Three Takeways on Building Social Movements

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Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Kate Emanuel, Senior Vice President of Nonprofit and Government Relations at Ad Council.  Follow along on Twitter – @adcouncil.

Kate_emanuel1What are some lessons learned from branding social movements or advocacy campaigns? Here are three great takeaways that Vikki Spruill, CEO of Council on Foundations, shared, drawing on her 16 year-plus career working on ocean conservation issues.

 Lesson #1: Know what you bring to the party and be honest about it.

When SeaWeb and NRDC launched their “Give Swordfish a Break” campaign, they clearly defined their respective roles and stuck to it. SeaWeb provided the grassroots expertise, NRDC provided the policy expertise and the Wildlife Conservation Society provided the science. Launched in 1998, the campaign was the first large effort if its kind to mobilize chefs and consumers to support stronger fish conservation.  There were lots of moving parts to the campaign–they were asking chefs to sign a pledge, and hotel, cruise lines, grocery stores, airlines to remove swordfish from their menus an dining choices.   But by sticking to their roles, they are were able to accomplish more and not trip over each other.

Lesson #2: You can’t enforce authentic collaboration even when you pay for it.

Vikki was also involved in a campaign to raise awareness that less than 1% of our oceans are fully protected.  “Less than 1%” was a campaign with terrific creative assets and a budget. The problem? They couldn’t get any organizations on the West Coast to join them and collaborate on the campaign. That’s because the organizers weren’t listening–they were using a top-down approach and just served up a campaign without their involvement. The painful lesson? You can’t enforce collaboration–even when you pay for it. The campaign was so ineffective, Vikki gave money back to the funders (which drew some light-hearted gasps from the room).

Lesson #3: If you want collaboration, you have to relinquish (or think differently) about control.

During her tenure as CEO of the Ocean Conservancy (OC), Vikki took a gamble. Ocean Conservancy runs the International Coastal CleanUp (ICC), the world’s largest volunteer effort to clean up waterways and the ocean. Traditionally, the program had been set up in a very controlled way–there were tool kits, lots of rules, etc. They decided to let go, set up loose parameters and bring in other groups. They dropped the OC brand and let others participate.  Over three years, the number of organizations who engaged in the ICC exploded. Now, it’s a movement and revolves around the clean up of our oceans–not solely an OC program.

It’s always refreshing to hear from a leader like Vikki, who’s willing to share some missteps and some bright spots.  It’s lessons like these that will help all of us improve our social impact efforts.

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