Measuring Success in Social Movements

On Saturday, I joined the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who joined with the student-led demonstration entitled March for Our Lives. This powerful action was inspired by the bravery of students emerging from the most recent tragic school shooting in the U.S.– at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. While the purpose of this march was focused on reducing gun violence, the focus of this article is to explore the concept of “success” in relation to these social movements.

There is no doubt that we have once again entered into an era in which social movements are beginning to rise. Spurred by the election of Donald J. Trump and the prevalence of social media tools to organize activities, more people have engaged in protest movements over the past. We have seen the rise of the Women’s March, the March for Sciences and dozens of marches and vigils after challenges like the Charlottesville white supremacist rally or the Administration’s actions regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) changes. These build on the longer standing movements like Black Lives Matter.

So, we have seen increased activity and increased media attention toward these movements. On its face, this is a positive increase in engagement in a populace that has been chronically disengaged, but there are two questions that we must consider: 1) Will they create any change that resembles what is desired? and 2) Will this be a sustainable force of just a moment in time?

bWill these social movements create any change that resembles what they desire?b

This is an extremely difficult question to answer for a number of reasons. Social changes take time and often cannot be traced to a single action or activity. Often the change that is sought it effusive and wrapped in complexities that may or may not be fully grasped by the protesters. Herein lies one of the most fundamental issues: Sometimes the goal of the protest is not exactly clear. Large marches like the Women’s March form from a coalition of a number of groups– each with slightly different agendas. While this ersity of perspectives is a strength, it can also threaten to cloud the core message and activities around the event.

So, for those who are looking to organize or participate in a social movement, I’d offer a simple framework to think about, one which we have used countless times in evaluating programs and interventions. This is based on the principles of Results-Based Accountability, which I find to be a very helpful tool in organizing collective thinking and measurement around activities. Read more about RBAa href=”https:clearimpact.comresults-based-accountability” herea.

1. Ask yourselves, “What is the result that we want to see in the world?”

This is an area where most of these movements get it right. It’s somewhat easy to imagine a world with less gun violence, equal rights for women or no shooting of unarmed black men. When worded right, these statements provide a galvanizing and clarifying starting place for any movement. At best, this call to action forms the common agenda that brings ergent participants to the table. Take, for example, the stated mission from March for Our Lives
Not one more. We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make a choice to jump in front of an assault rifle to save the lives of students. We cannot allow one more family to wait for a call or text that never comes. Our children and teachers are dying. We must make it our top priority to save these lives.blockquote
This statement could not be clearer. It galvinizes support around something that almost everyone can agree on. Even better, the organizers went further to identify specific actions they hoped to achieve including the establishment of background checks and banning of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. These are clear intermediate measures that can inspire action.

2. Identify indicators that tell the story

While data are not always possible, it is essential to have an understanding of what the baseline is. “Women are paid on average less than men” There were a href=”https:www.massshootingtracker.orgdata”427 mass shootingsa in the U.S. last year up from 339 in 2013. These trends give us a picture of where we currently stand and, importantly, where we are headed. Are the numbers increasing? Is there progress, but it is moving slowly?

3. Once we have the indicators, we have to ask ourselves a simple question: What will work to “turn the curve” on these indicators?

This language is really essential because we are not always able to ameliorate a problem completely. We won’t always see statistically significant drops or increases in a short term, but we can sometimes slow the growth rate, change the trend. That is significant progress. The “what works” question spurs us to draw on other movements from the past. How were they successful? Where did they fall short? Here is where we define the action that will be taken, noting that this is an iterative and evolving process.

Identifying what will work is part of developing a theory of change for the movement that clearly defines what we expect to happen as a result of our activities. Is our theory of change by having a bunch of folks show up at a place and time will create that change? Is it the hope that it will create media attention that changes public opinion? Or are there specific actions that we hope to inspire– e.g. to have all participants call their congressperson

4. Finally, we need to talk about performance. If we know what we want to do, how do we set in place the measures that will show that we were successful? Again, using the RBA format, we can ask ourselves three basic questions

How much did we do?

This is a domain in which most social movements excel. We count up how many people attended, how many social media shares, number of articles generated, etc. These are all good measures and indicate our chances for success. You can’t after all have much of a social movement with three people. But, it is important to remember that this is not the end game. We must also ask:

How well did we do it?

Was the movement well-organized? Did people have a positive experience? Did it garner the attention that you wanted it to? These are questions that we must ask because they teach us about how the process went and help us learn for the future. We finally have to ask the most important question

Is anyone better off?

This question should logically relate directly to one of the indicators of success identified in step 2 above. If it does not, we need to go back to t he drawing board and adjust our intervention. Let’s say, for example, that our goal is to inspire folks to reach out to their elected representatives in Washington DC– believing that this will help drive legislation on gun control. Great! So, our “better off” measure in this event would be the number of people and the percent of attendees who took that action. The percent is the most important thing because it tells us how efficient our intervention was. If 1,000 people show up and 1 does the desired action– then we weren’t very effective in how we communicated and inspired work– something to learn from and go back to the drawing board. But, if 1,000 people show up and 900 did it, that’s great— our goal then may be to try to replicate this with 10,000 people.

There you have it. Note that this process is designed to evolve over time. It isn’t set it and forget it. At each opportunity, movement leadership should look at the performance data and revise the answers to the question about “what works?” This should be shared widely, not only within the movement, but with others. We need to learn from each others successes and, more importantly, our failures– and understanding the process elements is essential. So, I encourage movement leaders to disseminate their results and deep descriptions of their process. Be transparent and ready to share your lessons with others as we all work to build a better world.

There you have it. Four simple steps to help evaluate the success of social movements.

Questions? Other ideas? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Geographic Social Networks and Surviving the Storm

It began with the zip and flash of the computer powering off. A Nor’easter (or Bomb Cyclone) was making its way up the East Coast and powerful winds were knocking down power lines and poles across the region. What we hoped would be a brief outage turned into multiple hours and as the sun set an entire neighborhood was left in the dark.
And that’s when the magic happened. A network of neighbors began texting one another, checking in to see what assistance might be needed. In the hours that followed, these neighbor-friends found themselves in basements bailing water, troubleshooting downed generators and shoveling driveways not their own.
This community of geographically-situated people (my neighborhood) had the capacity to adapt to a challenging stressor like a power outage based, in part, on the network of social relationships that had been built over time.
Unfortunately, there are many neighborhoods in which this capacity does not exist.

Becoming Impotent

 Since Robert Putnam popularized the term “social capital” with his broad examination of declines in American civic life, we have continued to see societal changes that inhibit the capacity of geographic social connectedness. These barriers include suburban backyards, long commutes driving alone and the ubiquitous smart phone (Putnam blamed the rise of television for much of the decline in social capital over the years– now, we have these televisions in our pockets!). A ton of research has been done to demonstrate this trend, so I’ll just highlight three quick data points here.
  • According to the 2018 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, 30% of Americans commute more than 30 minutes alone each way to work, with 236 US counties in which this is more than 50% of the population
  • In the 2016 General Social Survey, 32% of people reported that they would never spend a social evening with their neighbors.
  • In the Less in Common survey, data show that only 30% of people today say that “most people can be trusted” compared to about 50% in 1970

While this may make us sad from a sense of loss of social connectedness, it has profound impacts on our ability to thrive as a people.

In his 1838 volume, “Democracy in America”, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the necessity of civic associations in American life. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small”. He goes on to contrast the democracy of America with the “aristocratic” societies of Europe at the time.
“In aristocratic societies men have no need to unite to act because they are kept very much together. Each wealthy and powerful citizen in them forms as it were the head of a permanent and obligatory association that is composed of all those he holds in dependence to him, whom he makes cooperate in the execution of his designs. In democratic peoples, on the contrary, all citizens are independent and weak; they can do almost nothing by themselves, and none of them can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They therefore all fall into impotence (emphasis mine) if they do not learn to aid each other freely.”
These geographic social connections it turns out are essential tools for a potent and effective response to daily functioning and a critical resource when things go wrong.
Based on a study that found that 46% of people expected to rely on people in their neighborhoods within 72 hours of a disaster (while that is a significant number, it does indicate that more than half of individuals would not expect to rely on their neighbors–indeed one-third of them don’t even know their neighbors), the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) build a “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” approach to improve emergency response by enhancing geographic social relationships. In developing the National Preparedness Goal,
the Department of Homeland Security defined social connectedness as the “capacity of the community to engage and employ formal and informal social networks to build the overall resilience of the community”. The simple goal is to create “a secure and resilient nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk”
It’s all about how resilient we are– not just as individuals, but as a community.

Community Resilience and the Power of Weak Ties

The RAND Corporation has defined this community resilience as “a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations”. In a systematic literature review, Patel and colleagues identified three type of definitions of community resilience. Some definitions emphasize process e.g. Norris et al.’s definition  as a “process linking a set of networked adaptive capacities to a positive trajectory of functioning and adaptation in constituent populations after a disturbance”. Other definitions focus more of a set of attributes or abilities in a community (e.g. social support network structures) or an outcome focus resorting to the absence of adverse adaptation– in other words, nothing went too horribly.
Despite which viewpoint is taken from a definitional perspective, the emphasis here is on the creation of capacity. RAND identified three different types: 1) absorption capacity (How big of a stressor can the community resist and maintain the same level of function?), 2) adaptive capacity (How adept is the system at adapting to stressors while still functioning?) and 3) restorative capacity (How quickly can the system get back to normal after a shock?). While there are a number of attributes that contribute to the creation of this capacity (certainly socioeconomic factors play a tremendous role for example), the quality of geographic social networks is key in determining how much we can take and keep going, or how quickly we can rebound.
So, knowing your neighbors may be an attribute that promotes community resilience, but what is special about those relationships? To answer this, I’ll briefly return to social capital theory in which much has been discussed about strong versus weak ties. Strong ties are closely associated with bonding social capital. They involve shared experiences, mutual affiliation and identification and what most of us would describe as friendship. While it is certainly nice to have those type of relationships in a neighborhood where you might attend dinner parties together or go on outings, that may not be feasible or desirable for everyone. After all, strong ties take time, investment and emotional capacity–and we only have so much of that to spread around.
But, it is the second type of tie — the weak tie– that may hold the most promise. Weak ties are associated with bridging social capital. We aren’t best buddies, but we have access to that person or group as a resource when needed. Weak ties take little time and energy to maintain, but can be especially effective in connecting to another set of resources. Imagine that you have a weak tie with your neighbor on one side of your property who has a connection into a good plumber. By having this tie, you now have access to a network that you may not have had without it. And neighborhoods are great places to form weak ties.

Tools to Build Your Community Resilience

So, how do you get started? You can (and probably should) march down your block and introduce yourself (maybe with cookies!). Beyond that, there are so many ideas and opportunities. Watch this space on a regular basis for ideas, stories and research on how to promote community well-being and resilience.
Here a couple awesome tools that you can use to get you started:
1. Digest and share a toolkit. 
RAND has released a really cool “Learn and Tell Toolkit” where you can get more information about community resilience and some scripts to follow to communicate this with others.
Similarly, the Los Angeles County Community Disaster Resilience Project (LACCDR), produced a Resilience Builder that gives information that is easy to put into action.
2. Sign up for Nextdoor.
In the age of social media, Nextdoor is a geographic-based tool to help neighbors connect around local issues with a mission to “provide a trusted platform where neighbors work together to build stronger, safer, happier communities, all over the world” Think of it as your Facebook without all your family and friends from around the world and focused on local action. It can be used to find recommendations for services, share information or, as we’re discussing here, help people navigate challenging situations from a string of robberies to a hurricane. As of mid-2017, Nextdoor is in 145,000 U.S. neighborhoods . Find out how you can join your neighborhood or start it at