Nonprofit 411: A Practical, No-Nonsense Guide to Building a Movement

City AwakeBy the City Awake Team

It can seem like magic – the way movements come together – and in some ways, it is.  The chemistry that members of a movement feel when moving toward something bigger than themselves is inspiring. But the ingredients of a movement aren’t as mysterious as they may seem and waiting for that spark of inspiration may leave you waiting for far too long. Movements, large and small, can all be dissected into a few essential elements. Get these elements right, match them with a disciplined and passionate team and you have the potential spark something far-reaching.

Define the problem

Every movement needs a purpose: the clearer the purpose, the more powerful the movement. We’ve all seen what can happen to a movement when its purpose becomes muddled.  Volunteers lose focus, the timeline gets stretched, and opportunities to broadcast the cause clearly and compellingly are wasted. Part of knowing what you’re fighting for depends on knowing what you’re fighting against. Begin your movement with a well-articulated problem and a clear vision for how to address it.  Boil the problem down to tangible components and measurable milestones. Wanting to raise the minimum wage is more tangible and measurable than wanting to fight economic inequality. For every larger mission, have a concrete problem.

Find and empower your partners

Most movements start with a small group of people, but they really get going when the networks of those people get ignited. Potential partners can be found in a number of places and may not be whom you are expecting. Each new member of your movement brings an extended footprint of people, organizations and companies that could lend a hand. The trick is, understanding their goals and positioning your movement in a way that makes it easy for them to contribute. The way you position your movement for college volunteers may be different than the way you position it for major businesses or local associations. Put some effort into mapping out your supporters and developing a plan for how each of them can take part on the effort. The more you empower each component of your movement with the tools needed to directly make a difference, the more powerful your collective effort will become.

Create shared assets

Once you have a clear problem and active network, create a single source through which they can all get the materials and information they need to take action. Technology has made it much easier to organize disparate groups of people. Create a free Dropbox, Google Drive or Box account. Give everyone access and use that account as your central repository for images, logos, talking points and other core assets needed in the collective effort.  In addition to the single source of assets, you’ll need shared communication channels and spaces for collaboration. Investigate Slack or Hipchat for group chat and try Trello for creating and collaborating on common to-do lists.  All of these have free or low-cost plans so you can try them out.

Set milestones (and celebrate them)

The whole point of a movement is to drive the sort of change that will make the movement no longer necessary. Progress is the end-goal. Along the way to that point it’s important to set smaller milestones so the movement has a sense of momentum. There’s a theory in behavioral studies called “The Endowed Progress Effect.” Laid out by researchers Joseph Nunez and Xavier Dreze, The Endowed Progress Effect notes that participants grow more committed to an effort if they feel as though they are making progress in it. In the example from the Nunez and Dreze report, loyalty program participants were more likely to complete a loyalty card if the card already had “two stamps” so to speak – even if the end amount of work was the same. What the endowed progress effect teaches us is that any milestone is helpful in a movement. You’ll want a mix of organic and created milestones to keep your movement growing.

Often when we talk about movements we talk about them as something that “just happened.” That may be the case for some, but the truth is more often than not movements are intentional. Last year, a small group of individuals came together to start City Awake – a social impact festival that aimed to bring together Boston’s social impact community. By the end of the first year, City Awake had engaged 233 organizations and thousands of participants to build a stronger social impact ecosystem in the region. This year, the effort continues.  As the movement evolves we’ll continue to share what we’re learning about organizing collections of people around a shared goal. You can stay involved and join us at