who are embracing business models that embed social good into the core business from day one and are willing to acknowledge, and listen to, an expanded group of stakeholders that is more representative of American society in all its diversity. Not surprisingly, younger employees are often at the heart of these efforts.
Feldmann's case study of the New Belgium Brewing Company is one of the highlights of the book and includes an interview with Kim Jordan, the innovative company's co-founder and CEO. I especially loved that he asked Jordan this question: How can we expect talented employees to be consistently excited about doing their best work if we do not show them a roadmap to new opportunities for personal growth? For Jordan, the fact that millennial employees tend to grow impatient with a well-defined role or set of responsibilities weighed heavily in her decision to set the company on a path of accelerated growth, as well as her decision to continue investing in a culture of employee and community engagement. CECP, a coalition of a hundred and fifty CEOs who believe that corporations are a force for good, repeatedly sees this business case in action. When, for example, CEOs at its 2016 Board of Boards event were asked what the strongest motivation was for expanding a company's community engagement initiatives, 63 percent answered "strengthening human capital," compared to 55 percent who answered that way in 2015.
Feldmann's analysis of the evolving corporation, one that strives to find a purpose beyond profits, could be strengthened with accounts from senior leaders and executives who spearhead the corporate responsibility charge at their companies. For instance, PwC, the world's largest professional services firm, recently expanded the role of its U.S. head of corporate responsibility to include the responsibilities of chief purpose officer, a new position at the company. And as these roles continue to become more important internally, it is inevitable that insights from the company's social good efforts will make their way directly into the C-suite, where they will play an increasingly important role in driving overall business strategy.
Those who wish to launch their own social movement for good, either on behalf of an existing cause or out of a personal passion that has yet to be conveyed to the larger society, will appreciate Feldmann's book for its historical references and as a comprehensive, and forceful, guide to the nuts and bolts of movement building. Unless I've missed something, the case studies will empower, the interviews with leaders will inspire, and the step-by-step explanations on messaging will equip the reader with the tools he or she needs to change the world. As exemplified by the book itself, we all have a part to play.
Jennifer Chen is a leading corporate societal engagement practitioner. She currently serves as senior associate, strategic engagement at CECP, a coalition of CEOs united in the belief that societal improvement is an essential measure of business performance. The views expressed here are her own.