This piece was originally published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
A year and a half before the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling ended discrimination in civil marriage rights for same-sex couples, major funders and nonprofit leaders of the LGBTQ movement came together to address a concern: While many activists anticipated the legal victory, many also worried that the larger movement for LGBTQ equality would lose momentum in the wake of a win — potentially leaving important issues unaddressed.
These leaders did not want to take a top-down approach and issue an agenda for the next phase of the movement. Instead, they wanted to go to the grassroots and explore concerns on the minds of everyday LGBTQ people. Rather than conducting a traditional survey that asked people to respond to a predetermined set of issues, the leaders envisioned an open-ended conversation. They would share insights and ideas from this conversation with individuals and organizations working to address the needs of LGBT people, who then could use the information to inform their work. Importantly, the conversation would aim to reflect the full diversity of the community by engaging people from all walks of life, all across the country.
The resulting campaign might well be the first example of “crowdsourcing” the future of a social movement. Originating in the high tech industry, crowdsourcing refers to “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than traditional employees or suppliers,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition. Its application at a critical time for the LGBTQ movement offers lessons for organizations and other movements interested in engaging their grassroots constituencies.
A multi-disciplinary team of strategists, designers, researchers, and digital campaigners joined forces to design the campaign, engage people in the conversation, analyze the results, and share the information. Their first step was to brand the campaign and issue a “call to action” that people would answer.
Success begins with an aspirational goal and simple call to action.
The campaign’s name, Our Tomorrow, evoked the idea that the diverse community shared a common destiny. The website explained the initiative’s goal in aspirational and inclusive terms: “Our Tomorrow is a campaign by more than 100 LGBTQ nonprofit organizations and foundations to engage our community in a conversation about our future. Your ideas will help build a bigger, bolder movement that leaves no one behind.”
Crucially, the call to action was simple. People were asked to share their hopes, fears, and ideas for the future by completing three open-ended prompts:
1. My hope for our tomorrow is ______.
2. I worry that _______.
3. One thing our movement can do to make our tomorrow brighter is ______.
Pre-launch testing can offer useful input.
To test the concept before the public launch in the summer of 2015, the Our Tomorrow team set up a booth at Creating Change, an annual conference of LGBTQ movement activists. This pre-launch test enabled them to see firsthand how people responded to the idea, gather input from participants, and adjust the approach, if necessary. In fact, the campaign generated significant interest. The team exceeded its team goals by collecting more than 700 hopes, fears, and ideas from conference attendees. This initial success indicated the desire of people to make their voices heard in a conversation about their future.
Crowdsourcing doesn’t just happen online.
The conversation phase of the campaign ran from May to September 2015, engaging participants through an interactive website, social media platforms, and local events across the country. Funders provided grants to partner organizations to host conversations within their communities, where people wrote down their hopes, fears, and ideas in workbooks. The Washington DC-based campaign team entered every answer into a database. Perhaps ironically — given that the technique to gather input was intended for an online community — more responses to this crowdsourcing campaign came from local events than over the Internet.
Conducting an open conversation complicates the process but delivers deep insights.
The campaign ultimately collected 14,509 hopes, fears, and ideas from 5,663 individuals in all 50 states — including a significant number of participants from often overlooked and underrepresented groups. Because the responses were open-ended, researchers trained in linguistic analysis spent months interpreting the results. It’s much more efficient to conduct a survey in which people check boxes in response to a pre-determined list of issues, but while that approach can confirm hypotheses, it doesn’t generate new ideas. An open-ended conversation should be eye-opening.
Analysts determined the most frequently used words in the responses and studied the context of the conversation around those words, in order to identify the issues people raised and understand the ideas they expressed about those issues. A number of responses mentioned health, for example, and the conversation about health covered several related ideas, such as making health coverage more affordable, addressing mental and emotional health concerns among LGBTQ people, improving the quality of health care by training providers, and curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.
The conversation ultimately covered 52 topics, such as acceptance, aging, workplace, and youth. People described their hopes for a stronger, more inclusive movement committed to tackling a broad range of issues that affect its members — including marriage equality, transgender rights, economic insecurity, educational programming, human services, and homelessness. Despite the news media’s focus on growing acceptance of LGBTQ people in America, many participants expressed fears of losing ground in terms of their treatment under the law and in everyday life. Participants saw education as the most powerful idea for advancing the movement, defined as both formal programming in schools, and informal exposure to LGBTQ people and issues. They felt that teaching children, health care providers, teachers, faith leaders, and others about the realities of human sexuality in all of its diversity can set the stage for a more accepting society and more competent, sensitive social services for the community.
Altogether, the results represent one of the largest and broadest data sets ever created about the concerns of LGBTQ people. Many nonprofit organizations cannot afford in-depth research on the constituencies they serve. This innovative technique puts useful insights from thousands of people at the fingertips of funders, nonprofits, and individuals interested in meeting the needs of the communities they serve. Digging through the data, they can potentially unearth new ideas for shaping the future of the movement.