Turning Good Intentions into Action

Posted by Maria Popova

How businesses and ordinary people can use small actions to ignite major change.

The world is teaming with good ideas that go unrealized. One reason? Big actions can seem so daunting that they paralyze us, preventing us from taking even the little, mangeable steps that can build up to real change. That's exactly what IfWeRanTheWorld aims to address—to harness the world's largest untapped natural resource: human good intentions that never translate into action.

Here's how it works: Someone with a good idea logs into the site and completes the sentence, madlib-style. Next, you're taken to a screen where you list microactions—little things that can be done to begin to accomplish your goal—with information about what that action is, how much, if anything, it will cost, and how long it will take to pull off. Next, you Tweet, email, and otherwise disseminate the call to action.

To get a better idea of how it works, we sat down with IWRTW founder Cindy Gallop, an advertising industry icon, to talk about the power of "microactions," the inspiration for the project, and the future of advertising and social responsibility.

GOOD: With a lot of cause marketing, there is a disconnect between affiliation and action. People declare support for a cause by joining a Facebook group or wearing a wristband but fail to take actionable steps towards solving the problem. How does IfWeRanTheWorld address this disconnect?

Cindy Gallop: That's actually the reason why both people and brands access IfWeRanTheWorld by answering the question, "If you ran the world, what would you do?" Asked of an individual, it forces you to stop and think about what you believe in enough to want to do something about it. Asked of a brand or business, it's effectively saying, "Given your operations and how you make money, what responsibility does that place upon you that you should be acting on?" It's about "action branding"—not simply attaching yourself to a cause, but defining who you are, as a person or a business, and acting on it, so that you really are what you do.

G: In a world obsessed with, to borrow from TED's vocabulary, "ideas worth spreading," you're all about "actions worth doing." How, exactly, do microactions work and how do you make sure they still amount to the big-picture goals they are meant to achieve?

CG: Just to clarify: IWRTW is designed to help anybody do anything, no matter how macro or micro. Not all goals are big-picture. We encourage users to localize action—the equivalent of "if I ran my street I would..." or "if I ran my neighborhood I would..." Because seeing your actions have an impact in your own backyard is what really inspires you to do more.

Whatever your goal, IWRTW enables you to break it down into something extremely small, simple, and easy-to-do—the action equivalent of "140 characters or less"—which anyone can help create.

G: It seems like people in the advertising industry are faced with chronic existential crises: They are looking for pro-social side projects as a respite from what they do all day, perpetuating consumerism. Was that at all the case for you in initiating IfWeRanTheWorld?

CG: Not quite like that! IfWeRanTheWorld is the result of all my own experience, expertise, and beliefs, both personal and professional. My ad-industry background means I believe the advertising of the future has to be about doing, not saying: communication through demonstration. I also believe businesses of the future have to be about integrating business and social responsibility, so that it's not just about making money and doing good, but making money because you do good. And my personal philosophy is to always assume positive intent. I started IfWeRanTheWorld on the same basis Pierre Omidyar founded eBay: in the belief that human beings are fundamentally good. So you could say I'm making a number of personal bets on what I believe in—the future of business; the future of advertising; people.

G: If you ran the world, you would....

CG: Help every woman in the world live the life she wants.

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings, a curated inventory of miscellaneous interestingness. She writes for Wired U.K. and The Huffington Post, and spends a shameful amount of time on Twitter.