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Why your indie movement has no money, part 1: How do people talk about others who have or accept money?

by | Dec 10, 2021 | Movement Building, Nonprofits

Picture of a lemon, text reads, “ It’s easy to get caught up in a bubble of people who really care about something, and you’re all really committed, you’ll put up with anything for the cause … and you end up putting up with too much.”

So you’re part of a political movement, and you’re learning a lot, doing valuable work, and becoming a more effective advocate. You see others doing the same. 

Maybe you think there should be more resources for all this work.

Now there may really not be any money for it. That’s possible. But maybe it’s something else …

Think back to the last few conversations you heard in your movement spaces about money. (But not the complaints about not having any, set those aside for now.)

What were the conversations last time someone got paid for their work to advance the cause, put out products or services that advanced the cause or a public education effort for it, or put out a fundraiser?

Did anyone accuse them of being greedy, or did someone try to make them feel guilty for not working for free? Were they accused of fraud with no evidence of wrongdoing?

Are there people in your movement space who regularly accuse anyone who disagrees with them of “getting paid,” being mercenaries, or of having prostituted themselves for a reward? 

This can be fairly common political talk, but frequency and volume matter. How common are such criticisms? How are they received or repeated in the community?

If the most prominent people in your community regularly use ‘getting paid’ as an insult and it’s the common sense of your peers that no one should ever have a real job advancing your cause, how is anyone who has money, or who would be able to provide professional services to the cause if they could come up with a salary for it, supposed to feel comfortable supporting your effort?

Sure, sometimes people show up with their hands out in an off-putting way. Or someone can show up new, expecting what seems like a lot, while ignoring the hard work of others. 

But it’s true in any context that sometimes people are going to not act like we think they should, whether from bad intent, or blundering, or through bringing expectations from one situation into another group where those expectations are out of alignment.

What we should really want though, is that our social movements are well managed, successful, accomplish a lot, and most of all, that they’re inviting to people standing on the outside who haven’t decided whether or not they agree with us.

If it seems like a movement requires a vow of poverty in order to achieve moral authority or respect, that’s not going to be appealing to potential supporters. If a space collapses into unhinged accusations and insults whenever someone accomplishes something big, or meets any success in funding their work, why would anyone join that group who doesn’t feel obligated in some way?

For any cause, the number of people who feel obligated to join out of a 100% sense of urgency and commitment to its main goals is always going to be small. 

Creating conditions in a space that are so unpleasant that most people won’t want anything to do with it, where they feel like they have to give up having normal aspirations or opinions, where they feel that they’ll be suspect for doing well in life … you lose what should be that large majority of supporters who somewhat agree with you and might be called on to give a little bit to help the work along. 

It’s the people who support a cause, but don’t want to or can’t live it full time, who tend to provide the bulk of material support. That support might then be available for people who do want to commit 100%, and work to implement the strategies and actions that move a cause forward.

In short, make your movement spaces welcoming, and a conversation space that ordinary people would be comfortable hanging out in. If they aren’t like that, think about why, and what could be done about it, because solving those issues is a necessary precondition to building a new social movement that can succeed.

…but, but, but, you might say, look at all of these more established networks of activism on social media where a lot of people are really nasty but they seem successful anyway? Why’s it different for a movement that’s just starting out?

It’s worth noticing this disconnect, and drawing the right lessons from it. The difference is that when a movement becomes very successful, and gets a lot of followers, money, and popular support, its representatives and supporters can act out with less consequence because they’re acting from a position of power and influence. 

What they’re doing though is burning through the seed corn that previous generations of activists built up by doing the hard work of patiently building support and engaging in public education. If they don’t stop, they’ll eventually burn through the base of support that they built unless they’re forced to change. 

If a cause that’s come to rely on blunt social force falls on hard times, they’re going to have difficulty readjusting and building back, because the people who carry out the work are going to have gotten used to arrogantly imposing their own way on others without having to explain themselves.

With a smaller movement that has less influence, where people can easily avoid dealing with you, people are free to choose to ignore you. And they will.

It’s easy to get caught up in a bubble of people who really care about something, and you’re all really committed, you’ll put up with anything for the cause … and you end up putting up with too much. You end up forgetting how things look to people on the outside, to people who aren’t immersed in knowing all about the One Thing that’s most important to us.

Figure out how to make a movement space more welcoming to a wider range of supporters, while staying true to your goals, of course, and that will do a lot to ensure that when you need to ask for funding to carry the work forward, it might be there.