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Nostalgia and Social Change

January 29, 2020

Time-machineRecently, I put my finger on a social sector trend that's been lodged in my brain but that I was having a hard time articulating: call it nostalgia.

Let me give you an example.

In many of the conversations I've had over the last year or two, people usually express a clear interest in changing how we engage with social issues and causes. They want to see Americans give more, volunteer more, vote more, or otherwise be more civically engaged, and they have certain expectations about what that looks like and how it should happen.

In many of these conversations, the person I’m speaking with often "benchmarks" the change they'd like to see, and that benchmark often references the past, as in "Derrick, Americans used to give more," or "Derrick, Americans used to know more about the way our political system works." They often cite statistics to back up their point and then will say, in so many words, "We need to return to…" and will launch into a narrative about a time when "we were less polarized as a country," when "people were more willing to help a stranger in need," when there was no "us and them, only we."

Now, it's not my job to argue with people and point out where they might need to rethink some of their ways of looking at things, and I'm not going to do that here.

Instead, I'll share what I often say at this point in those conversations:

"Is that what you really remember about the [fill in the decade]?"

Change forward, not back

Like most of the people who work in the social sector, I want Americans to be more engaged in social issues. Heck, that's my job!

But the suggestion that we would be better off if we could "return to” a time when people knew right from wrong and were committed to liberty and justice for all is both a little naïve and not particularly helpful.

Levels of civic participation and engagement in social issues change from decade to decade and generation to generation, depending on a broad range of factors, including changes in perceptions of what is and isn't important, our understanding of the root causes of certain problems, and changes in the ways in which we choose to engage with issues (driven, in many cases, by changes in technology).

The question, then, is not so much about what we might do to recreate an earlier age of activism, but rather what we have learned from the past and how can it be applied to the present and near future.

And that means your job as a nonprofit or movement leader is not to validate a "return to" mentality, but rather to move those conversations forward based on the challenges and opportunities your organization faces today and the role it could and should play in a time of rapid change, innovation, and disruption.

What might that look like? Here are some things to consider as you plot a path forward:

1. Is your picture of what happened in the past — and, more importantly, what is happening today — accurate? I'm often surprised how much the "return to" mentality is based on cognitive biases — an approach or way of thinking specific to an individual that he or she simply never questions. Don't be that person! When designing a campaign or brainstorming new ways to engage the public, be sure to ask yourself whether the way you describe your supporters and potential supporters is an accurate portrayal of who they really are, and then ask yourself if that is who they're likely to be two, three, or five years out.

2. Does your organization reflect changes that are taking place in society today? Truth time here. You need to be honest with yourself, and your organization needs to be clear about whether it really reflects and takes advantage of new models, narratives, and approaches to work that are coming to the fore. Or are you stuck in the past? Societal change happens, and sticking to an approach or approaches built around maintaining the status quo isn't so much a strategy as a recipe for irrelevance…or worse.

3. Are you and your colleagues risk-averse? Is yours truly a learning organization that seeks out new people, new ideas, and new theories of change, or are you and your colleagues content to hold on to what you have and let others take risks and pursue greatness? Pursuing greatness is something we often talk about in the social sector, and it typically requires a shift in organizational mindset; sadly, most nonprofits are easily deterred and usually revert back to comfortable narratives and strategies that do little to boost their impact or move them closer to their goals.

4. Do you ask the same questions knowing you'll get the same answers? All too often, organizations commission surveys and other types of research that, deep down, they know will yield answers that validate what they already are doing. Surveying a random group of people and asking them if they think Americans should be more involved in civic life or in helping those who are less fortunate will always generate an overwhelming number of responses in the affirmative. That's what you call a false positive. Rather than asking the same obvious (and tired) questions, try testing your theory of change or strategy through a random controlled trial or other applied measure that might show you where you're thinking is flawed or could be improved.

The bottom line is pretty straightforward: the past is past, and tomorrow is going to be here in a hurry. I encourage you to think about what you are doing today — and what you need to do to remain relevant tomorrow — and let the past be past. While we can't change what has already happened, we can take action today to bring about the future we'd like to see. No one is saying it's going to be easy, but with all the passion that is swirling around so many issues, and all the great new tools at our disposal, we would be remiss not to try.

Headshot_derrick_feldmann_2015Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, and lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence.

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