I’m an introvert. And yet by some form of cosmic irony, I seem to constantly find myself standing up in front of a crowd of people. Speaking. Here’s what I said to a lovely crowd of fundraising professionals gathered at the Austrian Fundraisers’ Congress last week in Vienna.
So, a group of Climate Activists walk into a bar. Which is to say, a planning meeting. They’ve been trying for years to raise the alarm on global warming, to get people engaged, to make them pay attention between the nattering of Netflix and the fanfare of Facebook and the twittering of Twitter that this is an emergency. That our house is burning.
So for the umpteenth time they are brainstorming new strategies when one of them says: WAIT, I’VE GOT IT: We’ll get a mildly autistic 15-year-old Swedish girl to skip classes every Friday, and sit alone outside the Parliament with a handmade cardboard sign that says “School Strike for Climate.” Trust me, it’ll be MASSIVE.
That would have sounded like the worst. plan. ever.
And yet Greta Thunberg did exactly that and seized the imagination of the world with her story, and we have to ask why.
She didn’t provide us with any new stats.
There were no graphs.
She didn’t produce a report.
She didn’t haul a celebrity in front of a press conference to do a sound bite.
She didn’t craft a listicle or a clickable subject line
She didn’t carefully track her open rates and click rates
She simply obeyed the three commandments of great storytelling:
Tell the truth
Live the truth
The story she told was one that wanted to be told, a story whose time had come. Like Miriam, the child prophet of Judaism who spoke out against her own Father’s capitulation to the Pharaoh and so had to summon the courage to challenge both her Egyptian occupiers and the Patriarchy of her own people. Greta speaks a deeply lacerating truth that nobody wants to hear: the house is on fire, that our generation has failed her generation, and that we need to wake up. It’s the most important story being told in the world today.
Four years ago, Tommy Crawford and I founded Dancing Fox, an agency dedicated to making activists and people working for social change better storytellers. The first barrier we usually need to get over is the idea that story has no place in a struggle over facts. That story lives in the realm of imagination and fairy tale. That story is fiction. That stories are fake. That they’re a layer of sugary frosting that you put on a cake baked of hard facts.
I disagree. I believe that the measure of a great story is not the heights of imagination to which it soars, but the depth of the truth that it unearths.
Story is the operating system of our brains. It’s the operating system of society. And what Greta has achieved is an astounding hack of that operating system. She’s introduced a story as powerful as a benevolent Trojan horse that is fundamentally shifting our sense of what’s right, what’s normal, and what’s acceptable. And those, my friends, are the age-old dominion of story.
Story was an evolutionary tool created to set forth the rules of what it means to be a good person, a good friend, a good tribe mate, a good human.
Yuval Harari tells us that the cognitive revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago, when we began to understand intent. Compared to the majestic life of the savannah, we were not very strong, nor swift. Our claws and teeth were weak. But we conquered the world with language. We conquered the world with story. And when we figured out how to tell a story set in the future, one in which our future selves were characters, we learned how to make stories, and dreams, come true.
Somewhere far back in time one of the ancestors of everyone in this room created a story set in the future, in which we were going to band together as a tribe. We’re going to move in to this cave and together we’re going share the tasks of raising children and foraging for our food, and of making sure we set aside enough stores for the winter. And you can have some of the water that I fetch if I can have some of the berries you pick.
Jonathan Haidt, in his wonderful book The Righteous Mind, says that social contract was the first moral matrix. But the thing that threatens any moral matrix, or any social contract, is the danger that someone cheats. So story became a way of setting out the rules of living together.
I might gather you around the fire and say
Remember that time when the snows came early and Astrid wandered out after dark, with no moon to light her way, wolves howling in the night, to find that magic wood that burns for days and brought it back to the cave. And that first snow was a blizzard, and had she not had the bravery and the forethought to gather all that wood we all would have frozen to death in the cold. And Hans was so thankful that his infant child survived that he gave Astrid all the blueberries he had gathered in the summer.
How do you feel about Astrid and Hans right now? They’re rockstars. They’re awesome. They’re wonderful human beings. Selfless. Generous. And that wave of approval that they feel and that you imagine them feeling is exactly what that story is engineered to create. To make you want to be like them. To behave like them. To further the goals of the tribe.
Whereas if I told the story of the time that Brian fell asleep and forgot to stoke the fire, and we were all freezing in the morning, you’re inner monologue will tell you “I wouldn’t be like Brian. I’d tend that fire well.”
This is story invisibly shaping our behaviour to serve the needs of the many, to serve the needs of the tribe.
What I’ve just done with that story of the fire is gotten you all a little bit high with a tiny dose of dopamine — a story with a happy ending makes us feel good. But it’s not the only chemical change a good story makes in our bloodstreams.
A neuroscientist named Paul Zak ran a study in which he drew blood from test subjects who witnessed two different stories, a story of man who goes to the zoo with his son and wanders around. The other story is in the same setting, but the father tells the story of his son’s terminal cancer, and how hard he’s struggling to cope with that and give his son some enjoyment in his final days with things like this trip to the zoo. When they compared the chemical make-up of the subjects’ blood they found elevated levels of Cortisol — a chemical that piques our attention to something important — in the blood of the subjects who witnessed the cancer story. But more importantly, Zak found elevated levels of Oxytocin — what he calls the ‘moral molecule’ — which makes us pay attention to social cues and raises our empathy levels.
When they then asked the subjects whether they wanted to donate to a charity after the study was over, there was a correlation between the willingness to give, the amount given, and the levels of Oxytocin in the subject’s bloodstream.
Zak claims to have found what alchemists have sought for centuries: a way of turning the base metal of story into fundraising gold.
Now I’m not a neuroscientist — and there are challenges to these results, among them one study that says Oxytocin is responsible for envy as much as empathy and therefore might be called the immoral molecule. But the study replicates something that I and most of us in this room probably know for a fact: a compelling story which touches someone’s heart is a magic spell for summoning charitable behaviour, for unlocking human compassion.
What’s my source for that?
I spent three years as a canvasser for Greenpeace in my youth — knocking on doors, telling stories, and asking for donations. Any of you who have had personal experience working with individual giving or major donors or street giving know that moment when you connect to someone heart to heart, when your story lands, and they make the decision to give. I don’t know if it’s chemical or psychological or spiritual, but those of us who have witnessed it know it by its true nature: magic.
Another thing I learned as a canvasser was that a blank petition was nearly impossible to get signed. But if the neighbour up the road had signed your job was five times easier. And if two neighbours had signed it was ten times easier. And this brings us to another role of story that’s essential to giving and to social change.
It’s the idea that story doesn’t just define what’s right, it also defines what’s normal. And that is incredibly powerful in driving charitable behaviour.
We’re surrounded every day by invisible stories that tell us how to behave, that reassure us that we’re behaving just like everyone else. Because that’s the most important thing for a social animal: to behave socially.
And if you don’t believe that, try walking into a crowded elevator and turning around to face the rear of the car instead of the doors. Watch how uncomfortable it makes everyone around you. For more fun, get three confederates and do the same thing. You’ll probably get everyone else to turn. Because we tell and read invisible stories in each other’s actions that tell us how to behave every second of every day.
But when enough people signal a new behaviour, the definition of what’s normal changes.
The history of activism and social change is nothing more than taking a fringe behaviour or belief and making it normal. Or taking a normal behaviour and making it appear weird. A few decades ago, lighting a cigarette on a plane was perfectly normal. Today it would be shockingly weird.
Our greatest ally, and our greatest enemy in driving the change we need to survive is the human tendency to follow the herd. We underestimate how powerful that force is, how omnipresent in our lives. And how important it is to social change. Kumi Naido talks about the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa when he was a youth, and being told that while his cause was just, it was impossible. But that changed. As he puts it, “it was only when people in sufficiently large numbers began to believe that change was possible, that change became possible.”
It reminds me of something Bob Hunter, one of the founders of Greenpeace said: That big change looks impossible when you start and inevitable when you finish.
And that’s both true and tragic. Tragic because it does a disservice to those who struggled to make a fringe behaviour normal when it seemed truly weird. When the cause seemed impossible. We look back today and say of course women would eventually have gotten the right to vote — that was inevitable. Or of course apartheid would end. It was inevitable. Or of course slavery would be banned. It was inevitable. But that inevitability was not a given to the people who sacrificed their time their reputations and in some cases their lives to make those things come about.
But here’s the good news about herd mentality when it comes to transforming the world: it means We don’t need billions of people acting perfectly, we just need millions of people acting better. We only need to turn the 101st deer to turn the herd. That’s the power of normalizing behaviour.
So how do we accelerate the process of social change to serve our survival? We convince the herd that the herd is turning. We accelerate the arrival of that magic tipping point where enough people believe that change is possible that change becomes possible. We need to give people agency, to make that agency visible, and tell the stories of that agency’s success again and again and again. And Fundraisers, you’re in a magically important place to be able to do that. You traffic in charitable behaviour. In behaviour that’s geared toward driving change. But you also hold the key to a dangerous valve — the one by which people outsource their agency, And give simply to alleviate their guilt.
I think we’re capable of so much more. I think donors are capable of so much more. But I think it’s contingent on us to ask — to make it clear that writing a check on its own isn’t going to change the story. Greta won’t likely be telling her grandchildren, when they ask how did we save the world, with the answer that “millions of people opened their wallets and agreed to monthly donations and went on living their lives as they normally do.” We need to invite our donors to agency. To using all of their power — the power of their wallet, the power of their vote, the power of their consumption choices, the power of the stories they tell to their friends about what they believe is right and normal and acceptable. We need to bring a new story to life that says human beings do not sacrifice their children at the altar of their own convenience, greed, or ignorance.
We need to help people find agency. We need to set off a billion acts of courage.
I want to share with you a story of how I found my agency.
It’s the story of two questions.
And it begins in a cabin in the woods in New Hampshire in the northeastern United States, far far from the nearest town on an isolated hill top looking out over nothing but trees.
When I was finishing up college I was having that conversation one has with a friend about what we were planning to do after we graduated. I confessed that my dream was to go to a cabin in the woods and write the great American novel. This was not a very original dream. Every American literature student who had ever read Emerson and Thoreau probably had the same idea.
But to my surprise she said “My dad has a cabin in the woods in New Hampshire, and it gets broken into every winter. Maybe he’ll let you live there in exchange for watching it?”
And so come Autumn I found myself in a one room summer cabin without electricity or plumbing and a tiny woodstove that had to be stoked twice in the middle of the night if I didn’t want ice in my beard in the morning.
Autumn turns to winter, and it gets cold. New England cold. The beat-up four wheel drive that I used to drive to town freezes solid into the mud. And it starts to snow. For days. Then a week. Pretty soon, I’m snowbound. And I’m facing the real possibility that I’m going to run out of food. But something far worse happened: I ran out of books. Now this is 1980 — there’s no internet, no wifi. My only way out of that cabin was to read. So after I’d read everything that I’d brought with me, I started to cannibalize the slim shelf of books that had been left behind by the owner of the cabin.
And among those books was one which literally changed my life. It was called “The Warriors of the Rainbow” by Bob Hunter. It was the story of the founding of a group I had never heard of, called “Greenpeace,” by a group of draft dodgers, peaceniks, and hippies who met in a church basement in Vancouver trying to figure out how to stop a nuclear weapons test that was going to be detonated in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. What they decided to do was take a boat, sail it up there, park it in the blast zone, and say “we dare you — on our lives — not to detonate that bomb.” To the biggest military force on the planet.
I was enchanted. And I realised that what they were doing was creating tiny stories of confrontation packaged up for the medium of the day, television, and sent them rippling around the world in what they called “mind-bombs”: simple stark, black and whites stories: here’s Richard Nixon’s Cold War Nuclear machine, and here’s a bunch of people who say there’s a better way to run a planet. Here’s a whale, here’s a harpoon, and here’s a tiny boat with a couple folks who are saying on my life, I dare you.
And the question every one of those stories asked, implicitly, is the first important question in this story: “Which side are you on?”
I knew which side I was on. I was with the whale. And the hippies in the boat.
In answering that question I stepped over an invisible line — not yet to activism, but from ignorant bystander to someone with an opinion, someone who had made a choice. I disagreed with that thing being done over there. I thought it should stop. This is what Quakers call “Bearing Witness” – the belief that if you witness a crime or an injustice, you bear a moral responsibility for that injustice continuing. You can act on it or not – and the beauty of this philosophy is that it recognizes we cannot and do not act on every injustice we witness – but the moral responsibility is there. In effect you plant a second question which you may or may not answer: “What are you going to do about it?”
And the Quaker belief is founded in a fundamentally optimistic view of human integrity and willingness to act: that the more people whose heart you plant that question in, the more likely it becomes that people in sufficient numbers will answer that question with a decision to stand up and oppose that injustice.
So that question, what are you going to do about it, slept in my heart as I closed the book and was sad because I didn’t think this organisation called Greenpeace existed anymore. It slept in my heart as the snow melted and I didn’t run out of food, and the winter turned to spring. It slept in my heart as I ran out of money, and hitchhiked down to Boston and started working in a bookstore. Which was the PERFECT job after the cabin — there was heat and electricity, I didn’t have to chop wood or fetch water and I was never, ever going to run out of books. Then one day an old friend from my home town walks in. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was volunteering for an organisation I had probably never heard of before called Greenpeace. I said really, I just read the most amazing book and I totally support your cause. And then this tough as nails woman leans over the counter and says “Yeah? And what are you doing about it?”
What Cathy wanted me to do about it was way outside my comfort zone. She suggested I join her knocking on doors, raising awareness, asking for donations, gathering petition signatures. Like a door to door salesman.
I declined. But Cathy was persistent, and one day I finally walked into that Greenpeace office, and it was like coming home. I liked the vibe, I liked the tribe, I wanted to make it part of my daily life. So I started canvassing one day a week, then two, then three… and when I wasn’t canvassing I was volunteering, and pretty soon my volunteering habit was getting in the way of my full time job. So I did the rational thing, and quit my job.
And that launched me on a journey which a year later would find me secretly marching with three colleagues across a bombing range, past Area 51, and into Yucca Flats in Nevada where the US military was preparing to detonate a fifteen kiloton underground nuclear weapon and saying “we dare you, on our lives, not to detonate that bomb.” And for four days, we hid in that desert and for four days the biggest military force on the planet blinked and didn’t detonate the bomb. For whatever it was worth, we delayed the nuclear arms race by four days. That became the most important lesson in the power of individual action that I would ever learn. It was also a lesson in how amazingly great a cup of jailhouse coffee can taste after six days in the desert.
My point is this. Every one of us in this room has a story to tell about how we decided to do something about the way the world works. We all have a story of how we found our agency and the decisions and path that led you to be here in this room today. Those stories are contagious. They are stories that want to be told.
And all of us have to admit that no matter how hard we’ve tried, no matter how lofty our ambitions or how many late nights and failed marriages and burned out careers activists have thrown at changing the world over the last six decades, Greta’s right: it hasn’t achieved what we hoped it would achieved. It hasn’t slain the monster that haunts Greta’s dreams.
But that doesn’t mean the story is over. It simply means a new story has to begin. It’s like we’re all in the control room when Apollo 13 is crippled in space and leaking oxygen and Gene Kranz overhears someone saying that “This could be the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced.” and that heroic flight director responds
“With all due respect Sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”
Crisis is opportunity. It’s when our true colours come out. It’s what gives rise to true heroes like Greta Thunberg.
So here are my parting thoughts to all of you. Find new ways to apply your awesome skills to inviting people to agency – whether it’s against climate change, or changing the story of consumption or increasing human empathy or any cause that will make more people believe that change is possible. Share the story of how you found your agency. Share the story of how you’re making a difference. Share the stories of how others are making a difference. Because every time a story gets retold, it gets stronger. And every story of a conquest over apathy or pessimism or despair is potentially a wak-up call to a question that’s sleeping in someone else’s heart.
A famous content marketing thought leader by the name of Tyrian Lannister said something at the end of Game of Thrones which is profoundly important both to your work as fundraisers and to the common challenge of human survival.
“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”
The story we write of how we survived an extinction of our own making is going to be a story unlike any that has ever been told. It’s not going to be easy. No epic quest ever is. But the stage has been set by decades of activism and one 15-year-old Swedish girl who decided to
Tell the truth
Be interesting and
Live the truth
Every one of us has a role to play in convincing people that change is possible. And somewhere out there is the one person someone is going to convince and create a tipping point where suddenly we hit critical mass, and change does become possible. The choice is between a story that ends in survival and one that ends in extinction.
We all know which side we’re on.
All we need to decide is what we’re going to do about it.