What Really Motivates People To Rally Around A Cause

From politicians to brands to nonprofits, creating a movement is considered the holy grail of engagement.

A movement drives awareness, buzz, and action, seemingly sweeping up everyone in its path. Its origin can be orchestrated or organic. Its demise can be sudden or slow. And, it often inspires imitations. To create one, it’s important to understand the mechanics of why some succeed while others fail.

It starts with the question: Why do people join movements?

They crave community

This is the charge most campaigns start with: Let’s get people to join our community! If only it were as simple as that famous “Field of Dreams” mantra. While a tagline, an online petition or pledge, and some swag will attract a few faithful followers, movements need more.

What does your movement stand for at a higher level? Is it something people can get passionate about on a deeply personal level? For the Obama 2008 campaign it was “hope.” And, importantly, not just hope embodied in the man himself, but the larger hope that average people really did have the power to affect change through their actions. With the Livestrong initiative, it was the will to survive and thrive in the face of overwhelming challenge, which resonated far beyond those living with cancer into a mindset that people from a range of backgrounds and interests share.



They want to do something

Movements require action, and many aspiring ones miss the mark by either asking too much or making the action so generic, it becomes meaningless. The standard defaults for political or nonprofit campaigns are to sign a petition, volunteer, or send money. Each is critical to sustaining important work but all are easily delayed or ignored and can be off-putting to people new to the mission.

To be more strategic, pair that ask with something specific that people can rally behind and become part of the story. Gregory Castle, one of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society, recently participated in the grueling Grand to Grand Ultra, a 170-mile race, as its oldest participant at 72. The nonprofit wisely embarked on a fundraising campaign around Castle’s endeavor. Those who donated $100 or more got their name on the back of his shirt. Stories on his training progress updates kept people connected. Ultimately $192,000 was raised for the Sanctuary, exceeding Castle’s $1,000 per mile goal. The fundraisers at Best Friends are masters of re-engaging their supporters and attracting new ones by building mini-movements around smaller campaigns that are clear, specific and results-oriented.

They want to know what’s in it for them

While there are passionate followers for almost every campaign and cause out there, there is an even larger group who moves back and forth between them. Politicians call them swing voters. How do you engage them when your base message isn’t enough?

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society did something brilliant with Team in Training, which was initially conceived in 1988 by marathoner Bruce Cleland who wanted to honor his daughter Georgia, a leukemia survivor. The organization quickly figured out that there were a lot of people who were interested in endurance events but had no clue how to prepare for them. In return for this training, they were willing to raise thousands of dollars for the cause, even if they had no personal connection to the disease. Since its inception Team in Training has expanded to include a range of endurance events raising over a billion dollars to fight blood cancers.

They want to make a personal statement

Whether wearing the (once) iconic Livestrong bracelet, being filmed while doused by an ice-cold bucket of water or getting decked out in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness month, people value non-verbal symbols that associate them with a larger movement or community. This visual currency, when executed well, is both a powerful motivator and awareness driver. 

Much has been written about the Ice Bucket Challenge and how authentic it was at driving awareness for ALS. From a fundraising standpoint, it seemed to be quite effective, raising $115 million to date, though the question remains if the charity will be able to turn the moment into a movement now that the novelty has worn off. How authentically the participants felt connected to ALS is not the most important piece to be examined in understanding why the challenge went viral.

The insight is that people want to be part of a community and spotlight themselves as individuals at the same time. The organization that creates a platform that effectively harnesses both is sure to have the next movement on their hands.

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