What Really Motivates People To Rally Behind A Cause

Everyone wants their startup or project to turn into a worldwide viral sensation, but it rarely happens by accident.

What Really Motivates People To Rally Behind A Cause
Photo: Flickr user Anuj Biyani]

From politicians to brands to nonprofits, creating a movement is considered the holy grail of engagement.


A movement drives awareness, buzz, and action, seemingly sweeping up everyone in its path. Its origin can be orchestrated or organic. Its demise can be sudden or slow. And, it often inspires imitations. To create one, it’s important to understand the mechanics and the larger role human behavior plays in why some succeed while others fail.

It starts with the question: Why do people join movements?

They Crave Community.

This is the charge most campaigns start with: Let’s get people to join our community! If only it were as simple as that infamous Field of Dreams mantra. While a tagline, an online petition or pledge, and some swag will attract a few faithful followers, movements need more.

What does your movement stand for at a higher level? Is it something people can get passionate about on a deeply personal level? For the Obama 2008 campaign it was Hope. And, importantly, not just hope embodied in the man himself, but the larger hope that average people really did have the power to affect change through their actions. With the Livestrong initiative it was the will to survive and thrive in the face of overwhelming challenge, which resonated far beyond those living with cancer into a mindset that people from a range of backgrounds and interests share.

In an interview with Sarder TV, Russell Stevens, a former partner at SS&K (the agency behind both the Livestrong and Obama 2008 campaigns) noted that people join social movements to be a part of a community, connected to something larger than themselves. Social media has accelerated the creation of these communities but he cautions that it’s critical to not solely rely on social to be the glue that sustains a movement but give people real-world opportunities to connect as well.

They Want To Do Something.

Movements require action and many aspiring ones miss the mark by either asking too much or making the action so generic it becomes meaningless. The standard defaults for political or nonprofit campaigns are to sign a petition, volunteer, or send money. Each is critical to sustaining important work but all are easily put off or ignored and can be off-putting to people new to the mission.


To be more strategic, pair that ask with something specific that people can rally behind and become part of the story. Gregory Castle, one of the founders of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary recently participated in the grueling Grand to Grand Ultra, a 170-mile race, as its oldest participant at 72. The nonprofit wisely embarked on a fundraising campaign around Castle’s endeavor. Those who donated $100 or more got their name on the back of his shirt. Stories on his training and updates on his progress kept people connected to the campaign. Ultimately $192,000 was raised for the Sanctuary, exceeding Castle’s $1,000 per mile goal. The fundraisers at Best Friends are masters of re-engaging their supporters and attracting new ones by building mini-movements around smaller campaigns that are clear, specific and results-oriented.

They want to know what’s in it for them.

This is the part no one likes to talk about. We prefer to think people will support our movement because it’s compelling, important and the right thing to do. For some, that is motivation in itself. But it is rarely enough to make a movement truly take off.

While there are passionate followers for almost every campaign out there, there is an even larger group who moves back and forth between them. These people don’t feel that hard-core connection to the cause but could be compelled to join if the message is right. Politicians call them swing voters. How do you engage them when your base message isn’t enough?

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) did something brilliant with Team in Training, which was initially conceived in 1988 by Bruce Cleland who wanted to honor his daughter Georgia, a leukemia survivor. The organization figured out that there were a lot of people who were interested in endurance events, such as marathons and triathlons, but had no clue how to prepare for them. These were also people who, when they learned about the larger cause, were happy to reach out to friends and family to raise money for it, even if they knew no one personally who suffered from these diseases.


The training vs. the cause itself was the way in. Some become passionately connected to the cause itself, while for others the training and access to top races remains their main motivator. Regardless, LLS still benefits and it has raised over a billion dollars since the program’s inception. Of course there are many fundraising events associated with physical activity, but Team in Training connected their ask to a valuable give–coaching and training, travel/lodging for the race and the accomplishment of a personal goal–that draws in returning and new supporters every year across a growing range of endurance events.

They want to make a personal statement.

Whether wearing the (once) iconic Livestrong bracelet, being filmed while doused by an ice-cold bucket of water or getting decked out in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness month, people value non-verbal symbols that associate them with a larger movement or community. More than status symbols, they convey a value system to the outside world. How deeply each person is connected to the cause is as varied as the people themselves. This visual currency, when executed well, is both a powerful motivator and awareness driver. Of course recycling bins and second hand stores are littered with failed attempts at the next yellow bracelet so execution, as always, is everything.

Much has been written about the Ice Bucket Challenge and how authentic it was at raising awearness for ALS. From a fundraising standpoint it seemed to be quite effective, at least in the short-term, raising $115 million to date, though the question remains if the charity will be able to turn the moment into a movement now that so many have done it and the novelty has worn off. What is their Ice Bucket Challenge 2.0? How authentically the participants felt connected to ALS is not the most important piece to be examined in understanding why the challenge went viral like it did.

The insight is that people want to be part of a community and spotlight themselves as individuals at the same time. The organization that creates a platform that effectively harnesses both is sure to have the next movement on their hands.


Gabrey Means and Cassie Hughes are the co-founders of Grow Marketing, an engagement marketing, social media and publicity shop in San Francisco. Means serves as the creative director and Hughes is the strategy director.