How do you build a movement? As community professionals, our jobs often involve connecting people with each other and giving them a sense of belonging. Sometimes it stops there. But for many others, what happens next is the most important part: getting members to take action. Caleb Gardner is one of the smartest community minds I’ve had the opportunity to chat with recently.
He’s working on Organizing for Action, a nonprofit social welfare organization and community organizing project that was created to advocate for the agenda of U.S. President Barack Obama. Creating tools for millions of Americans to coordinate and take action is no easy task. As a result, Caleb has learned a great deal about what it means to build communities both on a massive scale as well as a local, grassroots scale. He’s learned what a movement looks like and what tools you can create to get people to take action.
He’ll be taking the stage at CMX Summit on June 12-13 (that’s in 8 days, ticket prices go up tomorrow!) so come out and see him drop some knowledge. In the meantime, we had the chance to ask him a few questions about his work, and what it means to build a movement.
1. What is “Organizing for Action”? How did it start and what has it become?
Organizing for Action was built by millions of Americans as a grassroots movement to pass the agenda we voted for in 2012, but has become so much more. We’re organizing on many issues our volunteers care about, from raising the minimum wage, to fixing our broken immigration system, to fighting climate change. Our mission is to ensure the voices of ordinary Americans are heard in Washington and in state houses, while training the next generation of grassroots organizers that will keep fighting for change.
2. What does your role at OFA involve?
My role is deputy digital director overseeing editorial and content strategy, which means I spend a lot of time thinking big picture about how to optimize our content across channels to ensure our messaging is aligned, we’re achieving our goals, and we’re rewarding our followers, subscribers, etc. I also maintain editorial oversight, so if you catch any typos please don’t tell me about them.
3. How do you define a “movement”?
I think of a movement as a group of people who have a shared passion, shared values, and common goals moving towards achieving them. A movement wants progress—that’s what differentiates it from any other groups of people with similar interests. A book club unites a group of book lovers. It becomes a movement when the book lovers start trying to change how the publishing industry works.
4. How do you create a movement? Is there a strategy there?
This is a loaded question, but an important one. I think you start by connecting those people with shared values, but you have to give them the tools to organize and take responsibility for the movement themselves right away. The more people feel respected and empowered, the more energy the movement will have.
5. Do you think companies should be attempting to build movements?
If not building movements themselves, I think there is a lot of opportunity to join movements already in progress. But the first question companies should be asking themselves in today’s environment: What do we stand for? “Making money” alone is no longer an acceptable answer, and neither is sitting on the sidelines.
6. How do you track the success of your campaigns? What does success look like?
Success for us looks like a lot of different things depending on the campaign, from changing the conversation on a particular issue to creating multiple touch points for our volunteers, online and offline, to communicate with their lawmakers about what’s important to them. One important note is that it’s not always about scale: On a given day, getting a million people to see a Facebook post may not be as important as three passionate volunteers showing up to the office of their member of Congress.
7. What’s one simple thing community professionals can start doing today to encourage their members to take some sort of action?
Communicate clearly about what is most important. If you’ve taken the time to build equity within a community, I think you’d be surprised about what your members would be willing to do. But you have to make it easy for them, and make the ask clear. That seems surprisingly difficult for a lot of organizations.