Protest movements and campaigns: What to do right now to keep supporters motivated

Nonprofits excel at knowing what their message is. But they often falter on the long-term goal of keeping people engaged.

The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement has motivated millions to march in cities and towns around the world. All 50 states responded. But within a few weeks, I was shocked to see social media messages firing out that diminished supporters having shown up, criticizing them for not doing enough. Some even went so far as to say that anti-racism must have all along been a central part of supporters’ lives for them to be truly involved in the movement.

Personally, I think publicly criticizing your supporters in the middle of the protest is a kick in the teeth to many well-meaning people. It struck me as unjustified in many cases, and at the very least premature. Going negative against those trying to help isn’t an effective strategy, nor is it likely to keep anyone with a lick of civil disobedience in them (especially Gen Z or Millennials, who respond best to praise and encouragement) obedient or compliant.

Promote unity, but be realistic. You’re leading the movement—it’s your job to tell people what to do and to keep them enthusiastic.

What direction are you giving?

Vague direction kills the message swiftly:

  • “Vote”
  • “Donate” to these organizations
  • “Support” these types of businesses
  • “Shame on you for not doing this sooner / all along” posts

Here are examples of good direction:

  • “Stay angry / passionate” messages, and then giving supporters something to stay motivated about
  • “Here is a state-by-state directory of congresspeople who have done X and are involved in X committee, or who have voted for/against X measure. Contact them via [enter Twitter, email, phone, website] and tell them that you want [insert draft text / tweet].”
  • “Join these local groups [insert link to state-by-state directory] to support initiatives to, for instance, effectively de-segregate schools and communities and provide equal access and opportunity to all.”
  • Give them media to share—lots of it. Infographics, pictorials, and graphs work really well to explain non-verbally the severity of a situation.
  • Give them links to websites of congresspeople or candidates who support the initiatives of your campaign so they can promote unity with those consistently fighting for the cause.
  • Communicate regularly to let donors know how their donation dollars are being spent AND how they can directly volunteer to help the organization IF they do not have additional funds to donate.

This is a sensitive time for all. Read the room.

Many civilians protesting all week right now are suffering from months of being trapped indoors during COVID-19, frustration at the Trump administration’s bizarre response to everything, unemployment and a closed job market, shortage of funds and access to resources—an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness.

They already intend to vote. They may not have the funds to donate or shop. They want to do the right thing. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be wearing masks while marching.

Physical movement is empowering. Protest movements should capitalize on this physical need and use creative communications strategy to continue to keep volunteers and supporters involved.

OpenYourLobbyThe Open Your Lobby campaign, for instance, is a great opportunity for people to physically contribute to providing safe spaces for protesters to regroup, recharge, and refresh. The movement is essentially the #OpenYourLobby hashtag and a share campaign, and it’s spreading nationwide.

Yes, some people attend protests only to get social media attention.

From celebrities to civilians, it’s rampant. This isn’t new, it’s not race- or gender-focused, and it’s not unique to BLM. But imagine if highly vocal MeToo protest leaders criticized every man who showed up. It’s a waste of energy, if anything.

Turn focus away from shaming social media whores—think about how powerless Trump would be if everyone just ignored his tweets—and instead uplift and highlight those out there killing it. People need leaders. They need models. Show supporters how they should be behaving as ambassadors of your campaign.

The media sucks.

Your protest movement might be gaining a lot of media attention right now. But the media will pivot their attention in an instant. No one knows that better than Trump.

During BLM, “COVID-19 in the U.S.” social media posts nearly disappeared unless you follow governors and scientists. The media chose to chase a different ambulance. Then suddenly, a spike in COVID cases appeared in various states, and the media lunged for that, opining uselessly on whether the cause was the protest movements or states’ decisions to reopen too quickly.

If you want to be successful, you have to keep the media engaged. Unfortunately, unless something is burning to the ground in the name of X movement, it’s really hard to attract attention.

If you want to shame a group of people, try starting with the media. Be creative. What can you do to keep the media’s attention that isn’t whiny or destructive? If protest movements could at the same time create media reform and accountability, that would be beautiful.

Hold Zuckerberg’s feet to the fire.

As far as social media, educate yourself on how Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms show your posts so that you can circumvent their filtering rules and biases. Test different times and message types.

And most importantly: Hold people like Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey responsible for prioritizing their algorithms and data-mining efforts over free communication. But keep in mind, any good or bad deed-doing is very good for their stock.

The spotlight is on social media CEOs right now to contribute responsibly to society. You can be a part of that conversation and help shift their control over the flow of information. If you don’t, social media sites will continue to manipulate how information is distributed and psychologically impact users.

Hold politicians accountable.

Plenty of politicians use protest movements to advance their political agendas. Watch that space. They need to be reminded regularly of what they can do to put their power and access to use.

Anyone can use a protest movement to their advantage—political parties, corporations, media, etc. Longevity is less a problem of individuals losing focus than it is institutions pivoting efforts and outreach for maximum exposure for their own purposes.

Then tell your supporters what to do to keep them involved. If it feels local to them, they are more likely to take action.

Network with movements—around the world—to promote positive human progress.

You’re not alone in this. There are hundreds of related campaigns that you can work with to motivate and inform supporters. You can educate supporters on human rights, not just the human rights relevant to your immediate cause.

Under the Afghan Lives Matter banner, tens of thousands protested the mistreatment of Afghan refugees in Iran, a longstanding battle for human rights. Fourteen Afghans were burned alive after Iranian police opened fire on their car; after years of brutality, this has sparked a petition and worldwide protests, calling on officials, the UN, and Human Rights Watch to hold Iran accountable.

Where once Americans cried out, “War crimes!” a decade later, they post, “Pho and puppies!” And they act surprised that Trump gets away with what he does. As Trump moves to use the Insurrection Act to send U.S. troops into battle with civilian protestors, many Americans behave as though the U.S. government hasn’t used these maneuvers and dominance displays all over the world for decades. The difference is that now our leaders’ dictatorial, executive ordered actions are happening here. We had a chance in the past to NOT behave as though we were insulated from the pain other countries were suffering, and to work to stop Congress and presidents from abusing their power, but we lost interest.

Nothing is isolated; human rights are human rights globally. We must think beyond our own borders, beyond any one movement, to create a network of movements. When people around the world show empathy and unite with us in protest—even when our own government has treated them poorly—it’s a call to build solidarity to effect global change. Unite with like-minded others around the globe to build a consistent daily narrative so that “moving on” isn’t an option—for anyone, at any time.

Take the Amnesty International video of these gentlemen in Syria.

Get your act together—plan, plan, strategize, strategize.

You need a brand communications guide. Really. It’s not just an exercise. If you want to maintain consistency and keep momentum going—while knowing that there will be inevitable drop-off as the media focus shifts—you have to organize your ongoing messaging. At some point, if you’re going to create change, you have to transform from shouting with a crowd into a calm, focused leader and educator.

You can organize these things in Google Drive, Dropbox, whatever makes sense for your organization.

You need to have written into a collaborative internal document:

  • Who are you?
  • How and who do you help?
  • What is your personality (emphatic, angry, positive, uplifting…)?
  • What do you believe in?
  • What is your tagline?
  • What is your organizational culture (values, staff attitude, how do you motivate volunteers)?
  • What is your foundation story? Write long and boilerplate (2-3 sentence) versions.
  • What is your voice? Do you put your audience first, use positive prose, write simply and briefly, spell and grammar check, converse with sophistication? Are you consistent, or do you project disorganization? Are you offering opinions, or are you teaching? Are you posting for instant (forgettable) reaction or for long-term action?
  • How can you serve your donors to show that you’re appreciative and continue to need their help, not just through financial support?
  • How can you engage partners—companies, nonprofits, campaigns, educational institutions—to keep your initiatives active? How can you help them to achieve their goals (e.g., sensitivity lectures, turnkey opportunities that require minimal planning, volunteer engagements, internships)?

For the campaigns themselves, particularly if you use volunteers to help develop graphics and organize events, here are some basics.


Make a complete list of all hashtags, together with a brief written explanation of the context for each hashtag. How will each be presented and what verbiage will it use? What are the SMART goals? What are some good examples of how each should be used?

A quick tip on hashtags: By using capital letters for new words in a hashtag, you make the hashtag accessible for the blind—for instance, #BlackLivesMatter versus #blacklivesmatter

Social media posts

  • How will you share? On what platforms, and how will messaging differ based on the chosen platform?
  • How can you involve and feature staff, donors, partners, and volunteers?
  • How can your programs be featured in a non-dry and purposeful way?
  • Can you get testimonials from various groups to highlight your real-time, ongoing impact?
  • How can you spread the word about events, and how frequently will you do so? ALSO: Be sure to follow up after the event with pictures and thank you’s!
  • Be sure to tag / mention any individuals, organizations, and others. Share the love. This is about unity, not just how to keep your movement alive.

Graphics & assets

  • Make your logo accessible. Be sure to offer different formats and sizes (png is best for social media) and layouts (vertical and horizontal, if applicable). Also be sure to make clear what versions of your logo are not preferred (e.g., grayscale or smaller than a certain size).
  • Make your color palette known. Color codes should be included (hex, RGB, CMYK) for different applications.
  • Make your fonts known. If you use a public, royalty-free font from Google Fonts or someplace similar, provide links to download.
  • Provide photography and videography guidelines: optimization and quality, size, non-posed vs posed, approved backgrounds and environments, orientation (vertical vs horizontal), rights to use photos of people, typography and sticker usage overlay allowed / not allowed.

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means. But it is my hope that it will help guide those out there leading the charge for change to maintain momentum in the midst of campaigns and protest movements. We cannot afford as a society to let these things die at the hands of misinformation, disorganization, or negativity.

Management consultant and brand strategist for small teams. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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