Probably all of us have felt the typical “burnout” that happens in nonprofit work. You enter thinking you can save the world, only to be confronted with the realities of life: a big donor has to cut back this year because she has kids in college; a stellar volunteer has to reduce hours to help his sick brother; your new social media campaign gets drowned out with the latest political scandal. Many times it even seems people just don’t care.
It is during moments like these that we need to get back to the reasons we were inspired to change the world in the first place. I started as an activist. It was the 1980s and the US and Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, we were 4 minutes to midnight: on the brink of nuclear war. I was compelled to act, so I joined a march that engaged 500+ people to walk 3,000 miles across the US calling for nuclear disarmament. The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament was part of an ongoing social movement that had been working for disarmament for many years.
What are social movements and what do they have to do with nonprofits? Social movements have been defined as somewhat coordinated groups of people organized around a goal of creating or resisting change in a society, culture, or world order, that have a shared collective identity and maintain continuity over time. Nonprofit organizations can play a large role in social movement issues, and in fact, many nonprofits were created by those involved in social movements in order to advance the issues in a more organized and coherent manner.
A great example is the Occupy movement. As a movement, there were challenges in conveying messages and accomplishing goals. But hundreds of organizations have been born from this movement and continue to operate today, challenging trade agreements, advocating for better climate change policies, promoting pedestrian friendly cities, and more.
Being part of a social movement is an invigorating experience. You are on the front lines, watching change as it takes place. You are surrounded by others, often hundreds of others, who are just as passionate as you. Through collective vision and action people are brought to a greatness that could not be achieved individually. Yes, there are challenges and disappointments. But there is nothing so rewarding as being in the middle of it all.
Next time you’re feeling burned out, try touching base with what first inspired you to get involved. Were you called to join a march like I was? Join a weekend march or protest. Were you moved to help people in need? Find time to lend a hand directly to someone who would most benefit. Were you inspired by the words of a great leader? Share those words with someone you care about. Whatever it may be, take the time to look your compatriots in the eye and see the connection. You make a difference. You are part of a movement. You are change.
 Diani, M. (1992). The concept of social movement. The Sociological Review, 40(1), 1–25. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1992.tb02943.x
Snow, D. A., Soule, S. A., & Kriesi, H. (Eds.). (2004). The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
Image credit: FreeImages.com/Michele Migliarini