How the Lens of Movement Building Can Strengthen Community Engagement

Posted on September 21, 2018
By Sylvia Cheuy

Public street gathering-907455-editedA common thread throughout my career has been a focus on building support and commitment for change on a variety of social issues.  I have learned that effective engagement rarely happens by accident.  More often, it results from deliberate strategies that include: making a clear and compelling case for change; continually communicating core messages through different channels to reach several audiences; and, offering simple ways for people to take action to show their support.  Occasionally, something magical would happen and our engagement campaigns sparked a groundswell of support that ignited passion and gave our campaign a life of its own.  Somehow we had done more than implement an effective engagement strategy, we had sparked a movement. 

I’ve been reflecting on these magical moments a lot lately, in order to uncover specific ways to more intentionally and effectively create engagement strategies that create movements that mobilize a groundswell of people to commit to making community change happen.

Thinking and Acting Like a Movement

The first of six patterns identified by Al Etmanski in his book, Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation, is to “Think and Act Like a Movement.”  Al writes that movements are able to change culture by changing paradigms.  He says that movements have impact because they, “shift boundaries of what is socially acceptable and expected. They provide a climate for new ideas.  Institutional change cannot happen without movements.”  Al concludes that, to think and act like a movement, people to do three things:

  1. Acknowledge the movements we are part of since community change never unfolds in a vacuum;
  2. Choose which parts of a movement’s vision we are capable of being part of and which are best left to others; and,
  3. Make contributions to the movement no matter how small and insignificant they seem to be because all movements, no matter how visionary, are the result of thousands of small actions.

Movement Building in a Networked World

In today’s highly interconnected world, the dominant culture has become one with an eroding sense of organizational loyalty; a decline in trust in institutions of all kinds; and, a growing desire for individuals to choose, customize and co-create.  The social issues confronting us are more complex and the funding available to address them is shrinking.  The modern paradox this creates for community-builders and social change agents is that, while it has never been easier to mobilize support around ideas, the complexity of the issues, combined with a scarcity of funding and shrinking public attention spans, has made the work of mobilizing for lasting systems change more difficult than ever.

In 2016, NetChange Consulting published a research report, entitled the Networked Change Report, that identifies a new form of movement-building which generates significant impact in terms of policy and attitude change with relatively few resources.  They called this new type of movement: Directed-Network Campaigns.  The Directed-Network Campaign approach has the following four principles: 

  1. Open to Grassroots Power – The campaign gives its members an active role in shaping its direction and greater ability to customize their participation. By listening to and inviting input, the campaign offers supporters more opportunities for leadership and management.  This approach increases enthusiasm and commitment to the campaign and often benefits from key insights and member-generated innovations.  By making member support visible to supporters, this approach also sustains campaign support over time. 
  1. Leverage Cross-Movement Network Hubs – The campaign connects itself to a wide range of networks. Rather than trying to “own” an issue, attention is focused on creating resonance with allied groups and providing ways for them to collectively focus their power simultaneously.  This requires the ability to respect different view points and strategies in order to identify common interests and mutually beneficial exchanges.
  1. Frame a Compelling Cause – Key ingredients to building a compelling cause include: great storytelling; a simple and believable rationale for why audiences should care about the issue; the illustration of a path to victory; and the identification of clear roles members can play.
  1. Run with Focus and Discipline – Network-Directed Campaigns are disciplined in tracking progress; prototyping key messages and deployment strategies; and, discipline so that the network’s power is deployed when clear “winnable moments” are identified. This enables Directed-Network Campaigns to conserve their resources for the long-term work required to achieve systems change.

Embracing a lens of movement-building and knowing how to strategically leverage the power of today’s networked world are clearly capabilities that community changemakers need to cultivate in order to enhance the effectiveness of their community engagement efforts.

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Community Engagement, Sylvia Cheuy, Social Movements, Blog

Sylvia Cheuy

By Sylvia Cheuy

Sylvia is a Consulting Director of the Tamarack Institute’s Collective Impact Idea Area and also supports Tamarack’s Community Engagement Idea Area. She is passionate about community change and what becomes possible when residents and various sector leaders share an aspirational vision for their future. Sylvia believes that when the assets of residents and community are recognized and connected they become powerful drivers of community change. Sylvia is an internationally recognized community-builder and trainer. Over the past five years, much of Sylvia’s work has focused on building awareness and capacity in the areas of Collective Impact and Community Engagement throughout North America.

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