Agent for change

Jeremy Heimans has been passionate about big issues since he was small. Now he harnesses online people power to create global social change.

By Deborah Tarrant

Image of Jeremy Heimans

Jeremy Heimans was eight when he first shot to global attention. The schoolboy from the Sydney suburb of Cremorne, intent on ending Cold War anxieties, had written a song called Rainbow of Peace that won the 1986 International Children’s Peace Prize. His effort earned him numerous interviews on prime-time TV and an introduction to then Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, with whom he discussed Third World debt and malnutrition.

Subsequently, this curious, politically aware child met with a group of Nobel Prize winners and other young thought leaders to discuss pressing international issues.

“I was worried about what was happening to the world. Would there be a nuclear war? I had views about the situation then unfolding in Libya,” says Heimans, who recalls his early precocity with amusement. So began a career in activism for the child of documentary-making immigrant parents who wanted to “make a difference”.

Fast forward 27 years and Heimans, now 35, is in the New York City headquarters of Purpose, the latest of several organisations he has co-founded, which empowers millions across the world to effect social change by having their voices heard. “It’s about creating new sources of power and helping the old ones adapt,” he says.

“Social-movement entrepreneur” Heimans has been recognised as a visionary leader by the Ford Foundation, and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Fast Company magazine ranked him 11th among its 100 Most Creative People In Business in 2012. In the almost three decades since the acclaim of his first headline, he has completed a Bachelor of Arts/Law with honours in government at the University of Sydney, attended the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, interned at the United Nations, steepened his learning curve at management consultancy McKinsey & Company, and started a PhD at Oxford University.

His years at Sydney left an indelible mark and he remembers several teachers from the Department of Government and International Relations who shaped his thinking and view about the possibility of change. “Fred Teiwes and Linda Weiss were both great mentors and intellectual guides in helping me think about big issues like the nature of power, the international system etc.

“The work I did for my honours thesis in Government absolutely helped shape my interest in advocacy – it was about how politics and the war of ideas shaped the financial liberalisation that led to the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. It helped shape my view that changing hearts and minds was as important as the technical solutions to making big change in the world, and that more and more major global decisions were taking place in a shroud of technocratic obscurity. We need people to have a direct voice in the decisions that would directly impact them.”

In 2004, during the US presidential election, Heimans started a campaign that told the stories of women whose loved ones were in Iraq, raising millions of dollars in online donations. He was hooked by the power of technology, impressed by the internet’s viral capability for spreading the word.

A year later, with university friend David Madden, Heimans returned to Australia to establish GetUp!, the online activist organisation that now has more members than all of the country’s political parties combined.

My honours thesis helped shape my view that changing hearts and minds was as important as the technical solutions to making big change in the world.

With his sights on global change, Heimans went back to New York in 2007 with Madden and others to form Avaaz, the global citizens’ movement, which now has more than 21 million members. “I was attracted by the fact that I could go to the US and just start stuff and people would say, ‘Sure, let’s give it a shot’.”

Thus, Purpose was created in 2009 as an incubator, again with Madden. It has already spawned a multitude of social movements. Hot on its agenda now is All Out, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement that’s looking beyond the focus on same-sex marriage in the United States and Australia to the conditions for people in the 70-plus countries where it is still unlawful to be homosexual.

Another is Meu Rio (My Rio), a movement set up to fight corruption in the Brazilian city, which, as Heimans observes, is “at a historical inflexion point where what happens with its development could benefit millions of poor people or just a privileged elite”. My Rio has notched up big wins, including promoting a constitutional amendment and major changes to the environmental code. “It has stopped demolitions in the favelas [slums] in the lead up to the Olympics and the World Cup,” he says. “Now we’re looking at taking that model to other cities. Originally, the city was all about the citizen. We’re trying to bring back some of that direct democracy.”

Purpose, with its staff of 80 spread across 1400 square metres of office space on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and in London and Rio, also acts as a consultant to institutions including Google, the Gates Foundation and the non-profit American Civil Liberties Union – helping them to create communities using 21st-century technology: Facebook, Twitter, email and building apps.

“Facebook and Twitter are very helpful for amplifying the message, making it spread quickly,” Heimans says. When All Out used the popular platforms to campaign against a bill that would make being gay punishable by death in Uganda, 200,000 people had signed its petition by the end of day one; 500,000 after four days.

Regardless, Heimans advises: “I tell people to start with a strategy that’s going to get people involved, not the technology. It’s important, but you need to use the best tools at the time.”
The teenage Heimans tried to halt the Gulf War by inundating the hotels hosting political antagonists US Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz with faxes to convince them to stop. Often low-tech works better. One example, he says, is the missed call when a phone user dials a number and hangs up before the call is answered. This no-cost means of communication is flourishing in India and other parts of the developing world. “Those who want to let their friend know they’ve arrived at the cafe or let their partner know that they are thinking about them simply leave them a missed call.”

Its potential was highlighted when Indian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare asked people to leave him a missed call and 35 million people responded. Subsequently, Purpose built Crowdring, an app that enables social movers and shakers in emerging nations to create a mobile campaign using missed calls to create their mailing lists, then inviting people by text to sign “mobile” petitions.

These days, Purpose is inundated with offers from enthused individuals wanting to join its teams. Heimans, a self-described “pragmatic idealist”, is a regular international event speaker who, often with self-deprecating humour, puts forward a compelling proposition. Fired up by the “wins”, he has lost none of his passion. Many causes remain close to his heart – from the sustainability of the world’s food system to climate change, political equality and LGBT rights. “With Purpose, I’ve created the perfect home for my desire to work on a lot of stuff. By nature, I love making things happen and I get very impatient, so in my old age, I’m trying to become the enabler.”

In speeches, Heimans stresses the importance of not forming a social movement around an individual and the difficulty of trying to effect change from within large institutions. “It’s not that institutions don’t work, but if you are trying to start a social movement, you don’t want to be trapped inside one.”

At Purpose, small individual working groups operate like start-ups, tackling individual issues. However, as it grows, can its co-founder stop Purpose taking on the frustrating characteristics of a big organisation? “Good question,” he says.

This article was first published in The Australian Way

A remarkable likeness

By Lorenza Bacino

Image of Jeremy Heimans

Jeremy Heimans is not the only overachiever of his family. His brother Ralph (BA ‘92)is a prominent artist and was interviewed in SAM in October 2012 after he was commissioned to paint the official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II to commemorate the 60th anniversary of her reign.

SAM caught up with Ralph late last year after his acclaimed portrait was vandalised in June, only three weeks after going on display at Westminster Abbey.

Despite lugging around an unwieldy portfolio, portraitist Ralph Heimans is relaxed and smiling when he shows up at the Abbey on a drizzly autumn morning in London.

But after some painstaking restoration work, the huge portrait is back in the Chapter House to be admired by the hundreds who visit each day.

“I feel relieved,” says Heimans. “It’s great to see it back. Because the painting has been restored perfectly, I feel I’ve come to terms with what happened. Had that not been the case, I might be feeling very different now.”

He explains how the Abbey restoration team tended to the painting night and day for five weeks. Heimans was able to oversee the process and was only required to do a little touch-up work at the end. “It’s tricky, as you have to find the right solvent to dissolve the paint without destroying the painting, so it’s a laborious task.”

But that’s all behind him now, especially in view of the great reception the portrait has had in Australia and beyond. “Apparently, it was the most popular work the National Gallery in Canberra has ever had, by a long stretch – and in the three months it’s been on display at the Abbey, it’s had 700 000 visits, which is remarkable.”

And the commissions have been flooding in. “I’ve had requests now from Australia, Europe and the United Sates. And they include some high profile ones too.”

He disappears for a moment to take a call and is mighty upbeat when he returns. “That was a good call, a really good call, and if it comes off it’ll be bigger than the Queen – well, as big as the Queen,” he smiles.

PS: Jeremy on Ralph: “Ralph and I talk all the time about his work and mine, and we’re even plotting ways to bring them together on certain issues. Stay tuned.”