Movements are born out of challenges or—as I prefer to think—opportunities. Movements inspire people to work collaboratively towards achieving a specific objective or mission. As the world continues to battle the Covid-19 pandemic, communities and people are facing untold hardships. People are anxious, frustrated and often feel helpless. But in this moment of great despair, we have seen the incredible human spirit show itself through the heroic acts of relief by friends, neighbors and communities to organize and support those in need.
I come from Cameroon, where, for the last three years, the country has been going through a civil strife. A separatist battle has raged in the two English speaking regions of the country causing significant loss of life, property and huge displacement of the population, both internally and externally as refugees. The war has left the country divided and the people, particularly those in the diaspora, bitter, disillusioned and cynical about Cameroon.
Years ago I had founded an organization called I Am Cameroon with a mission to inspire, educate and engage Cameroonians to accept and assume responsibility for our national development. Earlier this year, as Covid-19 began to devastate Europe and North America, where there is an advanced healthcare infrastructure, I began to worry about the impact on African countries, and particularly my country of origin, where there is a fragile healthcare infrastructure or none at all. Never has there been a more relevant moment than now, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, with the Cameroonian diaspora often disillusioned with the country, it was very difficult to build momentum towards any action. Every conversation about the country was met with negativity, finger pointing and sometimes angry pushback.
I resolved to recruit a team and we agreed that action must be swift. However, we weren't at first sure about what we could do. After several days of debate, we resolved to begin a fundraising effort to procure personal protective material to support healthcare workers in Cameroon who are in the frontline of the fight against the spread of Covid-19.
Within weeks, we had mobilized six other associations and raised over $28,000. With these funds, we provided 10,000 surgical masks, 10,000 surgical gloves, 100 coveralls and produced 2,500 face shields, which were then distributed to a network of local hospitals and clinics in Cameroon that had become our partners.
We have also secured a partnership with Saraya Co Ltd to provide nearly US $500,000 worth of sanitary gels to be distributed to hospitals across the country in December. We also have continued to build resilience within the Cameroonian community, both at home and across the diaspora, by creating awareness about Covid-19, spotlighting the work of other activists and recently launched a virtual fitness challenge: Sweat It Off Save a Life. the campaign encourages healthy living as a way to overcome the wrath of Covid-19 in the Cameroonian community and has raised US $4,000.
How did we do it? Here are some lessons learnt that apply to any movement building.
1. Focus on the Solution
When facing a challenge, focus on the opportunity. By focusing on the solution, you inspire others to think differently. Instead of debating the shortcomings of the government, we agreed quickly on what we could do to stop the spread of the pandemic. In this case, we chose to protect the healthcare workers who hold the line on the spread of Covid-19.
2. Spotlight the Purpose, not the Organizer
Sometimes we get lost in the weeds of who takes the credit that we fail to see the bigger picture. In this case, while I Am Cameroon facilitated the process, we shared ownership of the project with other groups. We collaborate with the Association of Cameroonian Physicians in the Americas, the Association of Cameroonian Nurse Anesthetist, the Saker Baptist Ex-Students Association of Houston, Texas, The Association of Cameroonians living in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, Nina Healthcare Services and Cameroonian Doctors in the United Kingdom. Collaboration is key in solving problems. It does not matter what organization does it, what really matters, is that we provide a solution.
3. Maintain a Partnership Mindset
Stakeholders are people who are affected by the work you do. They could be donors, beneficiaries, or volunteers. Each one plays a key role in the movement, and it is because of them that you exist. You must create the opportunities for engagement. Since we launched the fundraising campaign, we have engaged our donors and beneficiaries every Saturday for a 1-hour Zoom meeting. Listening to healthcare workers in Cameroon completely transformed our plans to suit their local needs. This also helped our donors see and understand why we made changes to our plans. We also provided regular updates to our donors about the progress of the campaign and results.
4. Use Storytelling
People are motivated by stories. We have highlighted stories of individuals who have taken personal responsibility to fundraise at their workplaces to support the campaign. We listen to the stories of nurses and doctors on the frontlines fighting against Covid-19, which has helped both the organizers and donors grow our understanding of their challenges and motivate us to remain committed to the movement.
5. Engage Experts and Citizens in Conversation
Covid-19 has presented immense challenges to the medical field. Our actions were guided by needs indicated by healthcare workers. We reached out to the doctors and nurses to educate us about how the disease was affecting their work and listened to advice on how our intervention could be most impactful. This empowered us and helped orientate our planning to suit the needs of the healthcare workers.
6. Meet People Where They Are
Keep it simple—use the most effective tools for reaching your specific audience. People wanted to donate to our campaign, but they also wanted it to be hassle free. To receive donations, we use PayPal on our website, but also accept payment through other commonly used apps: Cashapp, and Zelle. Stakeholders were engaged in a variety of platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, but communication has been most effective on WhatsApp. Interestingly, we have not used email campaigns.
7. Empower People to Take Ownership
Make your donors own the project. They are motivated by their own ability to make a difference, so provide opportunities to contribute to planning and implementation. Educate them so they can advocate for the project, solicit their opinions on key decisions, and always keep them informed of progress.
A movement is only as powerful as it is relevant to its stakeholders. Movements of any size succeed because they address a solution and create opportunities for participation. The challenge being addressed serves as the moment — the opportunity and the mobilization of stakeholders serves as the movement. What will be the next moment that you transform into movement?