Social Work, Social Innovation, Social Impact, Social Media?

“In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.”

Confession: I’m a complete sucker for signs and synchronicities. If I’m about to dive into the day after morning catch-ups and I happen to notice that the time is 11:11, I get a huge dose of energy to tackle misbehaving ad platforms, cranky gadgets, escalation calls + anything else that gets thrown at me throughout the day like it’s nothing. Not backed by proof or data, but good for me if it keeps me in great spirits!

It’s not a coincidence that the word Social is a common factor between all kinds of social organisations and the relatively new phenomenon called social media, which is now the biggest Social of them all.

My serendipity-loving self is convinced this is the universe conspiring for millennia – since the days before the evolution of language to deliver this synchronicity into our laps – social organisations + social media = 1000x the impact! It’s meant to be!

Ok, I suppose this is bordering on lunacy now. But the lunacy is not without reason.

I picked up the habit of playing Wordle just before going to sleep. After you crack every word, comes an ad, and invariably the ad is from a social charity crowdfunding platform asking for help and donation to save a dying child with a rare disease. The child looks sick, plugged into various devices, no energy to even cry, and the parents would be crying and asking for help to save the child. They aren’t able to afford the medicine/surgery that costs anywhere between Rs. 10 lakhs to Rs. 10 crores. There is nobody to help them – not the government, not the ultra-rich hospitals, not the Pharma company that makes their medicines unaffordable for the poor, not CSR initiatives of MNCs – except the organization seeking help and citizens whose kindness must be relied on to save the child.

Immediately after I make one donation I will see a new ad with a different kid asking for a different donation. And then another. And so on. Exhausted, saddened and feeling helpless, I fall into a disturbed and nightmarish sleep. At least I get to sleep unlike the millions (or is it billions?) of suffering, undernourished, exploited, tortured people.

The next morning, I scroll through social media for work or pleasure and there they are again. This time it’s a global charity fund asking to donate for people dying of starvation in Yemen. Sometimes a senior official of the organization makes the plea. Sometimes celebrities. The children will die without every penny everyone can spare. The comments on these ads are part prayers, part donations, part accusations of greedy irresponsible social organisations and governments, part asking what about the billions of dollars donated by one of those philanthropists?

I read through all that, go to the organisation’s website, get more info, and end up again feeling helpless and angry about an unjust world. Why should we do anything at all in a world where people are dying of hunger or can’t get access to basic healthcare? Despite scores of government programs and initiatives focusing on upliftment of the poor and the helpless.

At some point I head to Linkedin. A gyan, a joke, a heart-touching copy-paste story and an influencer later comes the story of a rescue mission. An organization or an unaffiliated citizen rescuing girls aged 2-16 years old from a brothel or a human trafficking organization. The wounds on the 2 year old baby are blood chilling. Literally I freeze. I don’t want to do anything for the rest of the day.

I open my email. The Economist daily newsletter says The UN takes on corporate greenwashing. Slightly more bearable and less cause for immediate debilitating despair. Ironically, this is the precise reason why people don’t need to care about climate change. Nobody is dying of it right now in front of my eyes.

“The UN has no authority to enforce any of the recommendations. The idea that increased scrutiny will inevitably lead to better behaviour remains untested. It is all too easy to imagine that it might instead lead to what you might call green-hushing. A survey of some 1,200 big firms in 12 countries by South Pole, a climate consultancy, found that a quarter have set themselves stringent emission-reduction targets but do not intend to publicise them. Some companies are staying quiet to avoid attracting the ire of conservative politicians in places such as Texas, who decry “woke” corporations. Others, particularly in progressive redoubts like Europe, fear activist ire for not meeting targets quickly enough.”

Wait a minute. The UN has no authority? How can that be!!!???

There must be something it can do, right? Something all these big social organisations can do staying within their strict protocols and rules of governance and what they do have the authority to make happen?

To be honest, I have done very little social work/volunteering in college and early in my career and then stopped doing anything except my full-time job, and eventually developed physical inabilities and have never gone back to it. That’s not a good enough excuse to not do more.

Q: How can the millions of people like me who care get involved?

A: Social organisations need to get more social.

Social media is not just a platform to ask people to donate.

Donating is not the only thing people can or want to do. On the websites of social organisations, there is no link to go and apply for volunteering. Some sites have volunteering opportunities for specific programs in certain geographies for a period of a few weeks. But nothing where the power of the collective can be harnessed to make something happen.

Political parties, religions, corporations and even influencers can move mountains through people who follow them. People get cancelled, brands get boycotted, unethical CEOs or politicians get called out, questioned and brought to accountability on and through social media.

Recently, after Season 1 of The Sandman aired on Netflix, within a week I saw a lot of people asking Neil Gaiman and Netflix on twitter when Season 2 was going to be announced. Then Neil said, just because the show was #1 it doesn’t mean there will be a Season 2 by default. Fans need to get more people to watch. Netflix needs to know people care and it makes sense to continue investing in this franchise.

All hell broke loose. There were fans demanding, crying, asking for justice, threatening to boycott Netflix, adding #RenewSandman to their name and all the tweets they made. Nearly 2 months of relentless activism later, Netflix announced Season 2. Fans were victorious. The general sentiment was one of “We did it!”

I don’t know if Netflix gave in to pressure or saw the overwhelming love of the fandom or were always planning on a renewal delayed for certain considerations. But I was mightily impressed by how the community came together as one, did everything they could, never gave up hope and eventually got what they wanted. The fact that the author is super active on social media helped.

Something for social organisations to think about and learn from. This is only a small example from a world where Black Lives Matter and the Ice Bucket Challenge originated or gathered traction via social media. Most of these appeared and gathered momentum on their own or led by individuals rather than organisations. If social organisations need proof of concept to shift their focus, energy and investment to social media and massive community building, we have loads of it. All we need now is for the social impact organisations of the world to adopt new strategies for how to drive mass action and reach collective goals together.

“In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible. This is good news for those of us intent on changing the world and creating a positive future. Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections. We don’t need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits. Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage, and commitment that lead to broad-based change.”

By Meenu Susanna

Meenu is the founder of L-m-n-tree Strategy and Marketing, a brand consultancy that works with companies that do meaningful work, impacts society, solves the pressing problems of today and helps build a better world. She’s worked for 20 years in advertising, marketing and business strategy consulting for diverse local and global brands. She believes in the power of marketing and technology to do more than “sell”, “scale” and create “shareholder value”, and hopes to make a difference by changing how we look at the foundations, business purpose, growth metrics and value.

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