I’m fascinated by the origin stories of social movements. They are as varied as the people who make up their constituencies. Civil Rights, the fight for marriage equality, the Labor movement, women’s rights, abolition, anti-war demonstrations – these are just a few of the most prolific movements that have shaped our national narrative.

It’s easy to imagine that these movements had traction and noteworthy leaders from the beginning. In reality, most simply began in living rooms or at kitchen tables, finding more followers as their message spread.

When I meet with nonprofits about marketing, I regularly hear concerns: their lists aren’t big enough, they need more constituents, they are worried they can’t compete with the bigger, more established organizations. And while a greater following is the goal of any cause, there is a lot to learn from the history of national movements that also started small.

It allows you to test what works

There’s a lot of pressure on organizations to be ‘the next big thing,’ be more creative, find that magic thing that will go viral and create a mass following. In most cases this isn’t reality – and it isn’t even helpful.

I recently worked with a nonprofit on a digital campaign that launched some big ideas for their organization. Before the campaign, we noted that the marketing list was smaller than we’d hoped but it was a highly-engaged group that had intentionally opted in. We used the opportunity to develop high-quality content and messaging for the year. The email series was opened at a rate of more than 75% over two months. Despite the smaller list size, it enabled the nonprofit to build valuable content, test what worked and develop a longer-term plan for the content without the pressure of a giant following.

Building and testing over time allows you to develop stronger, more iterative marketing that speaks directly to your audience. 

It fosters authenticity and relationships

Successful movements happen for a combination of reasons, but one common factor is the sense of belonging they build among members. It’s up to nonprofits to build this same sense of comradery and authenticity among their constituencies. We’ve talked before about the expectations of younger consumers and their desire to establish a more relational stance with their favorite brands – and many consumers will now walk away from brands that conflict with their own identity.

Authenticity stands out amid campaigns that aim to be ‘the next big thing.’ Money can certainly buy ad space – but it’s not a replacement for a real relationship with your audience. It’s the latter that cultivates understanding, passion and ultimately – movement.

It builds a strong foundation

Every social movement that rose to prominence began in a small community. One of my favorite examples of this is the MeToo movement. The phrase was coined in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke but didn’t gain national attention until 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano encouraged people to share their stories of sexual harassment on social media. Ten years before ‘MeToo’ gained prominence in the media, it lived as a phrase of empowerment among women in smaller pockets, gaining traction over time. ‘MeToo’ isn’t alone in this phenomenon. Community activists and leaders often start small, building recognition and engagement over time – until something prompts a critical tipping point.

The “slower” start enabled the MeToo movement to create a strong, meaningful foundation. By the time it went national, the phrase already had a clear identity and devoted base of followers.

It’s not bad to want a big audience of raving fans. Some of the biggest social movements in our nation’s history only happened because they captured our collective imagination and attention. And ultimately, reaching a critical mass of people is what will spread important messages far and wide.

But just as social movements don’t begin with a big viral moment, your work likely won’t either. The ability of nonprofits to build small, committed audiences with deep understanding and motivation is a superpower. If you’re doing the hard work of daily movement-building and aren’t feeling the traction just yet, don’t give up.

Movement-building is a long game – and it can change the world.