Giving Power to Your People in 2017

People want to go big in 2017!

There’s no doubt your supporters are inspired to make changes in the world. So why do many organizations find that the same digital tactics we’ve known and frankly loved for years aren’t getting the same traction these days?

You may have heard of the “democratization of social change”. This means that your supporters have more power to make an impact than ever before as they bring their social networks, stories and ideas to the table. In fact, today civic minded individuals can use the same digital tools as nonprofits to “be the change they want to see” … and individuals can make a huge impact.

We’ve seen the power of campaigns such as #GivingTuesday, Standing Rock and various political races, that provide the resources and centralized plan for supporters to engage their own communities. At the heart of these successful movements is a peer-to-peer engagement strategy – people connecting with each other through digital tools and social channels because they all share an underlying sense of urgency about a cause.

The game has changed.
So how do nonprofits create campaigns that facilitate this deeper sense of engagement? The conventional rules that had nonprofits running all aspects of social change campaigns are shifting rapidly. Instead, we need to harness the and direct this energy and willingness to work for change.

Let’s start by embracing the following new concepts:

  • Citizen movements play an enormous role in leading social change
  • People want meaningful participation, not a ladder of one off actions
  • Peer to peer engagement is key to scaling change

Citizen powered movements play an enormous role in leading social change. 

What does an effective people powered campaign look like? It’s perhaps most clear with advocacy campaigns that set concrete policy outcomes or shift public opinion beyond financial and geographical limitations.

The “Networked Change” report from NetChange evaluates 47 of the most effective campaigns, ranging from the NRA to Occupy Wall Street. The report concludes that campaigns that partnered with self-organized networks of people with clear goals and targets made an impact far beyond their level of resourcing.

The magic combination was the traditional advocacy nonprofit that provided a centralized campaign structure and unified rallying message to distributed groups of stakeholders, including individuals as free agents. In contrast, traditional organizations that controlled every aspect of the campaign couldn’t scale their campaigns. Similarly, movements with too little structure – those formed of loose networks of individuals who didn’t partner with traditional nonprofits – lacked the infrastructure to make a sufficient impact.

The report also found  “Campaigns that actively consult their audiences and draw on their collective intelligence have access to new assets and power.” In other words, nonprofits that facilitated grassroots participation were more innovative and made a greater impact faster than traditional “command and control” models or distributed networks of people without centralized plan.


People want meaningful participation, not a ladder of one off actions.

Stunning results can happen when people align on shared goals, milestones and specific tasks and have the opportunity to grow into leaders.  This is demonstrated by the understaffed Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Sanders entered the race with only 3% name recognition; a big reason his campaign made an impact far beyond its fighting weight was a structure and philosophy that empowered “super volunteers”. With only two digital staffers the campaign hosted the largest distributed political event in history with 2,700 kick-off parties in one night! This was accomplished by trusting volunteers to run events traditionally executed by staff.

This same people-powered principle allows volunteers of the Special Olympics to host over 100,000 events per year, or every 5 minutes! In both cases, the organizations found if they provided a structure to support their highly competent volunteers, they would rise to the occasion and do the job every time.

In terms of influencing policy, the Sanders example also highlights an important shift in how people want to engage, or be organized. Because information is so readily available, many already people “get it” from the first point of engagement with the campaign and join on ready to make an impact. This represents a fundamental shift from the widely adopted 1970’s Saul Alinsky organizing philosophy which aims to move the “unenlightened” through a series of engagement steps created by the organization called the “leadership ladder”. Here, the purpose of people power is to provide political leverage for the organization during a campaign. The problem with the Alinsky approach today is that people are largely aware of the issues they signed up for and have their own ideas about steps to reaching a solution. The paradigm has shifted.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) engagement is the key to scaling change

We almost exclusively think of P2P as a fundraising strategy, but it’s much deeper. Giving power to your people and peer-to-peer engagement are philosophies that can revolutionize citizen engagement: Who produces content. Who makes change. How culture is created. It’s an expression of an open society and medium of true democracy.

People-powered campaigns operate like a hashtag: They promote ideas that many embrace, but no one owns. This allow for individual expression among peers and generates more commitment and ownership.

Would #GivingTuesday have emerged as the largest worldwide giving day in history if the founders controlled every aspect of the campaign, made everyone register, required a donation, didn’t rely on P2P engagement and most importantly, wasn’t a hashtag but was branded by the organization? Instead, the brilliant and humble, Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact, provided a centralized plan and message which allowed diverse participation from organizations and individuals.

In summary, giving power to your people allows for deeper engagement with your supporters who can scale your mission with their peers through their social networks. This year experiment with strategies that give people the keys … and also provide them with a roadmap.

Jeanette Russell
About Jeanette Russell

Passionate to engage stakeholders to solve technical and political issues through transformational initiatives. My deep understanding of technology, partnerships, marketing, advocacy, fundraising, nonprofits, startups and self-directed nature is my brand. I’ve created extensive partner networks, coalitions, spearheaded innovative campaigns and significantly increased revenue/funding for purpose driven ventures.

Posted in Advocacy, Nonprofit

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