Opinion
January 26, 2016

To Build Causes Into Movements, Look Beyond Hashtags

Michael Coghlan

Think about the past year. How many times did you use a hashtag to show your support for a social issue or cause?

If you’re like millions of people around the globe, you might have used one of these:

#PrayForParis

#LoveWins

#RefugeesWelcome

#BlackLivesMatter

These were among the most influential hashtags for social causes that appeared on Twitter in 2015. But the social movements they represent weren’t successful because of hashtags alone. Nonprofits must persuade people to do more than use the tag; they also want them to volunteer, raise money, or make a donation to advance the cause.

The most popular hashtags effectively pulled on our emotions and evoked empathy — tinged in some cases with hurt, in others with celebration. The power of these words, even without images, prods us to act, to stand up for something that is fundamental to our humanity. They coax us from just raising our hand to joining others in a movement.

When I look at the actions I take in support of ideas and social issues, I find myself getting to a point of excitement, anger, and frustration. But then something happens, and it all dissipates. Something occurs that pulls me in the complete opposite direction, Life gets in the way.

In the course of extensive research on why some social movements work and others falter, I have learned I am not alone in my lack of engagement. This is the challenge for social movements today: Even as new technologies allow us to build movements among the masses, too many nonprofits don’t understand how to merge excitement over a hashtag with grassroots organizing that will lead to changes in policy and behavior.

One thing is certain: It isn’t just a hashtag, a clever advertising and public-relations stunt, or beautiful design that makes a campaign succeed. These elements work together to help promote social movements — but only when they build on these principles:

A social movement is not about its founder; it is about an idea shared by a collective.

It may at times seem like the founder is the movement. In reality, a focus on the founder is a sign that a social movement has failed. An individual can never be a movement alone, unless he or she is the symbol of the cause, as with Ahmed Mohamed. (The Texas schoolboy’s experience — he was detained by police who mistook a clock he built for a class project for a bomb — spurred the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed.) Founders of social movements who bask in the limelight tend to have ambitions and goals besides or beyond those of the movement. Movements that elevate the power of the participant tend to last longer.

This focus on the participant as the true hero and representative of the cause can be seen in groups such as Charity: Water. Though its founder, Scott Harrison, spearheads the nonprofit, the focus is on the individual actors whose compassion and generosity moves people to make a difference through campaigns like #748million. Named after the number of people worldwide who lack access to clean water, #748million took place in early 2015 in the run-up to World Water Day. Charity: Water encouraged participants to be the hero: to spark conversations about water scarcity, share a video about the issue, join an "InstaMeet," donate to the cause, and speak up for the millions of people without access to clean water.

Social movements require a groundswell of hyper-local grassroots organizing coupled with digital activism.

Digital awareness is necessary, but it will eventually fade. That’s why successful movements find ways to make sure conversations about key social issues are happening on the streets and in the neighborhoods where people can influence action.

Case in point: #BlackLivesMatter, which has become a true social movement, merging concerns about criminal-justice issues with a groundswell of activity in cities and towns across America, and strong digital reporting and response, #BlackLivesMatter is moving from an idea to the status of a movement and beyond. Block by block, more Americans are voicing their concerns about violent police tactics, signing petitions, and working to help policy makers understand the changes that need to be made. Though tied together with a hashtag, the real-world organization of this movement gives it a staying power beyond technology that will no doubt shape the way we think about an issue at the heart of neighborhoods throughout the country.

Social movements elevate empathy into action.

The most successful movements begin as traditional organizing efforts in communities and may continue there for years, until cultural and social events yield an opportunity to bring people together online.

For example, the Human Rights Campaign’s marriage equality work started with city- and state-level organizing. The movement took root online only after activists had laid the groundwork for a campaign that eventually led to a Supreme Court victory. Shortly after the ruling, the hashtag #LoveWins began circulating on Twitter and caught fire when tweeted by President Obama. This message resulted in individuals, celebrities, politicians, and businesses across the country showing their support for same-sex marriage.

The success of #BlackLivesMatter and #LoveWins demonstrates that it’s foolish to think all your cause needs is ice-bucket virality to become a social movement overnight. People have to champion your cause offline too. Nonprofits must inspire a vast number of people to get emotionally attached to the fundamentals of why their cause matters. Believing in a movement is always better than belonging to one.

Then it’s essential to take that belief, provoke the emotion, and offer practical advice and steps for people to take action. Even in an age when our lives revolve around technology, doing that takes more than hashtags. Focusing on the foundation of your cause and building upon it is the most fundamental thing you can do.

Derrick Feldmann is president of Achieve, a research and consulting company, and the author of Social Movements for Good, just published by Wiley.