Opinion
August 06, 2015

Nonprofits Can Learn From Black Lives Matters About Tapping Passionate Support

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Emerging citizen movements like Black Lives Matter represent a new type of philanthropy, powered by digital media and not subject to top-down planning.
Next month on the Great Lawn in New York’s Central Park, thousands of self-identified "global citizens" will enjoy a major outdoor concert and festival featuring Pearl Jam, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, and Coldplay.

Admission is free, but requires a ticket — and how those tickets are earned is one of the more fascinating developments at the intersection of citizen-powered organizing and big philanthropy.

It’s also a great contrast to the way another big and more influential movement — Black Lives Matter — has formed, as we are sure to witness in coming days as the nation marks the one-year anniversary since Michael Brown was shot to death by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo.

Both movements are instructive and important for philanthropy and nonprofits that are struggling to figure out how to motivate people to mobilize on vital causes.

The Central Park concert, organized by the Global Poverty Project and a who’s who of sponsors like Unicef, Google, and Bill and Melinda Gates, asks ticket seekers to create an account with Global Citizen, a site that says it wants to get people to "take action on the world’s biggest challenges — and use their power to get other people involved too."

Once people sign up, they’re encouraged to take part in a series of activities, such as posting tweets or writing emails on issues like the Global Food Security Act. Each activity earns points, and every point earned before the end of September makes it more likely a person will win a ticket to the big show.

Picture the Great Lawn in late September, packed with tens of thousands of prescreened and fully engaged do-gooders, mostly young and urban and now a vocal part of an emerging global network aimed at solving the world’s worst problems.

Global Citizen certainly can see it, and so can most of organized philanthropy. This will be the concert’s fourth year.

The scale, organization, and sleek design of Global Citizen is impressive, and the organization says that its network members "have taken more than 2.75 million actions, and have contributed to more than 35 campaign victories" on issues related to poverty and hunger. The group says it has prompted a million people to become "global citizens."

John Angelillo/UPI/Landov
A new generation of do-gooders, mostly young and urban, see themselves as part of a global network committed to solving the world’s worst problems.
Contrast that with Black Lives Matter. It does not have major global partners, big-time foundation support, corporate sponsorship, a sleek digital interface, or a Central Park concert featuring boldface names.

But it has promoted citizens to take action in public and dramatic ways, and if the reaction of U.S. presidential candidates is any barometer, it has had national impact on a scale that many advocacy oriented nonprofits might envy.

It’s also got a hashtag that trends on Twitter with stunning regularity — too often in connection with another death of an African-American in police custody.

Created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Black Lives Matter is a small grass-roots organization with a giant hashtag and an even bigger ambition: to build a movement around the seemingly endemic death of African-Americans by law enforcement. Its network of online activists and organizers is deeply organic — and has grown through the tragic stories of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and, most recently, Sandra Bland.

Yet Black Lives Matter — or #BlackLivesMatter, in its most common and potent usage — hasn’t benefited from major philanthropic support.

As Shawn Dove, chief executive of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, a national membership organization created by Open Society Foundations in 2008, told me, "The jury is still out on the overall impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in the board rooms of foundations."

So here are two big movements on the public commons over the last two years, and two major moments for social causes — one carefully planned and designed by some of the most prominent forces in philanthropy, the other one created on the streets.

Both are legitimate and large in scale. Both are driving actions, and both aim to drive change. Yet they also point to the conflict that organized philanthropy faces in grappling with the rise of citizen movements, powered by digital media, that don’t necessarily conform to top-down planning.

Many foundation and nonprofit officials certainly understand the large-scale coalition of organizations that came together around a major marketing campaign to create awareness and some level of involvement around the Global Citizen project. But I’m not sure the same holds true for Black Lives Matter or the other citizen movements that have captivated attention and mobilized people to put their feet in the streets over the past several years.

Those movements include Occupy Wall Street and campaigns (formal and informal) organized to promote marriage rights for LGBT people, immigration reform, an increase in the minimum wage, and curbs on online bullying and domestic abuse. Some are coalitions that include nonprofits and grant makers; some are purely citizen-driven and grow on digital networks.

None of them are "slacktivism," the often-overused put-down of hashtags and linked activism. Sure, it’s simple to share a hashtag and relatively easy to build a presence on Facebook or get your cause trending. But these movements tap into something a lot deeper than a bit of technology and smart phones, though they are just as surely empowered by digital networks.

And that’s what nonprofits and foundations need to find better ways to do: build connections that didn’t exist before and find increasingly subtle and mature ways that link people with ideas and news and movements. They must seek ways to forge the digital ties that bind a segment of the connected population obsessed with news and information and social change.

Often fueled by emotions aroused by a news story or a policy event, networks like Black Lives Matter build on themselves without boards of directors, strategic planning, or endless conference-room chatter. Often, they have goals as simple as gathering a group of people with shared values around a common theme. But they can — and do — change what civil society thinks about issues like race, gender, justice, and poverty.

There is a combination of urgency and authenticity about Black Lives Matter and its networked forebears and cousins that is exactly the missing ingredient so many nonprofits lament in their own outreach efforts. Too many philanthropic causes and charitable campaigns struggle to capture the energy of bottom-up movements.

Hand-wringing is the work of also-rans. Efforts like Global Citizen do share a key element with grass-roots movements: They are turning people out. When Central Park is filled and Beyoncé is on stage, the message that young people should fight global poverty will be in the air over Manhattan.

Not every organization or philanthropist can create an event on that scale, but they can and should pay attention to the ways that citizens movements are organizing. For one thing, these organizations’ efforts are not going to stop. And for another, grass-roots movements often seek to topple or replace established organizations.

Maybe it’s time for another hashtag for the nonprofit world: How about #WhyBlackLivesMatterMatters?

Tom Watson, a regular "Chronicle" columnist, is president of CauseWired, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits, and a lecturer at Columbia University.