There’s no E in your P: The tragedy of confusing project participation with causal engagement

There is, of course, that old joke about the flea who rode on the elephant’s back across the bridge. On the other side, the flea shouts, “Wow, we really shook that bridge!”

The Millenial Generation is about to cross the bridge. Technology permits them to choose whether they will be the flea or the elephant.

Meet the (very endearing) flea:

Sites like and movements like slacktivism claim that (in the words of the We Are What We Do folks):

Small actions x Lots of people = Big change

For slacktivists, “click actions”–signing or forwarding an e-petition, for example, or become a fan of a charitable cause via Facebook–are the small actions of choice. In the words of The Extraordinaries‘ Jacob Colker:

[Millennials] are used to text messaging, MySpace, Facebook, get-in, get-out, instant gratification. For them, going out and cleaning up a park — that’s not necessarily attractive to them…

If you’ve hung with this blog for a while, you know that I am about as big a fan of participation projects as they come. In fact, they’re absolutely foundational to Transformational Giving, and no small amount of our Coach Your Champions book is dedicated to the topic. If it’s short-term, high-touch, high-yield, and understandable without external reference, chances are I’m all over it…


Here’s the rub:

We are on the verge of forgetting the most important characteristic of a great participation project, namely:

The project must never enable participants to find fulfillment within its boundaries but must instead open our eyes to something far grander that, once we see it, we find ourselves completely swept into it.

There must, in other words, be an E (engagement, comprehensively, with the broader cause) in your P (participation project) in order for small actions x lots of people = big change.

To stick with the math theme, P + P + P + P + P just don’t equal E.

In English, that means that lots of people participating in small actions doesn’t equal lots of people comprehensively engaged with the cause on a level capable of generating substantive change. You can text WESHALLOVERCUM to 82232 on your Verizon Wireless cell phone all day long and you’ll still never get a Selma to Montgomery march with police dogs, firehoses, and a whole country rethinking its social compact.

This is apparent on the We Are What We Do site itself, where three columns purport to show the direct relationship between small actions (left column), lots of people (middle column), and big change (right column):

  • In the left hand column on the page, Small Actions, you’ll see directives like “Make someone smile”, “Make coffee for someone busier than you”, and “Don’t job someone by the job you do”.
  • In the middle column on the page, Lots of People, you’ll actually see the number of people who have done each of the directives. Can’t get any more quantified than that!
  • Where the problem comes is the right hand column, Big Change. Even though the left hand column says “Bake something for a friend“, and even though the middle column might note that the action has been completed 21,818 times, the right hand column can’t quite figure out the Big Change that derived from all that baking. Instead the right hand column lists job openings, media coverage of the site, and book releases. That’s because P + P + P + P may result in an awful lot of gingerbread entering our friends’ larders, but it falls well short of reducing lawsuits, curbing world hunger, increasing social capital, or effecting Big Change.

Millenials have latched on to something truly insightful: Participation projects–even “click actions”–can draw new legions into involvement with major social problems for the first time.

But we should never lose sight of the reality that even the best participation projects are fleas riding on the backs of causal elephants. The problem with becoming a Facebook fan or a slacktivist or an Extraordinary is that too often these actions sate our appetites to go deeper, rather than intensifying them.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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5 Responses to There’s no E in your P: The tragedy of confusing project participation with causal engagement

  1. Tracy Nordyke says:

    Wow! Great post. I hope tomorrow’s will highlight the inverse of what you shared today…projects that intensify appetites for interaction with the cause?

  2. EFoley says:

    Hi T,

    I try to write about the best Signature Participation Project as I sees ’em. Let me refer you to this most recent post of my current favorite. I think it’s a great example of a project that intensifies participants’ appetites for a deeper connection with the persecuted church;

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