Shoppers at Macy’s Center City in Philadelphia thought they were there to shop, or maybe to hear the world’s largest pipe organ, which is located in the store. They didn’t expect a Random Act of Culture. But that’s exactly what they got when more than 600 opera singers broke out into a rendition of Handel’s Messiah.
And, said Dennis Scholl, vice president/arts for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, Fla., that’s the point.
“It’s a way of communicating to everybody the beauty and grace of culture,” he said. It takes people by surprise, but they pay attention. “Random Acts of Culture is a way of reminding communities that culture is one of the ties that bind us as community members.”
The Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture are flash mobs. The term was reportedly first used to describe a 2003 event organized by then-Harper’s magazine editor Bill Wasik at another Macy’s, this one in New York City. It refers to a surprise, spontaneous-seeming performance in the middle of a crowd. Nonprofits use flash mobs to raise awareness and get people thinking about their issues, and technology plays a huge role, both in coordinating flash mobs and distributing the records of the events.
“Channels of distribution have been democratized,” said Scholl. “The ability to bring culture to the world has been democratized, and Random Acts of Culture takes advantage of that.”
Scholl said one way to create buzz is to let a few people in on what will be a surprise to most viewers. “Sometimes it’s fun to tweet, ‘For a surprise, come to this location at noon.’ You’d have 50 people who knew what would happen and the rest didn’t. It can be random to some people and not to others,” he said.
“In Philly, the one that put us on the map, we Tweeted it out, but way more people had no idea what was going on,” said Scholl. “That’s one way of creating some energy around (a Random Act).”
Mobile technology and social media allow former middle school teacher Orly Wahba to show how little effort it takes for people to be kind to one another. But the flash mobs she, her Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit Life Vest Inside (LVI), and their worldwide supporters pull off take anything but little effort.
Last year LVI coordinated flash mobs in 25 countries on Nov. 13 to kick off World Kindness Week. First, participants would freeze in the middle of an act of kindness, such as giving a hug or wrapping a coat around someone’s shoulders. This is called a freeze mob.
“It’s helping people to become more aware of the opportunities that surround them, and it’s the small acts of kindness that make the biggest difference,” said Wahba. “With the freeze mob, we wanted to show that sometimes we think we don’t have the time to just stop, but there are so many opportunities to stop.”
Then the freeze mob turned into a flash mob, with all 5,000 participants doing the same dance to the same song. “Kindness is a universal language,” said Wahba. “You don’t need words. Everyone can understand it. It’s the same thing with dance, it has that ability to be communicated to everybody everywhere.”
Coordinating 5,000 participants in 25 countries wouldn’t have been simply difficult without leveraging technology. It would have been impossible. “I’m one of two full-time people (at LVI) so it’s crazy to coordinate so much,” said Wahba. “Technology is a big, big part, especially social media.”
Both Wahba and Scholl stressed the importance of being adaptive before and during a flash mob performance. “You’ve got to stay loose and flexible,” said Scholl. “We prepared everyone on what to expect, but lots of issues can come about, from the weather, authorities deciding they don’t want us there, whatever,” said Wahba. “I tried to give (group leaders) possible scenarios and how to deal with them.”
Wahba said she used the document sharing service Dropbox to get event pictures in real time across the world, and she met with every group leader — of which there were more than 60 — via Skype. Social media, especially Facebook and YouTube, are a big part of the distribution effort. A closed Facebook group for group leaders and Google Hangouts were integral to the planning process.
Those who use flash mobs say they’re a great way to raise awareness. For North Texas Giving Day, held this year on Sept. 19, “We tried really hard and did a lot of public relations and marketing to get news stations involved with the giving day. A flash mob was one way,” said Claire Hodges, marketing manager of the Communities Foundation of Texas in Dallas. Hodges said volunteers gave out doughnuts and coffee and explained to passersby about North Texas Giving Day.
LVI’s flash mobs were designed to “bring awareness to World Kindness Day,” said Wahba. “That’s the reason we had the event. We also wanted to bring awareness to LVI because we’re a small grassroots nonprofit that puts on a worldwide event.”
Random Acts of Culture are meant to build awareness. “What we’re not trying to do is draw a bright line between seeing a Random Act and rushing home and buying a ticket to the symphony,” said Scholl. “But people are always surprised when they hear something classical. They say, ‘I know that one!’ We’re trying to trigger that response, that reminder that we do care about these art forms.”
Hodges’ organization partnered with performance arts high school Booker T. Washington in Dallas to have some of their dancers break out into a performance during the morning rush hour at a downtown Dallas train station. Hodges said secrecy was paramount before the event happened, and as such, she did not utilize technology much to spread the word. “We didn’t do as much of that, social and mobile,” said Hodges. “We probably sent a few tweets about it, but that’s it.”
Hodges said the event was easy to stage without technological aids because there was one point person. “Our key to making it so successful was having the teacher of the students so agreeable and willing to help,” she said. “We communicated with her so we didn’t have to coordinate with each student. It wasn’t hard to convince them to come and do (their dance) for the public. We could have coordinated a little better with mobile or social, but the main focus was to get the press there.”
Sometimes flash mobs go beyond performance. The Dream Builders Project (DBP) in Los Angeles organized a flash volunteer event in December. With little fanfare, staffers and their friends set up on a street corner and enticed volunteers to help them distribute food and supplies to area homeless.
“As a new nonprofit we wanted to do something different from what many charities do, some small action that makes a big difference,” said Director of Public Relations Louise Miclat. “We thought of a flash mob of charity; nobody’s ever spontaneously fed the homeless.”
The five DBP staffers and about 25 of their friends and family set up on a street corner on December 15, packed some bags with food and supplies, and asked passersby if they’d like to help. The original goal was 30 volunteers (including staffers and their friends). They ended up with between 40 and 50 people who stopped to help. “We didn’t know that many people would show up,” she said.
Miclat said collecting volunteer information and mass texting everyone was an important part of coordinating the event and responding to the situation in real-time. Volunteers would tweet or text tips about where the needy could be found, and DBP staff members asked volunteers to spread the word via texting to their friends. But, said Miclat, where technology was most useful was the follow-up.
“This event was supposed to be like a flash mob, nobody was supposed to be aware,” which alleviated the need to get the word out before the event happened, said Miclat.
Once the flash mob is over, technology is implemented for distributing recordings of the event. “We did a lot of post-event communications,” said Miclat. Volunteers wore DBP-branded T-shirts with the organization’s Twitter and Instagram handles emblazoned on the back, as well as hashtags (#DBPLA and #DreamBuilders) for the event. “When people watch the video (that DBP put together), they see the shirt,” she said. “Afterwards, we got this influx of people tweeting and Instagramming the hashtags at us.”
Wahba said she was able to spread her worldwide flash mobs in real time. “We wanted to have a hashtag we’d all be using so we can post in real time as the event is taking place,” she said. “We spread the message with the hashtag (#DFK2013). On location, participants arrived, took pictures of the event and posted them. We had each location upload pictures to Dropbox, shared them with our developer, and the developer put those pictures up for each location.”
A YouTube video of the Macy’s Random Act of Culture has been viewed nearly 8.5 million times. “Social media has been key in terms of getting the actual Random Acts videos out and about,” said Scholl. Often when his staff uploads a video of a random act, audience members have beaten them to posting, said Scholl. “That’s the power of social media,” he said. “You can do something wonderful and have the ability to get it out to the world at virtually no cost.” NPT
As we celebrate our 36th year, NPT remains dedicated to supplying breaking news, in-depth reporting, and special issue coverage to help nonprofit executives run their organizations more effectively.