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Max St John

Four things business can learn from Avaaz

I recently came across an interesting organisation called Purpose – created by one of the founder of – Jeremy Heimans (named one of Fast Company’s most creative people in business)

Avaaz’s pioneering model of using the internet to organise and mobilise people for campaigning, online and offline, has been massively successful in achieving political change, and been the inspiration for other citizen-powered organisations like 38 Degrees.
Purpose aims to build on that success but in a broader way – by creating distinct new global movements of consumers/citizens, that apply pressure and influence at various levels, to achieve system-wide change. As they put it:

“Our movements are deploying huge numbers of people, online and on the ground, to influence the political process. At the same time, we are working to create the consumer demand and behavioral shifts required to bring about the kind of change that politics alone cannot.”

I’ve been following Avaaz, along with 38 Degrees, and others for a while as I think their model of organising is incredibly powerful and effective, and that they are all great examples of a new kind of decentralised, networked organisation – the kind that harness collective action and intelligence to achieve systemic change, in an agile way. They’re also becoming expert at creating and supporting (not controlling) movements using digital.

Coming across Purpose got me thinking again about why this new model of working is so successful and what others can learn from it.

Obviously we’re not (all) trying to achieve massive societal change – but the decentralised, networked model works for tackling any complex problem and in keeping a business agile and adaptive through times of change. One of the ways it achieves this is by making customers/supporters/citizens and employees truly feel and act as part of the organisation, and are empowered to do what they think needs doing.

Even if you’re not this kind of radical organisational change, there are still valuable lessons to learn from this model of organisation:

  1. co-create as many of aspects of your identity (from your mission to the services you offer and campaigns you run) with your customers and employees
  2. make actively listening to people an always-on core business activity that’s part of every function and create the space for them to speak – to you and to each other
  3. empower customers and employees to act on your behalf, in whatever way they think will help meet your mission, with your clear support
  4. use all of the above, and more, to create more meaningful, trusting relationships with the people that matter to you.

Digital and social media is a great platform for building these kind of powerful and meaningful relationships and creating the space for innovative practices, but what really makes them happen is deeper than that and cuts to the culture and values of the organisation.

But if you can decentralise what you do, and bring more people, more deeply into how you do it, in the way organisations like Purpose and Avaaz have, the potential is huge.

This post was filed under Digital transformation, Technology, The future Comments are currently closed.


  1. Rob M

    Nice piece, Max.

    Completely agree, Max, though it takes a brave organisation to devolve its influence to that extent.

    The newer the organisation, the easier it is. Older, more institutionalised companies will take much more persuading, even if the long-term benefits look tantalising :)

    Posted 4th January 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  2. Great stuff Maxi! Have you seen this RSA video of Jeremy Heimans talking about this?

    Posted 4th January 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  3. Good stuff Max.

    I think ultimately the key to all these activities whether in business or in social reform is ‘meaning’.

    Helping people find out what gives them (personally) meaning is therefore an important part of the recipe.

    Posted 4th January 2013 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  4. Interesting challenge to Avaaz’s model and the idea of diffuse leadership on the Grauniad today:

    Posted 15th January 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink