Derrick Feldmann, Researcher, Author, Advisor
Derrick Feldmann is a sought-after speaker, researcher, and advisor for causes and companies on social movements and issue engagement. He regularly speaks at events and organizations throughout the country and around the world on how causes and companies can drive public interest in social change. He is the author on two books, Social Movements For Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change and Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement. A third, The Corporate Social Mind, will publish in early 2020.
In 2018, Feldmann created the Cause & Social Influence initiative to probe the influences and approaches that drive Americans 18-30 to engage in social movements, as well as the Influence Nation Summit to bring thought leaders and on-the-ground activists together.
Feldmann has been recognized as a leading researcher in cause engagement for more than a decade. His work is regularly cited by such outlets as Forbes, Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal and as a reliable source of data on today’s cause engagement. In 2018, he led the research team for Influencing Young America to Act, a study of how young adults are influenced by and influence others to support social movements. During the prior ten years, he led the research team for the Millennial Impact Project, producing the comprehensive Millennial Impact Reports on how the generation has engaged with causes from varying perspectives. His next project is an intergenerational study with millennials and gen z.
Feldmann is on the Leadership Faculty of the Points of Light Corporate Institute, and a member of the advisory boards of the Ad Council and Truth Initiative. He is a guest lecturer for the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and on the board of visitors for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Building an engaging social movement for good, Season 6, Episode 6
Bringing generations together for positive social change
Derrick Feldmann, millennial and cause influence researcher and author, discusses how to engage in a social movement for good. Many are belongers in social causes. The goal is to move people from belongers to believers. Leaders design social movements where believers can self-organize and engage others to gain momentum and social change. Business leaders can build community with millennials, gen Z, and across generations, a necessary leadership skill in today’s social cause orientation.
Listen to more: Activate World
Building an engaging social movement for good
Derrick Feldmann, Researcher, Author, Advisor
Jon Mertz: 00:02 Welcome to the Activate World Podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought.
Jon Mertz: 00:20 Today we’re joined by Derrick Feldmann who’s involved in millennial and influence research and is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change. He created the Cause and Social Influence Initiative to examine what drives Americans 18 to 30 years old to engage in social movements. He also created the Influence Nation Summit to bring thought leaders and on the ground activists together. Derrick, welcome to Activate World.
Derrick Feldmann: 00:44 Yes. Hey Jon, nice to be here.
Jon Mertz: 00:46 Well, I’m looking forward to our conversation but before we dive in tell us about your work and what led you to pursue your research conferences and other interests.
Derrick Feldmann: 00:55 My career and interest in young people’s social issues really began out of work I was doing in graduate school for an organization called Learning to Give, which was primarily a Kellogg’s [inaudible 00:00:01:07], very big funders coming together to try to inspire philanthropic education in classrooms across the country. What was fascinating about that initiative, although it was K-12 focused, it started to use things like technology, started to use other elements to try to help teachers embed the philanthropic notion and idea into their existing curriculums, and very, very successful as well.
Derrick Feldmann: 01:33 When I was there and I was ready to move on, I’d been there for about seven years, I looked at … I was sad and had a little bit of retrospective as to where do I want to go and do. I didn’t start it to what job do I want to have but rather what interests me most in terms of inquiry and knowledge and that led me to remain focused on research. From there, started a firm and we developed the Millennial Impact Project in partnership with the Case Foundation; Jean Case and her team there who have been incredibly supportive through the years with that initiative and really led and drove, really took a big bat, to be quite honest, on research for a decade and that’s something that is not necessarily everybody’s jumping to do.
Derrick Feldmann: 02:22 That led to a couple books, that led to a couple other interesting things along the path, and obviously we’re on a new trajectory given now more than a decade but it really all started from a long time ago trying to help young people in the K-12 systems understand philanthropy education in the classroom.
Jon Mertz: 02:39 Through your research over the years, what have you learned about this new generation and what has surprised you?
Derrick Feldmann: 02:45 When we started, a lot of the social platforms were either new or they didn’t exist and so just imagine researching while a generation’s coming of age and using these technologies and really trying to flex the use of how they could be impactful for social issues. That in and of itself was both an interesting time and one that we were always saying to ourselves, “Is social media going to be the thing that really drives social issue action?”
Derrick Feldmann: 03:14 What I would say is that it definitely supports and it definitely contributes but in and of itself it isn’t the only thing. You still have to work with an individual to help them understand what it is about an issue that requires their engagement and so watching that happen over a decade was fascinating. I think the other thing that also happened, and this just occurred, quite honestly, because there were new things that were invented in that decade that allowed people like you and me to come as close as possible to support a beneficiary without a cause, without an organization.
Derrick Feldmann: 03:50 Technology’s enabled you to give to somebody who had cancer and just give directly without going through the American Cancer Society or anything else and a decade before that that never existed. We saw the rise of issue focus rather than organization focus by the generation too. I think one of the last things that I would say is that we always have to remember that every single person, including young people, believe that they have assets that are valuable that can contribute to an issue or to a movement.
Derrick Feldmann: 04:21 A lot of people focus on one asset which is finances and the financial part of the world or someone’s volunteer time. What was fascinating to see is the movement not necessarily away from giving but rather a supportive mentality that young people truly support issues and they do that through multiple means. Sometimes the most important thing that they have, which they also believe creates the most change, is using their voice on an issue, whether that be digital or at the ballot box or anywhere else.
Jon Mertz: 04:49 How can organizations craft a compelling mission that would get this generation more engaged in an authentic way?
Derrick Feldmann: 04:55 There’s a consequence sometimes of trying to be too buttoned up, which makes it feel inauthentic. I was just with a very large national organization that I work with and they showed me some incredible creative that was going to try to drive people to go to the biggest march that they had planned. I looked at it and I said, “It doesn’t feel like the movement’s asking the movement but rather you are.” It’s off. It felt like some people sat in a conference room and reviewed something and asked everybody in the real world to do something and we do that all of the time.
Derrick Feldmann: 05:28 When you’re dealing in the social issue space, which is a space of passion and empathy, complete drive for issues, and a place where you won’t see change tomorrow but you … Sometimes, but you drive for it constantly, you need it to feel very real. You need that to come from the people that are fighting alongside you every single day, not just an entity that has a wonderful address in a big city.
Derrick Feldmann: 05:52 I think one of the things that millennials and gen Z have done, I think, wonderfully, is force better communication to get involved in social issues and make causes not work harder but work better towards not only helping them understand how their actions result in some sort of difference but, more importantly, why I’m needed to be a part of the movement.
Jon Mertz: 06:12 I know through your research you found that 86% of millennials believe their actions can impact the world, which is a great stat. How can that mindset be sustained over the long-term?
Derrick Feldmann: 06:21 We all want to feel like we’re contributing something to some sort of cause, that the world is just a small, just a little better because of that participation in some way. Really what we have set up though is a challenge in the way that we communicate that out. One of the things we did, and I’m forgetting which years, probably four or five years ago, when we were trying to understand the young person’s view on impact what we discovered is they didn’t believe that their $20 gift was going to save the world completely. They didn’t believe that an action necessarily was going to mean a policy change occur tomorrow. What they did believe is, is that if you are going to use something or if I do contribute something, time, money, skill, talent, and voice, that the world is not necessarily changed but there’s some benefit that the issue has received from it.
Derrick Feldmann: 07:09 What we discovered is, is that organizations should be working for more milestones on our social issues and help people, primarily young people as well, understand how my actions contribute to the next short-term milestone and what we have to achieve.
Derrick Feldmann: 07:23 Some of our issues will take years to work on and some of them will take decades potentially to solve as we go through cultural, social, and political change alongside our social issue change. Because of that, we have to help people in the movement understand the next milestones where their actions are imperative and report back to them.
Jon Mertz: 07:43 Let’s dive into a little bit more about movements. How do movements begin?
Derrick Feldmann: 07:47 We are all empathetic people, we are all driven to try to help someone. That’s a response, it’s an emotional reaction that we have to things, it’s embedded within every human being. Sometimes some people may argue there’s not too many empathetic people but we do have that within us as human being. When you or I hear something about an issue or a population, our brain reacts in a way that our brain reacts to many things. Our brain reacts in a way that starts from this sense of saying, “You should do something.” It triggers that empathetic emotional response.
Derrick Feldmann: 08:27 Then after you hear that response in your head, you’re like, “You’re right, I should, it’s time I should do something.” Then there’s something else that follows that, and that something else that follows it is something that relates to something that we deal with every single day which, quite honestly, is the path of least resistance. Our brain is an economic system always working to try to do the least to get the most out of it.
Derrick Feldmann: 08:52 The brain isn’t saying, “I need to go out and become a monthly donor, I need to volunteer and do 20 hours.” What the brain is saying is, “You should go do something but you don’t necessarily need to go too far.” Least amount of effort to get the most impact, so which is why we see young people joining in on social media and raising their hands and saying, “Yeah, this is an issue that’s important and me displaying myself out in the social platform is a way of myself and in my head saying that I’m at least doing something and showing support for it and at least showing a couple other people that I care.
Derrick Feldmann: 09:25 That’s why you get things like small donations, small actions, micro-actions. Some look at that negatively and use the terms like slacktivism and so forth but that’s exactly how we are wired, we are wired to take these small actions first. Then, once I do that individually there’s something else that happens in our head. We are human beings and we’re socially connected. We tend to look around after we raise our hand to see if anybody else raised their hand too.
Derrick Feldmann: 09:51 As much as we are individuals, we even start to look at the crowd from there. What we find is I need to be around others that believe like me. It feels comforting, it feels good, and it feels like there’s other people besides myself. After that happens, I then want to continue to act. I need to reinforce this issue in my head, continue to do small actions and also to contribute to dialog in some way amongst NIO networks, whether online or in person.
Derrick Feldmann: 10:23 Then, some of us will take the bigger step of showing our support by going out for a march or going out for a rally or going out for something else and some will even organize for those, but essentially that kicks us off.
Jon Mertz: 10:36 You’ve alluded to the idea that there’s a difference between being a belonger and a believer. How do you distinguish between the two?
Derrick Feldmann: 10:42 The challenge of being a belonger is sometimes we do that just because it feels good in that moment. I always look at the believers, and one way to look at who really believes in the issue is, after the moment is gone what do you have left? We’re always trying to get people to move beyond the belonging state to make it more internalized of an issue, that they continually contribute and support in many different ways. It’s a hard thing because that requires digital effective communication, helping the individual see why they matter in not only society but also in the social issue, communicating those milestones and so forth.
Derrick Feldmann: 11:17 There’s a lot of belongers, it’s easy to belong today, we have tools that make that so simple. It’s even harder to actually believe at times because another issue or another moment will bring us to something else to belong to. How do we show companionship in the movement together, how do you bring more than the organization’s brand and name to something but rather the people behind it? That’s what builds the believing state, that’s what builds the affinity, loyalty to the issues as well, and that’s where we should honestly go.
Jon Mertz: 11:50 If you really want a successful social movement, thinking about it in terms of a marketing campaign is probably not the right approach. Right?
Derrick Feldmann: 11:57 Sometimes movement leaders become really good policy change experts and forget the movement and either figure out other ways or try to bring it along over time but usually the movement started first and all the other elements came out of it as well. It was the movement that brought everybody together, got excitements and so on. I think one of the things, as we look at it overall, is that as an individual moves from a state of saying I care and I want to support, it’s I need to now be a part of something bigger and I need that companionship in that movement.
Derrick Feldmann: 12:35 We can’t ignore that because the moment we need them all to fight for something because by five o’clock we got to have something happen, and the court case is going and doing whatever it is, you’re going to need them people to back you up for sure.
Jon Mertz: 12:48 What’s an example of a social movement that has successfully gotten people engaged and become believers?
Derrick Feldmann: 12:53 I would look at Surfrider Foundation’s movement, has been very successful in bringing all the way down to the community level what they’re working on. What I think is really exciting about them is they work from a grassroots up approach and support it from that perspective. They’ve got things like … They do have some really good communication but if you look at the way that they communicate out it isn’t so much the beautiful design or anything else, it’s the way that they talk to them and say, “The ocean is our playground, it’s the place where we all enjoy. When it’s at risk, you and us will come together to make it change.”
Derrick Feldmann: 13:29 That’s a narrative that you don’t see in the environmental place at times, you see it more about policy and all the other things. That’s not their focus, per se, all the time and they do a nice effective job by empowering the individual within the movement. If you also look at other movements at times such as even your Sunrise movement or even the end family separation or keep families together movement, all of those are about helping people have conversations.
Derrick Feldmann: 13:58 We’re giving toolkits and resources to people on the ground that are craving for, “How do I talk to my friends about this? How do I open up with it?” Or even the ad council who does a movement around seize the awkward in mental health, trying to get young people to have conversations with fellow young people. Well, what do you provide to them? You give them as many resources as possible to be successful on their own.
Derrick Feldmann: 14:19 If we move, we can help support and lift up the movement. We can’t always direct it and that is really key, and so what tools and resources are we going to provide for people that care so much to do the movement as well? If you look at Charity Water’s success and the fundraising side, they were successful because they capitalize on a thing called birthdays. Obviously, we all have one and they capitalized on a DIY model, a self-organized model to allow anybody to go out, seek support, carry on the name and all of that.
Derrick Feldmann: 14:49 That was built in from that model and that’s a grassroots movement style approach to it. It wasn’t we can’t buy our way into all of this if we don’t have the people on the ground that are doing it for us.
Jon Mertz: 15:00 What are some of the characteristics that are going to be necessary for people to ignite that in a successful way?
Derrick Feldmann: 15:06 Yeah, yeah. Well, I think that if you are a movement leader today, there’s two people that I would surround myself with, one that helps focus on the policy side, focuses on the programmatic side, those things. The other side is movement development. Maintaining engagement within the movement is clear. Now, most of the time I see it on the other side but I’d like to see it on the other piece where the movement is as valuable as the change that we’re going out to try to make with our legislatives or policy in general.
Derrick Feldmann: 15:42 The way to do that, the way is, is communicating all the way down to the ground and ensuring that we have people that understand the movement and what milestones we’re working on. The most successful movements occur because from the top all the way down everybody knows exactly what they’re fighting for next. Now, not just we’re going to end poverty or homelessness tomorrow but what are we doing in this next six months. The trail of communication all the way down to the ground is clear, it’s definitive, and we understand how we are going to empower the individual to see themselves in that. That is the key to most of the success.
Derrick Feldmann: 16:24 Where I usually find is sometimes that leadership holds that rather than bringing it all the way down, nobody knows what the next milestone really is because it’s kept towards the top because they might be working behind the scenes, which occurs in some issues and it’s necessary. Rather, the way that we connect in our movement is bringing it all the way down and letting everybody feel like we’re in lock step towards that next movement in milestone.
Jon Mertz: 16:48 It seems like there’s a lot of conversations around social capital or social currency. What role does that play within movements and how often should a leader be thinking about that?
Derrick Feldmann: 16:58 All the time. If you look at, and this is where somebody would say to me … I remember in our early days of the Millennial Impact Project, the conversations would go a couple different ways to the years. In the first year that we launched it was, “Oh great, we’re not going to focus on millennials.” Then, the next couple years was, “All right, they’re going to be here.” Then it kind of got into, “Our focus is on just raising dollars from older people.” Then it became, “All right, millennials are here now, they’re older, they have jobs so now we’re going to reengage and try to figure it out.”
Derrick Feldmann: 17:30 We said from day one, there isn’t a movement in the country that doesn’t need people behind it because any leader that goes into any big stakeholder meeting needs to be able to say they have a community of people that believe in the same thing as well. Especially those organizations that have government funding or anything else that are trying to advocate and lobby for something … I’ll use the word advocate rather than lobby, but advocate for certain funding or trying to apply, they need it even further.
Derrick Feldmann: 18:03 Those that have remained focused on the major donors, this high level stakeholders, it isn’t so much about the transfer of wealth, it’s much more around the community that believes in this issue that shows support more publicly, which fuels the stakeholders that give at the highest levels as well.
Derrick Feldmann: 18:21 You need a movement of people because it does many things for you, reinforces the belief among the public that people are behind this issue and approach. It reinvigorates and invigorates those that already support you to maintain that support, brings that into a conversation with the government official and others that the public has this perception or viewpoint on this social issue as well. Without that social capital weaving that together, you can’t use this and leverage that asset when you go and when you really need it the most.
Jon Mertz: 18:54 As we wrap up, what’s your best advice for business leaders as influencers in this new world of social movements?
Derrick Feldmann: 19:00 My next book comes out in next Spring and it will be, it’s called the Corporate Social Mind that addresses this big question, because I’ve looked from the perspective of young people. Specifically, my recommendation is that companies need to take a social mindset to their actions, and that companies do that in the decisions that are made, and that community is at the table alongside with every … I mean community broadly with social issues and other things that are brought to the table and decisions are made to the public and consumers.
Derrick Feldmann: 19:35 More importantly is that companies can be leaders and they can be at the table. I think that’s sometimes hard and those are two different roles that companies can take. You can lead on social issues and maintain that and, quite honestly, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can take that leadership role and maintain that and be successful long-term with it, and those that have maintained their social issue interests have been very successful.
Derrick Feldmann: 20:02 Let’s take a look at Levi’s in social justice, the remarkable work through the many years that they have done this. When I look at it, they’re not only a leader, they practice it in their business operations. They invest in social justice leaders, they stand up for social justice issues, they leverage their platforms on social and digital, their in-store environments as well. Each of those are clear opportunities to really engage.
Derrick Feldmann: 20:31 The last thing that I would say is that on the other side of it is, it may not be the issue focused on but you should be at the table because the people that buy your products, the consumers that engage on other issues in and around your places or your vendors and so on, they’re dealing with these issues. Showing your support by just being at your table sometimes is needed and sometimes is really important rather than just giving a ton of dollars to something.
Derrick Feldmann: 21:01 Quite honestly, corporations have got wonderful platforms to use and show them being at the table can send a very big signal in support of certain things as well. I think it’s great that companies are starting to look at how their role in social issue engagement is key and hopefully that will continue.
Jon Mertz: 21:22 Final question. What excites you most about social trends ahead?
Derrick Feldmann: 21:25 I’m waiting for the next technology that will make it faster and better. Whether that’s organizing or whatever, it’s always intriguing. I get a lot of those calls from somebody who’s developing something that wants me to take a look at it. I actually gladly take them because I’m always intrigued. I think the other thing is, is that when I think … Obviously, the election is going to be an interesting time but the six or seven months after the election.
Derrick Feldmann: 21:50 Again, it gets to our believer conversation. What will causes really do if not or not after the election to maintain high affinity and interest in the issues that some people will be voting on? I think it will be an interesting time six months after the election to see who maintains the states of interest and belief when it goes through.
Jon Mertz: 22:12 Well, we do live in interesting times, as they say. Derrick, you are definitely on the forefront of it with your research and I’m looking forward to your next report and the new book that will be coming out next year, right?
Derrick Feldmann: 22:22 Yeah, that’s right. All right, well, Jon, hey thanks so much, I really appreciate it and look forward to continue to support your work as well.
Jon Mertz: 22:36 Activators, let’s continue the conversation in our Activate World LinkedIn group. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives.
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Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.