Can we ever applaud too much?

Note: Next week is spring break, and I have made the executive decision that I’m taking the week off from blogging. I’ll spend the extra time hanging out with my kiddos, no doubt giving them A LOT of positive feedback.

I swear; I don’t know how I ever managed to be an organizer before I was a parent.

It seems like nearly every day I have an insight, related to life with my young children, that has relevance for my social change work.
Lately, it has been this: we can absolutely never, ever applaud too much the actions we want to see continue.

We’ve been working on this with our kids, especially my oldest son. It sounds ridiculous to us, “Hey, way to go taking your plate to the kitchen.” “Did you notice he just came right upstairs when I asked?” “Boys, great job playing kindly with each other!” “I hear friendly talking—I love it!”

But it never gets old to them. In fact, if we recognize one of them, the others will try to outdo each other, pointing out their own good behavior, seeking the same accolades. And it becomes a positive cycle—they improve their behavior in order to get more positive feedback, which prompts more of it from our end, in turn.

And nonprofit organizations have gotten this message on the donor cultivation side; when we make a financial contribution, we expect to receive a thank-you note, our annual reports list our donors, and we often publicly recognize those whose contributions have made investments in our organizations.

But do we recognize our advocates enough?

Do we send out “success alerts” or “thank-you alerts” as frequently as “take action” ones? Do we invest in tools that can tell us when people have responded to our alerts, so that we can directly and personally honor their commitment? Do we spend as much time talking about what went well, as dissecting what went wrong? Do we recognize the kinds of actions that we want to see repeated, even when the outcome falls short—so that every phone call to a legislator or grassroots member recruited is celebrated, even long before we achieve the policy changes that are our goals? Do we use the pages of our websites, newsletters, and annual reports to highlight “star advocates” the same way that we call out donors? Do we recognize and appreciate and reward advocacy intent and activist activity over and over and over again?

If not, isn’t it worth trying?

Because, really, if a tactic is powerful enough to get my boys to stay in their beds until their fishtank light switches on at 6:45AM, it’s powerful enough to motivate people to overcome our own reservations about collective action and join together to push for social change.

If incessant applause can get my daughter to stop taking off her shoes and leaving them all around the house, it can change the world.

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