What do you ‘Like’ doing or believe in? Do you tell people about it? If not, here’s why you should…
We all believe in something whether it’s the power of ideas, that Andy Murray will win Wimbledon this year or even just that the sun will come up tomorrow. Everyone has a spark that ignites inside them that makes this particular thing/person/organisation/belief system worth caring about. And often that fire burns sufficiently bright to spur us into action in the name of the thing we believe in. Sometimes people change their whole lives to follow a dream, moving house or even country, changing or joining a religion, or devoting their waking hours to a particular cause or ideal. More usually we satisfy ourselves with the pleasure of declaring our love for that particular thing to our loved ones — primarily because we know we won’t be judged — or even just keeping it to ourselves as a private passion.
This is all well and good and enriching on a personal level in its own way, and we would have pretty dull lives if we didn’t get excited from time to time. There is something to be said about enjoying an activity or pastime in private just for the sake of it. But we are social creatures and equally we derive a deep sense of satisfaction from a collective sense of enjoyment when sharing our pleasures with others. Think of supporting your favourite football club at a match. It’s a sympathetic environment and that gives us a freedom to outwardly express ourselves in support of our team in a way that we wouldn’t dream of doing in other situations. Imagine loudly singing a popular football chant in your local high street. It’s inconceivable that you would want to display this level of passion for something you believe in (although some do!) Perhaps this is a bad example. Support for football teams is tribal, complex and often polarising as recent scenes of hooliganism bear witness to. So let’s think about something else. Strip away the context and environment for your belief — would you be able to espouse or defend your position to anyone, any time, anywhere? That is true advocacy. Who hasn’t got a kick out of introducing a friend (or even a stranger) to your hobby, to find that they like it too? Advocacy for emotionally riskier beliefs, a political position say, is more challenging because of the potential consequences, but we exhibit this kind of behaviour all the time.
Everybody endorses things they have some connection with. Social media makes it easier than ever and even those of you that don’t have a Facebook account (hello mum and dad!) will have heard of the ubiquitous ‘Like’ button. This simple action is at one end of what I call a spectrum of advocacy. It’s fast, straightforward to do, and viewed in isolation is of little consequence to either you or the thing you are ‘Liking’. It is a way of measuring popularity, and defines the equally pervasive concept of ‘trending’. Retailers, particularly those with an online presence, continually suggest ways we might endorse their offering. For them it’s about gathering data on their customers and gives them the first inkling of how loyal we might be to the brand. For us, it’s a more complex arrangement. We are enticed to tell our networks about the product we’ve bought in return for an offer or a chance to win something. At this point the endorsement has morphed from advocacy to a trading relationship. A natural extension of this relationship is sponsorship, whereby one organisation will pay another or a person to promote its brand or message. It is easy to get this type of endorsement confused with genuine advocacy. Sponsorship can encourage cynicism which dilutes the power of the message that is being transmitted. It appears inauthentic, tarnished by an unspoken whiff of money. Does Andy Murray really believe in the brand of Head, his racquet sponsor? Does he talk about them at every available opportunity? Persuade other tennis players that Head racquets are for them, because they are so good? He might do, but it’s unlikely. Whenever a sponsor’s brand is being promoted by someone it is our default position that we think they are doing so under obligation rather than genuine advocacy. Yet this is not necessarily a bad thing as we shall see.
Financial incentives to endorse something are usually in connection with a commercial product or brand. Unless you are a sports star like Andy Murray, it’s not a scenario that crops up in most people’s lives. We do come into contact with emotional incentives all the time though. How often have you been asked to ‘like’ or ‘share’ something that a friend has done on social media? If you’re on Facebook, just have a quick look at how many Pages you follow. How many of those causes or interests are you actually passionate about? And how many are just because you want to support someone you know; or, and this is another form of endorsement peculiar to social media, because you want your network to know you are a fan of a person — often famous — to make you look good? (Sorry, a little cynicism crept in there). It is natural to want help our friends and family of course and a nice thing to do, but I would argue that the strength of that message — just like with sponsorship — is watered down somewhat.
The act of giving to charity is another type of advocacy albeit one fraught with both emotional and financial considerations. All of us will have donated to a cause because either the opportunity was there such a collection box on the street, or more likely because of the emotional pull from a personal connection or even an advert. Whether it’s a sponsored swim at your child’s school, a friend running a marathon, or a specific fundraising effort for something, we regularly endorse charitable causes through our (mainly) financial contributions. But again I ask, how much of this is genuine advocacy? This is a much harder question to answer. It is inarguable that we should seek cures for terminal illnesses or to alleviate the suffering they cause and nobody in their right mind would deliberately say they didn’t believe in what those charities that are trying to do. You might argue about the methods but not the underlying principles. So if I think we should find a cure for all types of cancer for example, why don’t I continually promote the thousands of charities that are working towards this goal? Probably because everyone would agree with me and therefore I don’t need to work very hard to try and persuade people that supporting those charities is a good thing. It’s a challenge all charities face as it’s difficult to argue morally that one is more important than another. I’ll leave you to ponder that one.
Anyway, I’ve digressed somewhat. My ‘spectrum of advocacy’ appears to be less of a spectrum and more a kaleidoscope. Given that there appear to be some issues when there are emotional and financial ties to advocating people, causes or beliefs how exactly do we become authentic supporters of what we believe are intrinsically good things? The answer lies in stripping away context as much as possible and promoting something because you believe in it for what it is and nothing else. My website has a section about organisations that align and resonate with me in some way. I included them, with a short explanation and links to their websites, because I wanted to tell everyone who visits my site about them. And, er, that’s it. I’m not being paid to put them there and although in some cases I have an emotional connection because I have friends who work for them it was the power of the ideas behind them that drew me in first. Those of you who have met me will know that I talk about them all the time. And while I have a public voice through my website and in this blog I think it’s only right that I practice what I preach and advocate them publicly. So indulge me a little, while I tell you about a couple.
"Escape helped me to learn that I'm not strange or stupid for quitting my corporate job to go in search of a more…www.escapethecity.org
Escape The City is a community that encourages people to “do work that matters to you”, through workshops, events and programmes. They are on a mission to help 1,000,000 find work they love. But this barely scratches the surface of what they do. I was lucky enough to enrol on one of their 3 month programmes earlier this year, and it was transformative. This blog, my website and a whole host of other things wouldn’t have happened without them. But I’m not advocating them as a way of saying thanks, I’m doing it because their skill was to set the right conditions for me to pursue more fulfilling work that I love, which in turn has made me more fulfilled and happier. And they’ve done this for thousands of other people. I believe that the overall output of all these people will benefit society, which is a good thing.
DoNation is a small start up that “inspires your friends and colleagues to live healthier, happier, more sustainable lives”. It does this by providing an online platform for you to publicise your own campaign for a good cause and get people to pledge. There is only one good cause though: the planet. Rather than your campaign asking for money like the traditional sponsorship model, you ask for support through people undertaking good actions that will save CO2. The website suggests lots of different actions that you can do and how much CO2 you will save for each one, as well as helping you along the way. In an age where demands for money to support this charity or that can feel overwhelming, it is a brilliant idea. I happily promote it because it helps change behaviours for the better in however small a way.
We are often scared to speak about the things that truly matter to us. It’s interesting that people will willingly stand on the street and talk to total strangers about politics where they will probably hear opinions different to their own — and be judged accordingly — but they wouldn’t do the same for say, the merits of outdoor swimming. But if you are prepared to publicly share what you care about without any expectation of favour, then not only does it sound authentic, genuine and provide real meaning for that cause but then it permits you to be more open too. Unlike displaying your fandom for a celebrity as a superficial way of being seen as more likeable as some people do, being a true advocate may actually make you more likeable (or interesting at least). Given that it is unlikely that anyone would broadcast their love for gambling or polluting the environment, it is also true that where real advocacy happens it is likely to be for things that will benefit everyone. So, what do you believe in? When did you last tell someone? You should give it a try.