Celebrate the Anti-Heros of Change

Image by James Wong

These days, social change online seems to always involve a central figure–a hero, if you would. Whether it’s the individual cause champion rallying online influencers and donors, or a benevolent foundation driving a program of change. Yet, in reality while the hero myth makes an attractive narrative it belies the truth. You need to be an anti-hero to accomplish change.

This is not to demean the role a project lead, public figure, or funding organization makes. Far from it, their contribution is critical to success. Yet, we see many individuals and organizations take actions like this alone and fail online.

In reality, success takes many acts. It’s what my former colleague Beth Kanter calls the networked effect in her timeless book The Networked Nonprofit. One individual or organization helping another, including acts of amplification, which when repeated can create a catalyzing effect.

This networked approach to change and fundraising realizes key components of modern sociology and the way online media works: it takes many small pushes, many acts that work together create a movement strong enough to bring forth change.

Now here’s the truth about this type of work. It’s thankless. It requires a ton of back channel work, ceaseless amounts of networking, and a continuous cycle of selling the virtues of your cause. Most of your acts never ever see the light of day. They go unrecognized, left in the dust of the icon promoted as the pinnacle of your change effort (see the above hero myth).

If you succeed then you, in fact, are the anti-hero, a flawed version of the myth.

You’re busting your butt, connecting people, putting them together, getting people to act, but you’re not sexy for a PR perspective: You probably don’t have massive Twitter account, or a big check book. Perhaps you are flawed in other ways. Your acts make a difference, but only in the aggregate with peers who demonstrate similar grace and generosity. Maybe you’re not even an official spokesperson for an organization, just another caring volunteer or donor who does a little more.

Truthfully, you are not alone. A majority of Americans engage in civic, donor and volunteer actions every year, and go unrecognized.

There’s something wrong with that. We as a society need to celebrate the acts of people who go the distance every year to make a better community and country. We need to celebrate the anti-heros of change, the millions of unrecognized actors who make change happen every year in America.

Together, these are the real heros who drive causes. Let’s not forget that the next time we see a sexy story on Mashable or the Huffington Post lauding the latest weblebrity engaged in an act of kindness.