How to Start and Sustain a Movement

January 28th, 2012   •   no comments   

Chek Jawa @ Pulau Ubin
Student volunteer guides Jessie and Janet from Naked Hermit Crabs

By now, you’ve probably heard how social technologies can transform social, political and environmental movements. Globally, one can find numerous examples of causes given an online shot-in-the-arm through Twitter, Facebook, Youtube videos, shared photos, and other platforms. These channels have been further accelerated by the ubiquity of mobile apps on smartphones, tablets and other devices.

While the tools for making a difference have expanded tremendously, the core principles of creating and sustaining a cause are less well understood. Through a recent guided tour of Chek Jawa led by the Naked Hermit Crabs, I had the privilege of speaking to Ms Ria Tan, a passionate nature activist and founder of the Wild Singapore website.  A close associate of my good friend Siva (another legend in nature circles), Ria provided useful insights on her journey.

What are some of these lessons then?

First, one should identify a niche area of focus so that limited resources can be better concentrated and deployed.  Green or environmental management is a huge field that is almost endless in scope.  Thus, Ria and her partners chose to focus on promoting and preserving the coastal and marine ecosystems over other possible causes.

Next, it is important to work the ground consistently to shore up one’s knowledge of a specific domain.  As part of Ria’s work, she spents over 160 days out of 365 days a year visiting Singapore’s coastal habitats and marine ecosystems to investigate, document and monitor their status.  Records on the species mix and available biodiversity are also tracked so that the richness of flora and fauna in these environments are duly captured.

One should also find ways to educate and involve the public (especially the young) through public educational outreach efforts. These can be done through a calendar of activities and events like talks, forums, workshops, tours and more.  A good strategy which Ria herself has pursued is to rope in the schools and teachers, inculcating a love for nature from young.

Reaching and informing the public is also key, and it is only here that online platforms play their role.  Facebook pages, blogs, tweets, Youtube videos, and photographs assist in communicating key updates, events and activities to one’s larger community in an inexpensive way.  An important point to note is to be consistent – in the case of Wild Singapore’s blog, Ria shares that she minimally provides a weekly update.

Working with a network of passionate believers is also important.  Sustaining and promoting any cause is hard work, and having a band of volunteers help’s one to delegate responsibilities.  This can also include other related crusades in a cross-promotional win-win effort that helps one’s message go beyond a limited circle.  There are many ways of volunteering on Ria’s Wild Singapore website.

Sustaining a movement is also key, and here it is worthwhile to look at succession planning.  To get the younger generation involved in this, Ria recruits student volunteers through the school network, enlisting the help of student leaders who can positively influence their counterparts while planting the seeds in the next generation of leaders.  It is also necessary to delegate responsibilities such that the burden is shared with others as burnout can be a real issue.

Finally, it is important to work in partnership with key stakeholders on long-term solutions in a 3P approach of Public-Private-People partnership.  Other than the government agencies involved in regulating or promoting a specific area, companies are also important allies in any cause.    An example is HSBC, which has been a long-time supporter of nature causes in Singapore, and has “adopted” Chek Jawa, helping in its upkeep and promotion.  While it is inevitable that there will be differences in opinion and views from time to time, successful campaigns normally work towards a mutually agreeable position which may necessitate certain compromises on both ends.

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