Jeremy Heimans (@jeremyheimans) is co-founder and CEO of Purpose, a home for building 21st century movements and cutting-edge experiments in mass participation.
In 2007, Jeremy co-founded Avaaz, the world’s largest online citizens’ movement, with more than 15 million members. In 2005, he co-founded GetUp, an Australian political organization and internationally recognized social movement phenomenon that today has more members than all of Australia’s political parties combined.
In 2011, Jeremy received the Ford Foundation’s 75th Anniversary Visionary Award for his work as a movement pioneer and the World Economic Forum named him a Young Global Leader. His work has been recognized in publications like The Economist and the New York Times, and Fast Company named him one of the Most Creative People in Business. Jeremy began his career with the strategy consultants McKinsey and Company. He was educated at Harvard University and the University of Sydney. He lives in New York.
Plywood People: Can you explain the idea behind Purpose?
Jeremy Heimans: We create 21st century movements. By “movements” we mean communities of people who take action to drive change and create shared value. The “21st century” part refers to the technologies that have become available to us, technologies like the internet, social media, and mobile that unlock transformational new forms of political participation and social engagement. We incubate our own social and consumer movements and partner with organizations and progressive companies to mobilize communities around large-scale purposeful action.
I have a background in mobilizing people around various major issues, I was a co-founder of a progressive movement organization back home in Australia called GetUp that now has more members than all of the political parties combined. I also co-founded Avaaz, the world’s largest online political movement with more than 14 million members operating in 14 languages. I also had a stint at the UN and worked in management consulting at McKinsey. After working within some big institutions and starting some movements, I thought that starting Purpose could be a vehicle and an enabler to help organizations and progressive, mission-based companies build movements, and to create a permanent home for incubating and accelerating our own movements. Purpose brings together a diverse team of political organizers, brand strategists, technologists, interaction designers, policy wonks and recovering management consultants. You could say we are a motley crew of movement makers.
Plywood People: How are you helping entrepreneurs create change using your technology?
Jeremy: We deploy technology as a way of enabling mass participation and making it easier for people to self-organize around an issue. We are currently working on a custom software platform that will allow movement entrepreneurship. But, we think of technology as more than just hardware, the shiny gadgets we carry with us, and software, the source code that runs all of that. Our technology is our people and our process as much it is about tools. Our multidisciplinary and strategic lens from which we approach mobilizing people to action is a kind of technology we offer to help entrepreneurs create change.
Plywood People: What do you believe are the most important aspects in propelling people to action?
Jeremy: Storytelling, urgency, connection, and focus.
People take action when they engage with compelling stories. Good stories have a certain rhythm, tempo, and tension. Compelling stories are immersive and emotional. Action goes beyond simply awareness of a problem told through a story. It’s not enough just to be a passive audience member. We show the theory of change behind what we are asking people to do, and why they need to take action now. That’s where the urgency comes in, that creates motivation to do something. Connection is about showing a sense of community and shared action with others. We are all protagonists in the story, and by coming together, we can make a dent in the universe and make change. The storytelling and the user experience has to be focussed. People are busy and we respect their time. We sequence our communications in a targeted way so people don’t get too overwhelmed with messages and information.
Plywood People: What’s one of the main problems you see teams come up against as they work on building their movements?
Jeremy: Risk aversion and inertia. Building a successful movement means making mistakes and failing to learn, and building momentum to really take advantage of opportunities and scale. Like I said before, we call what we do movement entrepreneurship. Being a successful entrepreneur means being fast, lean, and agile. It means being experimental, flying by the seat of your pants, responding the context and conditions around you. That kind of culture of risk and rapid momentum building doesn’t always exist in established incumbent organizations, so we also find ourselves engaging in a lot of capacity building, coaching and institutional change work to help our partners become movement entrepreneurs.
Plywood People: What is one of your greatest inspirations as you create movements?
Jeremy: We get inspiration from many places. In the last decade we have seen tremendous innovation in the field of political and social organizing online. But we look beyond social and political activism for reference and inspiration. Groups like Meetup have facilitated the creation of communities of interest and helped to create social capital in a new way. Sites like Gilt Group have deployed elements of gameification and cognitive psychology to make shopping more addictive. Imagine deploying that kind of know-how to movement building and social innovation rather than helping them buy more stuff they don’t need.
I also find inspiration from the people who join our movements. One example comes from All Out, our movement for LGBT rights and equality everywhere. It’s inspiring to see how a new communal identity has formed there. A recent example is a campaign we did on trans rights in Sweden. It was amazing to see people from as far away as Uganda and Cameroun signing a petition and speaking out in solidarity with trans people in Sweden. We are seeing a new kind of international solidarity among global citizens that is shattering the old North-South clichés.
Then there are the people I have the privilege to work with. They are more than just brilliant strategists, designers, technologists and operations people. The Purpose team is an incredibly creative and motivated bunch of people. On staff we have actresses, a former acrobat, musicians, a stand up comedian, teachers, etc. This depth and breadth of experience really informs our movement building work in incredible ways.