One of my favourite things about these amazing Olympics has been the Games Makers. That’s the 70,000 or so volunteers that can be seen across Central London and at Olympic venues all over the country.
Whether you like the colour or not, there is something inarguably cool about a bunch of ordinary people standing out from the crowd in their Games Maker kits (kudos to Adidas). You know there’s no pretensions, no cynicism – just great people giving up their time for someone or something else.
Are they motivated by the chance to be part of something bigger; to be a part of the greatest show on earth? Of course they are and there’s nothing wrong with that.
These people are literally making the games possible by giving up their time to do everything from directing the flows of people at tube stations to mopping up the sweat on the badminton courts. It’s social action on a massive scale.
What’s even more striking is how the rest of us respond. We smile at them in the street and say hello, I’ve seen people stand on crowded trains to offer their seats to weary looking Games Makers on their way home and they’ve even got battle-hardened commuters like me having conversations early in the morning as we eagerly ask them what venue they’re at and what it’s like.
A few months ago I was in Cambridge town centre on what happened to be the day of Race for Life. That’s another huge display of collective social action, as hundreds of thousands of women run 5k to raise much needed funds for research into cancer. It is though, much more than a fun run. The runners dress in a uniform of pink and wear on their backs the names of the mums, aunties, sisters and friends who have suffered that disease. It is a collective act of solidarity with intensely personal motivations on display. Too easily taken for granted, it is a remarkable thing.
That morning we went for brunch and again I was struck by the way that the “rest of us” reacted to the runners as they started to arrive for some well-earned food. As each woman in pink arrived, the owner of the restaurant welcomed them with a glass of fizz on the house and a little cheer went up across the dining room.
So what do the Games Makers and Race for Life have to tell us about social action and what are the lessons for the many innovators that are trying to find ways to get more of us to give our time and money to causes we care about?
First, we need to look at the potential for collective action to engage new people in giving their time for causes they care about. It’s a reasonable guess that many of the Games Makers and Race for Life runners were first time volunteers (if anyone’s got the data, let me know) and now that they’ve taken some social action, it’s more likely that they’ll go on to do something else.
The catalyst that got them giving might have been the excitement of being part of the Olympics or the pain of losing a loved one, but the effect is the same: they have taken social action and that will have changed their perceptions of themselves (see Timothy Wilson’s excellent book on how this happens).
And you don’t need an event as big as the Olympic Games to harness the power of collective civic acts. New York didn’t win the Olympics and it didn’t stop them mobilising an army of volunteers through Mayor Bloomberg’s City of Service initiative. They famously called on citizens to paint over 1 million square feet of the cities roofs white to help reduce carbon emissions from air conditioning. Now hundreds of cities across the US regularly mobilise an army of ordinary people to take social action together.
Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t happen here. Team London has been around for a few years now and is building a British version of the US Cities of Service in our capital. Perhaps it is time we created Team Swindon, Team Leeds, or Team Calderdale?
Alongside mobilising people to do some good together, we need to think more creatively about how we make giving visible and celebrated. Games Makers and the Race for Life deploy the very simple technology of clothing – a uniform that signals to the world that you are giving your time for others. It’s an incredibly powerful mechanism, but it’s not the only one.
Increasingly we all define ourselves to the world through social media. Innovations like Givey and Blue Dot are exploring the potential for these new social identities to capture information about our giving habits and make it part of the story we tell to the world.
Is there a possible future where alongside telling the world about our education, jobs and favourite films, social media platforms like facebook prompt us to say what social action we’ve taken?