Solutions for Darfur activist burnout

Activism n. : a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.

Darfur activism has been getting a tremendous amount of press over the last few weeks, and not all of it has been positive. For some, the Olympics and Mia Farrow’s alternative games have been the impetus for reflection on how the “movement” is doing.[1]

The real problem is no different than with other activist movements. If the people who are involved on the grassroots level — the most important level for such groups — don’t get a regular sense of accomplishment, their involvement begins to slide off, and the group will eventually become stagnant.

Volunteerism thrives on engaging activities that bring some kind of reward. Regardless of how enthusiastically you care about a cause, burnout is inevitable if the final result is always failure. As Just correctly pointed out in his The New Republic article:

Genocide really is different from other foreign policy crises, in that it will not wait. Either you stop genocide immediately or you fail to stop it.

This creates a “perfect storm” for activist burnout. Fortunately, there are a few things that may help keep your group active, encouraged, and invigorated.

Keep it as social as possible
Even though we’re fighting for a cause, it’s always a thrill to get together with like-minded people. This is why Dining For Darfur is such a great idea, as it combines the social aspect of bringing people together, with an engaging activity.[2]

Work on multiple genocide issues
While you’re working on stopping the genocide in Darfur by organizing letter writing campaigns and public forums, talk to your local coffee shops about carrying free-trade coffee from one of the cooperatives that are helping Rwandan genocide survivors regain their independence, or volunteer to work with a refugee service, helping Sudanese (or Cambodian, Bosnian, etc.) immigrants.

Attempt to partner with other groups
Find other groups that have a similar mission who may need occasional volunteers for events in return for helping organize or host one of your events. This is particularly easy with Holocaust organizations who often do modern genocide programs (including Darfur).[3]

Use Web 2.0 applications
Your group is hopefully already doing this, but if you’re not, then you should start. The reason this is a good idea is because you can push advocacy and education while giving millions of people the chance to respond to what you’re doing. In a world of YouTube, Facebook, and blogs, not having an online presence is damaging even to the smallest of groups.

The key is to keep the group evolving. Despite what might be happening with your issue, if you can push a variety of events and campaigns that appeal to different personalities, you’re far more likely to maintain a certain level of commitment.

While these suggestions are mainly focusing on Darfur activists, you could easily apply them to other groups — environmental, political, social, etc — as any type of organization that promotes change through volunteerism is likely to face the same lags in participation. If you’re working with another cause or would like to find others who might be involved in your issue, you should check out Britt’s, Have Fun Do Good or the Changebloggers Facebook page.


[1] The Truth Will Not Set You Free by Richard Just

[2] If I could find enough people, I’d love to pull together a team of Darfur activists for our co-ed flag football league.

[3] See the Association of Holocaust Organizations membership page for a full list of Holocaust institutions.

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