Everything starts with an idea. A story, a joke, a hairstyle, what you’re going to have for dinner — all of these things come about from a small thought that pops up in one’s head. Now think of the small ideas that have gone a little ways longer — a voyage Columbus took in 1492, an Occupy movement, an “I Have A Dream” speech, even a man landing on the moon. Whether it’s a small detail or a life-changing decision, everything starts with asking “What if?” and that’s what was emphasized when I spoke with Lee-Sean Huang, a strategist and designer for a company that creates impactful movements that always begin with a little thing called an idea.
Since 2009, Purpose has been a business whose goal is to engage millions of people who care about various social, political, or environmental problems and take action to solve those problems in collaboration with brands or other organizations. This pro-progressive social impact company will either incubate their own movements or work with brands or non-profit organizations to engage in their existing constituencies. One of their earliest movements was a collaboration with the Livestrong Foundation, where they sold millions of wristbands that raised money for cancer. From there, Purpose thought about how they could make the project more interactive and participatory so people could take more action besides buying items. Purpose is all about giving citizens of the world more options for active advocacy and creating communities around that.
Purpose has gone on to work with other foundations, corporate brands, and existing non-profits. For their campaigns, the company practices organizational, communicational and brand strategies, and then combines these methods to execute campaigns through visual, technological, user interface, and user experience designs. The product of all this is a campaign that makes its way around the world through apps, websites, e-mails and more.
Purpose founded the campaign, unPAC, to bring people together and demand that politicians “Represent Us,” the majority.
Like other non-profits, Purpose focuses on real world change while using attention-grabbing campaigns and utilizing technological tools, but what really differentiates this company from other charities and organizations is their trans-disciplinary approach to their movements. People at Purpose come from different backgrounds, from individuals who have worked on the Obama campaign, government workers and entrepreneurs, to creative designers, non-profit activists and people who are experienced with traditional strategy consulting. “It’s a combination of all of these people sitting together in the same room and learning to speak the same language, but also disagreeing on approaches and watching the magic happen by bringing together these different viewpoints and approaches to things,” said Huang.
Purpose now has a staff of over 70 employees since its NYC establishment in 2009.
One of the most effective strategies in getting a Purpose campaign growing is a conceptual tool that they call a commitment curve. Huang explained that Purpose starts people out with low-barrier asks such as reading an e-mail, following Purpose on Twitter, or signing a petition, and then builds them up to high-barrier asks, which may include calling a senator or convening a house party where an individual calls other people’s attention to the issue. While there are many well-meaning groups that give long laundry lists of options of what one can do to help, Purpose has seen from behavioral psychology that if you give someone many options all at once, they get paralyzed with choice. “So we tell stories in easily digestible bits that rank people up this commitment curve over time,” says Huang. “It builds people’s identities and shares identities as part of these movements.”
One of Purpose’s most successful projects is a two-year-old movement called All Out, which currently has over a million members coming together to build a world where everyone can embrace each other no matter their sexuality. This campaign sprouted from an idea of helping to prevent a lesbian woman in the U.K. from getting deported to Uganda where she would have faced the death penalty for being gay. The attention that Purpose gave to this movement resulted in the U.K. changing its policies and not expelling this woman from their country. Meu Rio is another growing movement started by an idea Purpose had, which focuses on bridging the gap between public opinion on what the people of Rio de Janeiro want for their city and what has actually been happening in the city’s leadership. Presently, the movement has gotten a lot of attention from the media and politicians in Rio, which has encouraged Purpose to take this model of Meu Rio and apply it to benefit other cities in Europe, South America and Asia in order to build an international network of cities where people can build new interfaces for civic engagement. Purpose has created and helped build many popular movements, including Global Zero, The Rules, and GetUp!, all of which are still growing and making differences in the world.
Just like anything else, these campaigns all start with an idea. There can be greatly beneficial results and changes towards the end, and a whole complex process in between, but as Huang reiterated about these social movements, “It really starts with that germ of an idea of asking ‘What if?’”