Nonprofit Trends Part 1: Creating a Movement

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Even before last year’s massively successful Ice Bucket Challenge raised over $1 million for the ALS Association, various gurus were suggesting that nonprofits should build social awareness about their causes by creating a movement; i.e. a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social or artistic ideas. Here are three voices that address this topic from different perspectives, and a local agency that is on the move – literally.

In 2010, Derek Sivers not only talked about the power of movements, but he was able to demonstrate a few critically misunderstood aspects of movements in a TED Talk lasting only 3 minutes. By showing a video of a lone, gyrating dancer whom he labeled as a “leader” because he dared to be different, Derek pointed out that the dancer’s leadership position wasn’t established until he had his first “follower;” that in fact, the first follower was instrumental in, as Derek put it, “transforming the lone nut into a leader.” As the video continues and more and more people join the dancing movement, the situation is reversed. By the end of the video, the perceived risk of NOT joining the growing crowd has become greater than joining in.

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Author, marketer, public speaker and blogger Seth Godin calls crowds like the one that Derek presented, “tribes.” He says that tribes stem from our need and desire to be connected, and can revolve around any number of shared interests or ideas – from a social club, like the Red Hat Society, to a socially conscious group, like volunteer firefighters. He backs up Sivers’ idea of leading a movement by suggesting that first, you must tell a story. This story should not be watered down to appeal to the masses, as in 1950s advertising, when 3 T.V. stations showed the same Alka Seltzer ad in all time slots. Instead, it should be targeted specifically to individuals who care about your cause, and who will then connect and form a tribe around it. Once the tribe is formed, the nonprofit leads it to fulfill a mission of creating change. A new story results from this change, energizing the tribe and leading to further change; and so the cycle continues as long as the tribe members stay connected to one another and the nonprofit’s mission.

An essential characteristic of a movement is the fact that, once the leader releases a story to the tribe, he or she loses control of it. Adam Braun, Founder and CEO of Pencils of Promise (PoP), which has built hundreds of schools around the world, states that his fundraising didn’t really take off until individuals adopted his message and made it their own; they began hosting their own birthday, bar mitzvah and school fundraisers, as well as personal challenges such as bike riding across the U.S. “Our success was now in the hands of any person who made the choice that it was more important to educate a child than to receive birthday gifts that year….The number of lives we impacted would not be determined by my efforts alone, or even PoP’s efforts, but by the efforts of every person who decided that 57 million children without access to education wasn’t just a concern, it was a crisis that urgently needed to be solved.” Since 2008, PoP has grown to where it currently serves 31,240 students and impacts over 300,000 lives.

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As indicated above, movements are most successful when they can be associated with large, systemic problems; such as the estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million stray dogs and cats roaming Houston’s streets (BARC). Realizing that the problem was bigger than any one organization could handle and that it wasn’t going away, despite the plethora of animal welfare organizations already in existence, Rescued Pets Movement (RPM) jumped in. By partnering with the City pound and several no-kill shelters, their method for humanely rescuing animals on the verge of being euthanized has, in little more than a year, placed over 6,000 animals in permanent homes in other states where stray pet overpopulation is not an issue. Using an average of 6.5 offspring per animal, that translates to potentially 39,000 fewer puppies and kittens on Houston’s streets, each one with the ability to reproduce. Impact like this takes looking at the larger problem (57 million children without access to education), innovative problem-solving, partnering with existing organizations, and telling a story (39,000 fewer stray kittens and puppies) that a cohesive group of like-minded individuals can rally behind and carry forward on your organization’s behalf.

Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Find a few followers, give them a story to form a tribe around, and build a movement around the larger social issue that your nonprofit is addressing.


  1. Click here to sign up for Seth Godin’s blog.

  2. The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, by Adam Braun, Scribner, 2014; page 234.

  3. City Council Approves Major Initiative to Decrease Animal Overpopulation, The City of Houston, March 4, 2015.

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Richard Beeman