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.