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Inspiring citizens to take action

February 22, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

People like to help. Canadians are known to be very polite and helpful. Why, then, is it still so hard to engage citizens in environmental and other community action, and get them to contribute a little time and skills or adjust some of their habits for the good of the local community and our planet? Well, it’s complicated. 

First and foremost, it depends on the cause. What is important to one group of citizens doesn’t necessarily resonate with others and I don’t mean making donations, because we are good at that. According to Statistics Canada, in 2010, almost all Canadians (94 percent) over age 15 gave material goods, food or made a financial donation to a charitable or non-profit organization. Donating volunteer time is a different story though. 

A study in the UK found that one of the biggest barriers to volunteering is lack of time, or more accurately a ‘perceived’ lack of time. Everyone seems busy being busy, therefore, offering smaller opportunities helps. People are also more likely to volunteer when the opportunity provides: growth (an opportunity to learn new skills); impact (seeing and feeling the difference they are making); experience (make finding, enrolling and participating easy and flexible); recognition (saying thank-you and public recognition); and social factors (encourage socialising with other volunteers, staff and stakeholders). Volunteer work must be offered and seen as being meaningful, attractive and worthwhile.

When community groups want to inspire citizens and households to take environmental action, it gets even more complicated. Now we’re talking about asking people to change some ingrained habits. Getting citizens to take public transit instead of driving everywhere, buying an electric vehicle and installing solar panels, changing buying habits to avoid single-use packaging and plastics, or turning a front lawn into a thriving butterfly garden – these are not easy changes to make unless you are already one of the ‘environmentally converted’. 

Based on the psychology of change – as anyone trying to stop smoking or start exercising regularly can attest – it takes at least 21 days for a new routine to start taking hold, and two months or more to become part of one’s lifestyle and automatic behaviour. Researchers from University College London, UK, found the average time for a new habit to stick is, in fact, at least 66 days. Adding new behaviours is also easier than changing old habits. 

The way to inspire individual and community action is through the right approach, methods and inspiring language. First, an invitation to a public meeting needs to be interesting enough to get people to attend. Second, you need to present information and a ‘challenge’ that is compelling. Third, your call-to-action must be small and manageable enough to do. Messages like “go and take action” have little effect, as it puts the onus on others to come up with a plan. More effective is taking leadership on an action, asking for participation under your guidance and suggesting a few first steps they can take. Define the next “check-in time”, e.g. the next meeting or message to participants to keep things moving forward. 

If you think you don’t have the right skills or can’t make a difference as just one person, think again! For example, American Rachel Carson was not a trained scientist but a citizen-scientist, i.e. she taught herself. Her 1962 book “Silent Spring” highlighted the devastating effects of agricultural pesticides, specifically DDT, on songbirds. Her efforts kicked off a wide environmental movement and sparked a ban on DDT. In Canada, the now Famous Five were women from Alberta, who fought for women to be recognized as persons and were instrumental in the early women’s rights movement. In 1921, women across Canada could finally vote in federal elections (Aboriginal, Asian and women of colour were still excluded). 

Many movements, solutions and laws started by one or a handful of citizens deciding to take action. Just like the theory of The Butterfly Effect, which suggests the efforts of one small action can start a chain reaction, which can grow into a substantial effect or outcome. Look up volunteerdufferin.ca or ask at your local library or municipal office about local groups to volunteer with.

Go and be that butterfly and believe that you and your efforts CAN make a difference!  



         

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