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Social change advocacy and engagement

Social movements typically start on the ground, with the people — springing out of communities united by geography, industry or technology. Some of these causes go on to grow into huge networks with the power to influence significant social change, while others never quite get their feet under them. Most exist somewhere between these extremes, perpetually trying to build and sustain momentum.

An effective social movement may build unique networks to:

  • Reach new pockets of the population
  • Rally around a political or environmental cause
  • Support human rights
  • Create new culture through support of the arts
  • Speak for people who feel their voice isn't being heard
  • Correct social and economic injustice

Although there's no simple formula for success, strong social movements tend to share several major components. Here's an overview.

Active advocacy

All causes need advocates — the people who publicly support and spread the news of your cause. In the nonprofit world, advocacy often means trying to influence public policy, fighting for legislative change or lobbying for a reallocation of resources. Advocating for social justice requires a significant amount of time, energy, fundraising and canvassing effort, not to mention the labor cost of so much person-to-person contact. An understanding of lobbying guidelines for nonprofits is key.

In today's technology-driven world, more and more nonprofits are turning to social media to directly advocate for social justice issues. There are a variety of tools and apps designed to launch viral marketing campaigns, collect digital signatures for a petition or fundraise in new and creative ways.

Deep grassroots origin

Grassroots and shoestring initiatives depend on the power of organized social movements to spread change. These efforts generally don't have money to burn. They must conserve resources as much as possible, so they tend to rely on free or almost-free services such as library conference rooms or other public spaces, text messages and online groups.

Civic engagement and social justice

Many nonprofits work in the grey areas — the segments of society receiving unfair or unequal treatment. Focusing on social justice means adopting the worldview that everyone deserves equal treatment, rights and opportunities, even those living way out in the grey segments. Organizations that base campaigns around issues of gross inequality draw attention to disparities and require the rest of society to confront the issue.

This is where civic engagement comes in. Civic engagement is the path that allows people to turn wrongs into injustices, and injustices into action. Being civically engaged means being a good neighbor as much as possible — giving back to the community and motivating others to do the same. Communities with a high level of civic engagement are able to propel forward policies and programs that benefit the community as a whole.

Leadership development

Many high-impact nonprofits share a collaborative leadership structure that includes a large board, executive teams and strong second-in-command managers. Leaders develop because they share the organization's values and believe power must be shared in order to achieve the most good. This approach to leadership helps build a community that has a strong identity, mission and purpose. Standout organizations value the long-term well-being of their missions above any personal politics or power struggles.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Animating Democracy: What is social change?

United Nations Research Institute for Social Development: Civil society, NGDOs and social development: Changing the rules of the game by Alan Fowler

GSDRC: Applied Knowledge Services: The role of civil society and social movements

Role of the nonprofit sector in leading innovation in public policy and social change by Shannon Dosemagen



Writer and firm believer in using business as a tool for positive change