Social movement builder Simon Willis – “People don’t change because of facts, they change because of human stories”


A common complaint in the startup scene (particularly in Berlin, we get the feeling) is that these trendy young companies are less about tackling big issues and more about solving first-world problems or providing a bit of entertainment…

Someone who is definitely above all criticism is Simon Willis, cofounder of social movement incubator Purpose. So what issues are they tackling? Think world poverty, the elimination of nuclear weapons, supporting refugees and advancing LGBT rights – to name just a few.


Between his understandably jam-packed schedule, Willis has found the time to speak at the next VentureVillage and Apex Power Session on 17 April – which focuses on a question true to his heart: “Are startups really solving problems?” 

We caught up with Willis to find out how technology is changing the face of social movements and why he still thinks there is a place for yet another social recommendations startup…

width="160"Hi Simon, tell us more about what you do at Purpose Europe?

Purpose was founded by some of the founders of Avaaz and GetUp! and some people who worked on the Obama ’08 campaign. People who came from the world of online and political movement building. It’s a for-profit company, but is a social enterprise company dedicated to progressive social means, to incubating social movements.

We’ve probably done ten or 11. Some we do ourselves because we think it’s an area that needs movement, so we raise the funding. Others we do for consortia or large NGOs.

Who funds these movements?

We’ve funded the company partly with angel investors. But we tend to get the actual movements funded by foundations, large NGOs, companies or individuals who want to tackle big issues in the world and leave a legacy.

We had one person, an Australian miner, and he wanted a global movement to stop modern day slavery, and we helped him launch it and he funded it and now runs it.

What are the three best tips you can give to those wanting to create a successful movement?

Firstly, it’s not about information, it’s about a story.  Most people make the mistake of thinking “if I can just get all the information over, I’ll persuade people”.

So on their websites you’ll find masses of information,  so much that it’s often impossible to get through it, and they have really complex terminology. Movements to do with climate change or tax evasion or economic development develop their own language and believe passionately that if people just knew the facts then they would change their minds and actions.

But this isn’t true. People don’t change because of facts, they change because of human stories. You need to engage them on a human level…

The story has to resonate with them so they tell their friends and family. That’s where all movements come from, this magic moment when people feel proud of themselves, of the action they’ve taken, of the letter they’ve written, and they tell their peers and that’s when a movement will go viral.

Second tip – you have to think long term. Most people make the mistake of thinking it’s all about a meme or getting out a cool video or something that will quickly grab everyone’s attention. And then six weeks later everyone has forgotten about it.

Most interesting things can’t be changed in anything under five years. You need a model where you don’t have to go back to the Gates Foundation and ask for more money. It needs to be something that its own members are willing to fund with their own money.

Thirdly – professional design is very important. We often think in the NGO world that amateurish is cool. Amateurish is not cool. Professionalism is cool. If you want people to love what you’re doing and listen to what you’re saying and so on, you ought to do it as beautifully and professionally as possible.

So you have to employ professional brand people, professional designers, professional videographers etc. That’s the clue to impact.


What movement do you think was especially successful?

One of the ones we started that is a real textbook case of how to design beautifully, build for the long term, tell great stories and get real things done, is the LGBT movement we started called All Out.

It did a lot of smart things – it worked in partnership with many of the existing gay rights movements in countries, but it still filled a space that was missing, which was targeting it at an international level, allowing people globally to bring pressure onto a single country.

And that has been hugely successful in getting certain laws changed and tackling those countries where it can even be a cause for execution.

There are loads of other great examples, even from outside of Purpose – like Avaaz. It doesn’t go into one single issue but creates a global community around a set of stories, which brings progressive people together around a global agenda. That is a very hard thing to do and I think they’ve done this brilliantly.

What’s a movement you are particularly passionate about starting?

I’m very keen to do something for income inequality. I’m also passionate about doing something on immigration, maybe starting in the UK and expanding.

At the moment, we have a situation in the UK where all main political parties are saying the same thing – that immigration is not great. We don’t have anyone saying why immigration is a good thing.

You’ve had an illustrious career, segueing between NGOs like amnesty international, lobbyist groups, the civil service and the IT industry… how has this background influenced your founding of and work at Purpose?

By chance, I’ve spent a third of my time working in government, a third working in the private sector and a third in the voluntary sector. So I now have a strong view that each of these sectors don’t understand each other very well. It’s relevant to movement-building because in this area you want all three.

I’m not someone who thinks that all companies are evil, but I think we need to put more pressure on companies to have a far better positive social impact.

In Berlin, there is a huge trend in startups towards social networking and recommendations, designed to make people’s lives more comfortable rather than really making a difference. What’s your opinion on these kinds of startups? Can they still play an important role? 

I have no problem with them. I think people are social by nature. They are defined by the relationships they have with other people. Technology is fitting into a natural area of expansion, where people connect in a thousand ways.

I think most companies already have a positive impact just by employing people. So I’m all for more companies. But I think what we have to ask ourselves is why do we have so many companies that don’t have a positive social impact, why do we tolerate that? Purpose itself is a company, a benefit corporation – so we are not anti-companies.

So rather than try to invent a new class of company that is only populated by kids in their twenties who have too much uni education and don’t want to go into a corporation because they don’t think that’s cool – I think that’s a phase.

What I think is more interesting is an open sector, which is the companies that are prepared to be transparent about everything. If we made them transparent in that way, a lot of the problems we have with them would go away. Generally I’m a pessimist – I think we’re all going to hell in a hand basket – but I am an optimist about technology.

Want to hear more on the topic? Get your ticket to the VentureVillage and Apex Power Session on 17 April:

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