People don’t become Activists Because of a Cause. (And That Gives me Hope.)

This is a blog post about why I believe our innate need for belonging, the theories of a lesser known 20th Century French philosopher, and a couple millennia of organised religion, make me think that our movements have so much more potential than they are currently utilising. (I know, it's a lot. Bear with me). And it has to do with the fact that movements are not really built on the strength of a cause. 

Author: Ned Howey

I believe our progressive campaigns have a problem and it’s part of why we’re losing. We are so focussed on making the case for our causes that we forget the underlying component of what really builds successful movements: communities of activists. I won’t argue that narrative doesn’t have a place. But when we put all of our energy there and ignore the connections between people - something woefully easy to do in the online age - true movements don’t solidify. In this post, I explore why I believe that the cause itself is not the key to winning power - but the connection which that shared passion for a cause creates between people is. 


1. Too much focus on narrative 

Don’t worry. I’m not trying to diminish your cause. And I’m certainly not going to say that stating its importance isn’t, well, important. But messaging a narrative alone isn’t enough. While we like to get fired up about the evil power of ‘psy-ops’ and micro-targeted ‘weaponisation’ of social media ad messaging, the reality is these are a perhaps too-easy-excuse for our own greater progressive recent failings to create movements that actually impact politics, culture, and society. Recent studies show that digital ads with the ends of persuasion alone have almost no efficacy.

This isn’t to say messaging around a cause isn’t needed. In fact, a strong narrative can help turn some of the public into supporters. It gets your message out and frames the conversation. And most importantly, it brings new potential activists in. The problem is that our campaigns are often putting the full focus on communications and recruitment of supporters and failing to go further to convert supporters into true activists.  

Activists are not just highly active supporters. Activists are supporters who represent your cause in their every day - in their conversations in their communities, in their behaviour (through actions they otherwise wouldn’t take, particularly that of risk), and in their identities. People might engage in an issue because of a narrative, but they become activists because of shared passion for a cause with others. The connection with those other activists is what drives behaviour and solidifies their role in a movement as part of their identity. 

This is why organisations and campaigns stuck in one way communication and list building are sure to see long term losses and not full realisation of their cause. 

Our recent Report on the State of Digital Organising in Europe found that when it comes to online actions, the only area we are doing nearly close to the activities we need to is in the area of broadcast communication and social media. 


Should vs Does 


The report concluded that our progressive efforts are suffering for it and this is part of the overall shift to the right. (Granted, we are at a disadvantage to begin with due to the tendencies of social media to favour simplistic and populist messages - particularly those that tap into fear.) 

This is a jarring reality we have to accept: the need for belonging and connection to individuals/community is stronger than our altruism. But before shaking your fist at our selfishness - let me point out that the need to belong is actually intimately tied to our ethics as a human race. It is part of the very personal way deep inside us which makes our world better. And it's the stuff movements are built on. (It's also why building movements around local issues is far easier - community is key but doing that at massive scale is trickier). 


2. Connection is ethics: A trip into some philosophy 

There are more than enough social and biological studies out there to show that humans are entirely hardwired for belonging. It is among one of the greatest physical, psychological, and emotional drivers innate to our species. But I’m not going to draw on genetics or social science here. I’d rather spend some time on philosophy. (And if you get bored, dear reader, go ahead and skip this section). 

At the risk of sounding pretentious, when talking to my clients about building connections and community to build movements, I often think of one of my favorite philosophers: Emannuel Levinas. (Happy to report to my mother that my degree in Literature and Philosophy is actually worth something useful in my career). Get me with a beer in my hand and you’ll find me nerding out a lot on Levinas, but for now, here’s the quick version: 

For the two millennia following Aristotle, philosophers debated the metaphysical question of whether truth was centred in a person’s mind (Descartes and his ball of wax, for example) or external to it (materialists). But in the early 20th century the whole debate was blown out of the water - and metaphysics with it - by Martin Heidegger who argued not to study truth but being, and being only exists in one form: the subjective experience of our consciousness as it experiences and perceives the world outside it. 

All good. Philosophy changed forever. Heidegger was too big to ignore. But so was the fact that he was a Nazi. And I don’t mean this in the “oh, my uncle is such a nazi” because he spends every Thanksgiving railing against Obama kind of way. I mean, a literal Nazi. Like, a member of the Nazi party. Armband and all. 

Levinas, a Lithuanian Jew who relocated to France, you might say had a bit of a bone to pick with Heidegger. I mean, Heidegger was part of a political party that committed genocide on six million people - mostly Jews. Kinda hard to ignore. While Levinas reflected and acknowledged much of Heidegger’s philosophical framework - even arguing using the same logical structure (hermeneutics) - he pointed out a giant missing gap: ethics. If we can never really experience another consciousness how do we know it exists? How do we have an ethical obligation to treat another human any different than say, a rock? In “Totality and Infinity”, Levinas takes aim at Heidegger’s entire project and its failure to justify... well, why we shouldn’t kill one another.

For Levinas there are two key arguments that I often come back to in my consultation around movement-building: 

  1. The Face. Levinas argues it is in experience of seeing (or experiencing) the face of the other before you so that you know they exist and have an ethical obligation to it. It is in being together: connection, community and belonging that we realise our ethics to society. (Can this be a face you see through zoom? - that’s an important question we’ll look at below). 
  2. Prayer: It is through the shared experience of meditation on another being beyond us - the infinite, the divine, God - that we truly realise our ethics. (He discusses God in terms of utility, rather than going the way of others in trying to prove God’s existence). 

Now I’m not going to argue there is a one-to-one relationship to activism, or say that activism should replace religion when it comes to ethics, but I really feel when supporters become activists there is something akin to the experience Levinas describes in prayer. The shared experience of practicing on something greater than oneself is what builds our bonds and our greater obligations to each other in society. Through that experience we also feel seen by others for who we are (as much more than just rocks). 

I see a true parallel in the role that movements have for activists, and the importance of the experience in a shared ethic that drives involvement. For me, community belonging is a true part of ethics. And it's the stuff movements are made of. 

(My apologies to any philosophy professors who are cringing right now at my attempts to paraphrase, put this in a language outside those of the philosophers themselves, and draw parallels that are pretty darn imperfect). 


3. Lesson from religion for movement-builders

So we’re clear here: I’m not advocating for or against the necessity of religion. However, I think that you’ll find that the human drive for belonging, the connection to community, and the way that community connection has a role in societal ethics are all fundamental building blocks for both religion and movement-building. And for my role advising on building movements with the end of creating political change, that is extremely useful. As far as churches and other places of worship go, it's the power of community - not just the appeal of God, that builds religions. This is especially important as the main resource of movement-builders - volunteer work - operates outside of an economy of capitalism - where we must motivate people to action through other means than paying them. 

Organisers have quite a bit to learn from organised religion in terms of what works. While digital organising as a field might be less than two decades old, religion has a couple of millennia of trial and error in perfecting techniques for building communities around a cause that we can look to and learn from. 

For a rather agnostic person, I find myself in my consultations with clients on how they should use digital organising referring to religious structures as a model a surprising amount. Among some of the key elements of organised religion to model: 

  • How the power of connection can keep people engaged
  • Regularity and elements of tradition in meetings 
  • “Evangelism” as a primary operational goal 
  • Clearly defined roles for leaders and their leadership of others in the community

A work we often refer to for movement-building strategy is that of Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Church”. The irony is not lost on me when referring to political change-makers to Rick Warren - whose politics have few if not any overlaps with that which we are advocating. But the underlying models Warren speaks of when describing his successful growth of the Saddleback Church congregation from nothing to the eighth largest church in the U.S., cannot be ignored. Some years ago, folks even ‘translated’ the book's advice into the language of social changemakers

It is important to note, that if we are arguing for structure over cause, these techniques likely can be used to equal effect by our adversaries. It’s to note that the Nazi party, too, was a political movement. 

And one final note on the value of drawing from religion when building movements: the comparison can also be useful in its potential pitfalls. We should be cautious to avoid the same errors as religion. Cultism is a common outcome when our views engage the broader community with extremism instead of dialogue. The creation of a strong community has the peril of also creating an echo chamber and one which will never have the larger impact we seek. We must be particularly cautious of the temptations of the power of polarisation to electrify. It also has the potential to backfire on our movements. True power comes from a diversity of opinion - especially  when we have shared aims. 

The potential of civic engagement

4. The massive unrealised potential of civic engagement communities 

It’s reasonable to feel a bit discouraged upon hearing that causes (alone) don’t build movements - community connection does. Certainly the idealists in all of us that are fighting for a better world want to believe that the sheer importance of what we are fighting for should be the primary driver. For me, however, this fact actually gives me hope. 

In this moment in history, we face the largest challenges before us as a species: saving humankind from climate change, abolishing nuclear weapons, fighting the active dismantling of democracies around the world, solving the huge and unfair inequalities and injustices - the call is there. The need is great. And yet, I’m sure many of you are disheartened because at a time when our world most needs to come together to solve its big global challenges, the winning political movements in recent years seem to favour division over unity. 

What gives me hope in the power of community connection to drive movements is the truly vast amount of potential that has yet to be tapped. When you think about the small donation or the petition clicktivism, it pales in comparison to the power that religion has generated over centuries: from people giving the church significant portions of their salaries to millennia of people dedicating a day a week to church, religions have gotten a lot done. Were civic engagement to take centre stage in scale and scope in these challenging times, we might even survive as a species. 

It’s to note that in many cases religious communities or communities of people of a particular faith themselves have had significant roles in important political movements - from the resistance of dictatorships within the Catholic church, to organisations such as Bend the Arc, who had a role in organising against the rise of white nationalism in today’s American society and political leadership. 

Again, I’m not advocating abandoning religion in favour of activism. If your spiritual practice brings you meaning, I have no need to challenge that. But the majority of people I know - even religious ones - do not attend church weekly and there most certainly is space in our lives for activism beyond a degree that most of us are practicing it. I believe the key to this is what religion provides for many people: community. And this gives me hope. 


5. How to put this into practice NOW. 

If you are freaking out right now because you represent a cause - don’t. There is no need to take your mid sized non-profit from a small donor program to the power of the papacy in a day. 

But there are real things that can be done right away that likely will positively impact your organisation, primarily keeping central to your supporter engagement the need to connect people with other activists. Set up your workflows so people have the chance to connect with real humans and specifically when they’ve been newly recruited and most open to commit their passion to the community. 

Here are three basic recommendations for real ways this can help your work: 

  1. Go beyond communications and list building and connect real people: This particularly is a perennial challenge for digital people. I mean, who can blame us? You can reach so many people with such little effort in the digital age. And that is dangerous. Because so many people claiming to be doing digital organising are really just doing communications and list building and not laying the groundwork for real movement building. The importance of social connection that used to happen at dances in union halls or free classes, child care, and meal services at the Peronist community centre in Argentina (Unidades Basicas) in the 20th century have receded against the power of Netflix. It was no mistake that Levinas spoke of the experience of being with the other person - in person - seeing their face that brings the recognition of their humanity.

    Among our interviewees for the Report on the State of Digital Organising in Europe, many named the importance of in person meetings for solidifying commitment that comes with social connection. In the social distancing times of 2020, we know this isn’t always an option. We as organisers need to be creative about how to emulate the in person connections online, but we shouldn’t resign ourselves to the mass email or the impersonal petition. We should be holding drop-in hours on our open Zoom link; Using the question and answer of that livestream like it was your living room. And for gosh sakes, go from that broadcast text to a volunteer phone call when you can. It’s not like you don’t have their number. 

    The good news is everyone from big business to governments to church services are struggling to figure out innovating new techniques and technologies. And as culture changes and technologies allow us to do this better, we have another major barrier removed: geography. My guess is online conferences will be a thing of the future. Think of all the flight time saved, no need to get over jet lag, and the reduction in carbon footprint. 


  1. Don’t let people sit on lists: The key to increasing engagement I’ve found with most organisations to be one simple operational goal: connect new sign ups with a real human as soon as possible. I mean, real connection. An opportunity for discussion where motivation and passion can be connected around. We find the ideal window is 48 hours from when someone signs up. If they are contacted after a week, the likelihood of converting that person to a true activist is enormously diminished unless there is another engagement window the connection happens to align with.

    Signing up to get more emails or be involved is a larger ask than many think. It’s right then when the motivation driver for those people is at its highest and they are most likely to connect.


  1. Focus outward always:  We should look at church structures for how to grow. While it's the job of the clergy to look at their highest involved church members, there are roles for each member of the congregation to bring in higher levels of involvement from the next level out. A common activity for low level church volunteers is as a greeter. This isn’t just because it’s nice to be welcomed. In terms of growth, that role is there to make the opportunity to connect with someone who is new to the congregation, and hopefully make a connection.

    Too often our organisations feel shy about asking the lowest level of volunteers to be part of our recruitment process. We fall back on this idea that because we have leadership and technology with great reach, the role of bringing in new people should stay centralised. For me, this is one of the largest errors an organisation can make. It's important that we see the value of all people within a movement to bring people closer into the centre of the cause. 


Have hope folks. And let's get to work.