So, You Want to Start a Movement?

Five Lessons from 10 Years on the Frontlines

Why It Matters

Movements are demonstrating a well-deserved place in creating change. The next decade of social impact will consist of countless micro-movements. Knowing what makes them tick can give you insights to mobilize people for causes you care about.

It was July 2008. I was in my final year as a student at Wilfrid Laurier University, studying business and computer electronics.

While a job at big tech company seemed like the natural next step, I had just read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, a book that had me grappling with how recently humans had begun to live at odds with every other living species on this planet, and how drastically our economic system would need to change if we were to find a way to live sustainably on this planet.

The book made me mad, and it inspired me.

By then, there had been almost 20 years of stalled international negotiations on climate action.

While frustrated and discouraged by the lack of action by countries and governments, I aspired that my community could take action—that businesses could show leadership and that we could inspire others with our progress.

And so that year, some friends and I started Sustainable Waterloo Region, and piloted the first Green Economy Hub.

Today, there are now seven Green Economy Hubs across Ontario working with more than 250 businesses to set and achieve sustainability goals.

Businesses in hubs have collectively committed to reduce 102,874 tonnes of greenhouse gases, with 59,105 tonnes already reduced.

Across the hubs, people from all walks of life have come together, rallied around shared goals, and changed the conversation around climate action in their communities.

Looking back now 10 years on, we certainly have made some progress—maybe improbably so—and with the benefit of time and reflection, here are five of key learnings from that journey for anyone looking to mobilize support for change in your community, whether you’re using the language of a social enterprise, a system change, or a social innovation:

Credit: EY Canada

Audacity & Planning: Go Big and Ground It in Reality

Audacity needs to be coupled with solid planning. For me, this grounding was our business plan: it was researched and realistic. It showed the financial viability of that first hub. From many of our first members and sponsors, I have heard time and again: it was our energy that got their attention, and it was our business plan that secured their investment.

Know When to Stop Pitching and Start Doing

I almost gave up after dozens of pitches had rendered little to no initial seed funding in 2008. Our turning point came as a result of using just a couple thousand dollars to host our first event; this showed all the people we had pitched to the momentum that had already begun to build. And it was from this first event that the media attention, sponsor commitments, and volunteer offers, all began to roll in.

Prioritize Empathy Over Assertiveness

Empathy has always been a far greater asset: because whatever movement you’re building, the crux of your success will be centred on the wins you can create. Can you show a wide diversity of people how they will benefit by being a part of something bigger, and in turn, how the movement will benefit from their contribution? For us, giving any interested supporter a menu of options to choose how they could participate is what ensured everyone felt part of our movement. Last year our annual report, no coincidence, was titled: You Belong Here.

Passion is Your Renewable Energy

I received a lot of no’s—74 in a row to be exact. What kept me going?

I believed then, as I do now, that humanity is at a tipping point. And I believed in this movement I aspired for—that it could contribute to the solution. I was renewed each day with my passion for taking action on climate change. Years later, I would hear time and again: this passion didn’t just keep me going, but was a big part of the “energy” that drew others into the movement as well.

Make Space for Serendipity and Ride the Wave of Opportunity

As a movement grows, it can be tempting to focus on the short-term wins; to say no to opportunities that may be perceived as frivolous. My advice is to fight this urge and look for serendipity that can lead to waves of opportunity. One example: A few months ago I was invited to speak to an audience of mining executives, without any clear connection to Green Economy Hubs. To my surprise, among the attendees, was a representative from a social innovation team in the federal government (I didn’t even know there was such a team, until that very moment). That connection, over several months of conversation, led to our very first bit of funding to take Green Economy Hubs across the country. Serendipity.