Spitfire Strategies

Building a Movement in 2016 — What Works and Why

by Jesse Salazar, The Communications Network Board Vice Chair

(This blog post originally appeared on The Communications Network blog)

A small group of Network members recently gathered for a dinner hosted by Spitfire Strategies and The Communications Network to discuss the changing landscape of organizing movements around social change. The cross-sector group included a variety of communications leaders from foundations, nonprofits, and think tanks who wanted to examine different aspects of using strategy to build movements.

Here are some of my non-exhaustive thoughts on the dinner.


The conversation was framed around three articles that offer different perspectives on the issue.

  • Small Change by Malcolm Gladwell – Expresses concerns about the limitations of movements that are built from social media. Gladwell thinks they don’t get the job done.
  • Social Media Helps Black Lives Matter Fight the Power by Bijan Stephen — Highlights the speed advantage social media provides activists in spreading information and organizing folks quickly. Stephen sees unprecedented ability to build alignment.
  • Understanding New Power by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms — Argues a transition is in place between the opposing forces of old and new power, which is driven by our increasing ability to share and connect with one another. Heimans and Timms view old power as leader-driven and highly structured, while they see new power as “open, participatory, and peer-driven.”


“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.” — Edward R. Murrow


Social media can be a powerful tool to bring people together and empower individuals to take action.

We discussed examples of what we’d consider successful efforts at using social media for significant impact. Two campaigns stood out as examples of social media shifting national discourse:

  • Black Lives Matter – For more on this, view the Stephen’s piece.
  • The Human Rights Campaign’s Equal Sign Facebook Campaign — For more on this, view the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s analysis.

“The tools that we have to organize and to resist are fundamentally different than anything that’s existed before in black struggle.” – DeRay Mckesson of Black Lives Matter

Images and storytelling strengthen the weak ties of social media, so always post with a picture or video. As Stephen points out in the Wired article, the leaders of the mid-century civil rights movements recognized the power of images and video in storytelling. He cites the horrific events of March 7, 1965, when civil rights activists set out to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and were met by violence from police. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday” and television coverage of the events triggered national outrage.

Today’s activists have the power to record everything they see on their phones and share it with the world via YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, or live stream a protest on Periscope, and those are only a few of the platforms available to them at a very low cost.

Remember, you’re trying to create a moral revolution. That’s hard.

During the dinner, I kept blathering on about a book nobody had read, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by K. Anthony Appiah (if you don’t have the appetite for reading it, here’s the NY Times review). In it, moral philosopher Appiah looks at the end of three morally repugnant practices:

  • Dueling among British gentlemen;
  • Foot-binding among the Chinese elite; and
  • Slavery in the British Empire.

He shows how culture sustains practices, even after a moral consensus has been reached about their abhorrence. He looks at the intellectual history of moral revolutions, and I think folks would benefit from examining his writing on the cultural aspects of social change.

I connected this history to our conversation by talking about social media’s role in generating shame, which is a big mover of culture. There’s power to cultural disgust, and it’s an important next step after one wins acknowledgement that a problem exists. For example, gay rights gained momentum as mainstream culture and tastes began to move homophobia from the acceptable to the uncool. Furthermore, after moral and cultural revolution, we need legislative actions to reinforce consensus and taste in law.

Message control is dead. We live in a world where everyone has the ability to voice their thoughts, and everyone can find an audience. If your strategy depends on controlling the message over a long period of time, you may want to think more about channeling energy than controlling the message. The power of your message lies in its ability to motivate people around their core concerns.

There’s a real question about whether or not social media is creating efficiencies for decision makers. Social media is the fastest medium yet, and narratives often get formed in minutes, instead of days or weeks. What does that mean for philanthropy’s work?

We talked about a few important considerations:

  • Tech creates both loose and strong ties
    • We all seemed to disagree with Gladwell’s assertion that ties are loose. Bonds formed over digital channels can be just as strong as those with people you’ve met in person. We can empathize with the experiences of others, and folks can come together and connect in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
  • Activists have more tools than ever, which means that strategy really matters. Campaign design, which can be resource-intensive, is more important than ever.
  • Devoting vast resources to capacity and creating large, sophisticated teams, commercial enterprises are serious about social media. It seems like the social sector hasn’t caught up. Our organizations tend to have small digital teams.
  • Uncertain of how to measure communications activity, many decision makers focus too much on engagement numbers.

Stray Thoughts

  • We see that folks want to share videos more than they want to sign a petition.
  • People will share videos and articles without even watching or reading them.
  • The level of effort put into digital engagement tends to dictate level of campaign success. How much are people willing to do to make their efforts successful?
  • Here are the 5 most popular tweets of all time. Notice anything?
  • This year’s Media Learning Seminar, hosted by the Knight Foundation, highlighted important future trends worth considering. In particular, check out:


  • What did you make of the readings?
  • What have you done that’s worked really well in building social movements?
  • Why do you think contemporary social movements succeed or fail?

“This has been a tremendous eye opener. It shows us how to pull the aspects of communications skills, from the message, to the audience. It forced us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses in an effort to become more strategic in how we prepare our messages and communicate them.”

- Training Participant

Building Movements Through Art, Communication and Advocacy

Claire de Leon

By Claire de Leon

Power is invisible. That’s part of what makes it tricky to dismantle. Audre Lorde asks us, “What are the words you do not yet have?” – a rallying cry to move from silence to speaking the truth of our experiences. For me, art across time and mediums has played a… (read more)

Many of your Black co-workers and friends are not okay right now: Here’s what you can do

Inga Skippings

By Inga Skippings
Chief Engagement Officer

Many of my white friends and colleagues reached out over the past week to check in on me. They saw George Floyd die pinned beneath Minneapolis police officers’ knees and read how the Louisville police used a no-knock warrant to execute Breonna Taylor. They saw Ahmaud Arbery’s killers arrested only… (read more)

In a Time of Scarcity, We Need Narratives of Abundance

Caroline Gasparini

By Caroline Gasparini
Account Coordinator

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, people are feeling a lot of emotions right now, all at once. There is uncertainty in our day-to-day lives, concern over the future and fear for the health, safety and livelihood of our families, friends, neighbors and selves. It’s easy to become overwhelmed… (read more)

Sign up to receive Spitfire Sparks

You’ll receive our latest smarts on the causes you care about and updates on our free tools.