April 2018


Jeremy Heimans: the up-start

By Malcolm Knox
Image of Jeremy Heimans
The co-founder of GetUp! might be the most influential Australian in the world

If you were riding in an autorickshaw in Delhi, India, in the past two years, handkerchief over your mouth against the smog, you might have been surprised by your driver giving you a mini-lecture about how the pollution was linked to global climate change. If this was one of the 359 days of the year when Delhi’s pollution exceeded World Health Organization safety standards, and you began coughing, the driver might have offered a mask to replace your handkerchief. Many of the city’s autorickshaw drivers were trained members of “Help Delhi Breathe”, a grassroots movement whose actions resulted in the Indian government announcing an ambitious solar energy scheme, among other measures aimed at saving the thousands of lives lost in Delhi each year to pollution-related causes.

At around the same time, during the Australian federal election of 2016, Tasmanian hard-right Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic was surprised by a result that bore closer resemblance to a local citizens’ uprising than a political campaign. Launceston doctors and nurses with a lifetime of political inaction, rebelling against budget cuts to public health that Nikolic had supported, mobilised to persuade their fellow voters to kick their member out of office.

The Delhi autorickshaw drivers, the Launceston GPs and dozens of apparently disconnected progressive campaigners around the world had a common lineage. Help Delhi Breathe had started with a group of frustrated activists pairing up with Purpose, a New York–based organisation co-founded and headed by an Australian, Jeremy Heimans. A critical factor in the 2016 rejection of Nikolic was the contribution by GetUp!, which Heimans co-founded in 2004.

Once you start looking, the 40-year-old Heimans becomes a Zelig of 21st-century progressive movement-building. Purpose has enabled non-hierarchical, participatory initiatives ranging from Everytown for Gun Safety, the anti-gun violence coalition in the United States, through a diverse portfolio of public health, clean energy, humanitarian and other campaigns. Before setting up Purpose in 2009, Heimans also had a role in founding the international activist organisation Avaaz, which now has close to 47 million members. Fast Company magazine ranked Heimans 11th in its “Most Creative People 2012” list, and he has addressed numerous forums from TED Talks to the World Economic Forum in Davos. He has co-written a book, New Power: How Power Works in our Hyperconnected World – and How to Make It Work for You, which carries personal endorsements from Richard Branson, Jane Goodall and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. Heimans might be the most connected and influential Australian on the world stage, yet his profile here is minimal. As GetUp! co-founder Amanda Tattersall says, “Jeremy is a complete genius, but nobody here knows who he is.”

Although Heimans’ movement-building is synonymous with online and mobile technology, his campaign experience dates back to doorknocking, paper petitions and street marches. At the age of eight, Heimans responded to a third-grade challenge – “What would you do for world peace if you were arriving on earth in a spaceship?” – by writing a song called “Rainbow of Peace”, which won the Australian section of the International Children’s Peace Prize. For Heimans, that meant a trip to Disneyland to collect his award, and another trip to the Banner of Peace conference in Bulgaria. (“A great cultural exchange”, Heimans said looking back on it as a 15-year-old, but also “a kind of communist PR job”.) Heimans’ public speaking prowess led to meeting Prime Minister Bob Hawke and appearing on A Current Affair in 1990 when he was 12. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Heimans’ intelligence and cogency reduced the ACA reporter “to moronic expressions of bewilderment”. There was a trip to the Netherlands to meet Nobel Prize laureates, a short film about children that was presented to the then foreign minister, Gareth Evans, and at one point Heimans rounded up 50 teenagers to tell members of the NSW parliament pretty much how to do their jobs. As a schoolboy, he had a business card and a rented mobile phone (“really the best way to communicate with the real world from school,” he told a newspaper).

Heimans is the first to admit that he was “a strange child”. The youngest of three (his middle brother, the portraitist Ralph Heimans, is eight years older), he was more focused on adults than other children. “When I started at Sydney Boys High there was an ‘Anti-Heimans Movement’, which wasn’t a real thing but a reflection of people’s horror at this talkative kid getting up in front of the assembly and on TV in Year 7.”

To talk to, Heimans has a rumpled charm that shows a long evolution from the “arrogant brat” he once called himself. Tattersall, who co-founded GetUp! with Heimans and David Madden in 2004, says, “Jeremy is so bright and quick, and has a sophisticated way of understanding the world, but back then it could get in the way of his relationships. It wasn’t spectrum behaviour but it was on the edge of it – not fully picking up how some stuff was landing.” By all accounts, Heimans soon learnt how to prevent his intelligence from intimidating others. “He’s quite softly spoken, not a stereotypical ‘big personality’,” says Evan Thornley, the tech entrepreneur and former Victorian Labor MP who helped fund GetUp! and mentored Heimans. “He started out as a thought leader, but he’s become a significant people leader. People follow him.”

Loud or soft, the talking was innate. His father, Frank Heimans, told an interviewer in 1992 that his son at nine months of age was presented with some food and pronounced from his high chair, “Actually, I don’t like it.” Heimans says his parents were “befuddled, encouraging and protective” of his precociousness. Frank was a documentary filmmaker whose work on subjects as diverse as the Holocaust and Indigenous Australians’ relationship with the environment interested him, but “independence and entrepreneurialism” was his father’s key legacy. “The cycle as an independent filmmaker was that you had to hustle to raise the funds, make the film, market it … and then it starts again. The things I’ve done have followed a similar pattern. It’s not scary to me because I didn’t have a dad who was an employee of a big company or a big organisation. Being passionate about something and going out and making it – he was the model for that.”

While politics was not a regular dinner-table topic, Heimans’ family history left a deep mark. “The founding story of my life is this kid who had a narrow escape,” Heimans says, explaining that his father had been conceived in 1942 in an attic in the Dutch town of Tilburg, where his Jewish family hid from the Nazis – protected by a Christian family. “He’d been given a pacifier to stop him making noise so the neighbours wouldn’t hear him.” The story goes that when the Allies liberated Tilburg, in 1944, Frank’s head was swollen from oxygen deprivation because he’d never been outside. “One thing he did that I really admire is that he turned outward, not inward,” explains Heimans. “He didn’t think his first duty was ‘protecting the tribe’. He devoted his career to making films about other people’s injustices.”

Frank emigrated to Australia when he was 12. His family was smaller than that of his wife, Josette, who arrived from Lebanon in 1965. “She came of age in Lebanon’s glory period in the ’50s and ’60s when Beirut was this sophisticated, pluralistic, multi-religious kind of place,” Heimans says. “She went to a Catholic school but she had Muslim friends, Catholic friends, Jewish friends – she wasn’t leading a stratified life. It’s a reminder that history is not linear. Her upbringing was the story of Beirut as the so-called paradise that was.”

Most of Josette’s Lebanese-Jewish family were in Sydney and they provided the cultural influence on Heimans’ upbringing. “French was the calm language, and swear words were delivered in Arabic. It was not a super-religious situation. We’d go to the Sephardic synagogue in Woollahra: very austere, no fanfare, no organs, women upstairs and men downstairs, old guys singing out of key. At home, religion was only nominally there and we never spoke about it, but the cultural traditions were very prominent.”

Ingrained was the knowledge that both of his parents had come to Australia under duress, and refugee policy was among his early political interests. He was surrounded by adults who had fled conflict and, typical of his time, he grew up in fear of a third world war. As a five-year-old, it was the theatre of politics that hooked him. “Bob Hawke had just been elected prime minister, and I remember Malcolm Fraser’s tearful concession speech. There was something about this thing that generated such drama and emotion. I remember when I was seven, in 1984, handing out pro-immigration leaflets in time for the election … Other kids might have been interested in sport, but my sport was politics.”

With a tertiary entrance ranking of 99.95, Heimans started an arts/law degree at the University of Sydney, but soon dropped law to focus on an honours arts degree in government. A brief stint at management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company dissuaded him from corporate life, and he won a Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship to study at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. There was an exchange year in Paris, and he commenced a PhD at Oxford aged 25 before leaving after two terms.

Heimans was lucky enough to be able to “try on different suits for size” and define his future by which alternatives he was rejecting. “The McKinsey phase was business and the language and lens of business. Oxford was the track to being a technocrat: get a PhD, work for the UN or an international institution. There was a little bit of horror when I left Oxford, but I wanted to explore more active engagement, campaign against the Iraq War. My supervisor, Ngaire Woods, said, ‘I guess you’re right, Jeremy. The world needs more activists and fewer reflectivists.’” Heimans had figured out that he was suited to an “outside-in role, which was pretty consistent with my childhood”.

Independence of spirit was something Heimans shared with David Madden, whom he met at Harvard while they were both waiting to be interviewed for a Rhodes Scholarship. Madden, two years older, a law graduate with an army background, was the son of a Canberra magistrate.

“Everyone was dressed to impress, but I remember that Jeremy was rocking a pair of Blunnies,” Madden recalls. “We were both very ambivalent about the Rhodes and, perhaps at a deeper level, these ‘traditional’ pathways and institutions in general. Jeremy was wearing that ambivalence on his sleeve or, rather, on his feet!”

The pair became involved in the Harvard Living Wage campaign, supporting higher pay for service workers at the university. Most weeks they met in an Indian restaurant and discussed how to develop grassroots campaigning from petitions and marches to “thinking on the edge of how you engage, inspire and motivate people”.

The pair stood at a crossroads. Given all their advantages and all the offers that could come their way – employment, security, identity and, ultimately, wealth – they prized their independence most of all. But if they were to be political activists, was true independence ultimately possible? That question would influence the course Heimans and Madden undertook.

During the 2004 US presidential election, Heimans and Madden were committed to campaigning against the Iraq War. They raised money mostly from small donations and produced an independent television campaign, which ran in 12 states, contrasting President George W. Bush joking about not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq with clips of an American mother speaking about her son being killed in the search for those non-existent weapons. The organisation that Heimans and Madden helped start, Win Back Respect, attracted an advisory board that included former senator Gary Hart, and former advisers to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Win Back Respect funded a speaking tour by general-turned-Democrat politician Wesley Clark and also flew the Band of Sisters, female relatives of US soldiers, around the campaign trail to bedevil Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Heimans and Madden’s inspiration came from MoveOn, the public advocacy group founded in 1998 by software entrepreneurs Joan Blades and Wes Boyd. Its main aims were to support and campaign for “progressive” issues and electoral candidates. MoveOn soon compiled mass email lists and developed a decentralised power structure to mobilise protest broadly and quickly.

Elections in 2004 saw crushing defeats for centre-left candidates in the US and Australia. Bush won a second term, and John Howard seized control of both houses of parliament. Heimans came home to Sydney that December to visit family and friends. At a pub, he ran into Amanda Tattersall, whom he had known in activist circles since undergraduate days. Then a community outreach organiser with the Labor Council of New South Wales (now Unions NSW), Tattersall had been active in Iraq War and refugee policy protests. Heimans told her that he and Madden would love to set up an Australian version of MoveOn. “We should sit down properly in daylight hours and not have a drunken pub conversation,” Tattersall recalls saying. Two days later, Heimans and Tattersall met again in a cafe at the city end of Oxford Street.

“I loved his idea,” Tattersall says. “We’d been trying to build an activists’ register, and I thought, Oh my God, this is exactly what we need.” Tattersall had been doing some digital organising, setting up a 15- to 20,000-people email list to run the peace movement, “but we were bumbling our way through without a model, and Jeremy presented that model: a massive email list with an organisation behind it that runs multi-issue campaigns … I had been setting up campaigns and then dissolving them once they were over. Instead, we could have one thing and brand it across movements, a piece of social infrastructure for progressive politics.”

Tattersall undertook to secure initial funding within 48 hours. She sent a text message to John Robertson, her boss at the Labor Council, and the next day he committed $50,000. “Because of where the union movement was at, crisis dovetailed with opportunity,” Tattersall says. Heimans returned to the US, but two months later he came back with Madden. They worked out of Tattersall’s office, experimenting with names on A4 sheets of paper (they tried MoveOn Australia before settling on GetUp!), hiring staff, and defining the organisation’s fundamental aims in order to pitch for more start-up capital. After the Labor Council, the first funders included the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU; then under Bill Shorten’s leadership) and Evan Thornley. “They were shopping around a video of what they’d done in the US,” Thornley recalls. “Jeremy was always creative, looking for different styles of campaigning. His intelligence was only half of it, though. Intelligence alone doesn’t make a leader. It’s his moral values. He knows what he believes in.”

Within those first days, however, the seed for more than a decade of attacks on GetUp! was planted: the unions were giving it money, so GetUp! had to be a union and ALP front. Senator Eric Abetz would dedicate years to the failed effort of having GetUp! classified, for funding purposes, as an “associated entity” of the ALP. The Murdoch media would tirelessly point out the overlap between GetUp! and the likes of Shorten and Robertson (future Labor leaders), Tim Dixon and Lachlan Harris (professional associates of Heimans who would work with Labor), and Cate Faehrmann (who later became a NSW upper-house Greens parliamentarian, and until recently was the chief of staff to Richard Di Natale) to build a picture of a Labor–Greens–GetUp! conspiracy. In its support for the controversial Australian Federal Police raid on the AWU’s premises late last year, the Coalition was still burrowing away at the union’s donation to GetUp! back in 2006, as the Registered Organisations Commission investigated whether Shorten followed correct procedures.

And yet, to be allied with Labor or any other party was specifically what Heimans and Madden were rejecting when they founded GetUp! “We thought the parties were hopeless, they’d completely failed to provide an effective opposition to the conservative policies of the Howard government,” Heimans says. “We believed the only way to revitalise the progressive movement in Australia was to have nothing to do with changing the political party apparatus.”

Tattersall, a disenchanted ALP member at the time GetUp! was founded, says the donors were drawn to the GetUp! idea because it wasn’t about a political party. “They had been throwing their money away on political parties, and this was about independent politics, something sustainable that might make parties better.”

Heimans describes GetUp!’s pitch: “If you want a democratic anchor for progressive Australian politics, that is what we’ll be. We’ll keep all the bastards honest – Coalition, Labor, the Greens.” GetUp! campaigns would follow the values of “social justice, economic fairness, environmental sustainability”, fall where they may in the political debate. GetUp! was far from neutral on those debates, but Heimans says it took the side of the issue, not a party. “If an other-universe progressive version of Malcolm Turnbull had been in power in 2009 pushing gay marriage, we would follow those issues and be behind legalising it. That’s always been the posture and I’m very proud of how GetUp! has maintained it.”

Madden says the Coalition, before its Howard-era purge of “wets”, could as easily have been a beneficiary of GetUp!’s campaigns. “When we were growing up there was a genuine [small-l] liberal wing of the Liberal Party. Many of GetUp!’s positions would have been fine to those in the ‘wets’. Indeed if you look at GetUp!’s membership you’ll see plenty of disaffected Liberal supporters.”

Small-l liberals were wooed: MP Petro Georgiou would work alongside GetUp! on a campaign to legalise the abortion drug RU486, and former Liberal leader John Hewson was enticed onto the GetUp! board soon after its launch in 2005. Hewson resigned only weeks later, replaced by Don Mercer, who was chairperson of mining services company Orica. Joe Skrzynski, the chairperson of CHAMP Private Equity and former SBS chairperson, and Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler would, over the next decade, be part of what Heimans calls a “potpourri” of donors motivated to do something outside the existing political parties.

GetUp! membership grew to 230,000 in its first two years as it expanded its presence in the lead-up to the 2007 election, most notably in its campaigns against the imprisonment of David Hicks and against Howard in his seat of Bennelong. As a result, the attack on GetUp!’s independence solidified into a firm Coalition belief. Yet, both before and after Kevin Rudd won power that year, GetUp!’s links with Labor were fracturing. Robertson grew disenchanted with its focus on middle-class interests at the expense of economic fairness, while Shorten’s successor at the AWU, Paul Howes, had a personality clash with Heimans. “We were really passionate about maintaining independence and not letting it fall under anyone’s control,” Heimans explains. “As soon as GetUp! became hackish or institutional, it was going to fail.”

Nor was there a cosy GetUp!–Greens alliance, GetUp! separating itself from what its founders saw as the Greens’ ideology-driven policies. “The parties were confused,” Tattersall says, “because none of them could control GetUp!”

Heimans and Madden, meanwhile, saw their role as “founders”, leaving the organisation in the hands of its first executive director, Brett Solomon, formerly of Oxfam, who surrounded himself with talented operators working out of an office above the Edinburgh Castle pub in Pitt Street, Sydney. The founders remained on the board after the dynamic Solomon stepped aside in 2008, replaced by Simon Sheikh.

When interviewed by Heimans and Evan Thornley, Sheikh says he was “starstruck” but soon “dumbfounded”. Thinking he was applying for an operations role, Sheikh discovered he was being sized up for the leadership. Wes Boyd, co-founder of MoveOn, had mentored Heimans, impressing on him that naivety could be a strength in new power organisations, and now Heimans was following that advice, hiring a 22-year-old who hadn’t been inhibited by bad experience. Sheikh found Heimans to be a stimulating collaborator, always driving the organisation to innovate. “While you could tell he was the smartest guy in the room, he never acted like he was,” Sheikh says. “He never felt he had to prove himself, which meant he could focus on getting on with the job.”

Heimans never micromanaged the executive directors; he encouraged experimentation and was driven by data on membership numbers and each campaign’s effectiveness. GetUp! asserted its independence from Labor with a television ad playfully ‘showing’ John Howard cheering Rudd’s modest carbon emissions target. With Labor in government, Heimans says GetUp! continued to speak truth to power, to the ALP’s chagrin. The board no longer had unionists like Robertson and Shorten but private equity investors who wanted to see a social return on their investment. They and the staff sought to mobilise previously disengaged citizens rather than the activist core.

In 2007 Heimans and Madden helped start Avaaz, a global version of MoveOn and GetUp!, and in 2009 Heimans co-founded Purpose. He, Madden and Tattersall left the GetUp! board after its 10-year anniversary in 2015. The experience had clarified Heimans’ ideas about the relationship between “old” and “new” power. Purpose, what Heimans calls “a mothership for the movement-building work I’ve done over the course of my life”, operates by developing new organisations in online “labs” and experimenting with models of issues-based campaigning. Its list of achievements includes playing various roles in the formation of All Out, now a 1.7-million member LGBT movement, the Women’s Marches following Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the NY Renews climate campaign that led to the passage of New York State’s significant Climate and Community Protection Act, and climate campaigns in Brazil, India, Kenya and Australia as well as in the US and Europe. It also consults to existing organisations, including Everytown for Gun Safety, the American Civil Liberties Union, UNICEF and UNHCR, Google, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Fred Hollows Foundation (creating its online See Now campaign, which reached 5.6 million social media users within three months).

Heimans says that Purpose embraces “pragmatic idealism” and doesn’t adopt purist positions. “We like to say we can speak the language of an Occupy activist, a Facebook product manager and a UN technocrat.” It also speaks the language of Unilever and Nike, two of its corporate partners, as well as that of #MeToo. If a partner “veers off course” and does things that nobody at Purpose can support, “then we have to fire them”. This is underpinned by Purpose’s status under American law as a public-benefit corporation, a new legal structure that mandates companies to serve the wider society rather than simply its shareholders, giving an economic value to philanthropy.

While leading the organisation, Heimans also clarified his ideas in a Harvard Business Review article he co-wrote with Henry Timms of the 92nd Street Y cultural and community centre, and they have developed these in the book New Power. They contrast “old power”, akin to currency that is hoarded and used to exert authority, with “new power”, which channels and distributes agency, acting more like a current. New power values include open-source collaboration, radical transparency and self-organisation; old power values include competition, exclusivity, confidentiality, expertise, managerialism and long-term loyalty.

To further explain their ideas, Heimans and Timms developed the “new power compass”, which shows how the old and new models and values intersect. There are “castles” (those with an old power model and old power values, such as government taxation offices); “co-opters” (those with a new power model but old power values, such as ISIS, Facebook and Uber); “cheerleaders” (those with an old power model but new power values, such as corporations like Unilever and media organisations like The Guardian); and “crowds” (those with a new power model and new power values, such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Airbnb and Wikipedia).

There is obviously a lot of unpacking of these ideas, and New Power is in part a users’ manual for online movement builders. “We wanted to talk about the exemplars – break down and make rich why they are exemplars and why some are failures, so readers can bring that into the work that they do,” Heimans says.

But Timms and Heimans started writing New Power before Brexit and Trump, and long before Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power in China. While writing it, Heimans was seeing how some of the far right’s success aligned with the story of new power. “Trump – and this is also true of ISIS – is giving people more agency, unleashing their creativity: ‘Do your worst and I’ll pay your legal fees. I’ll pluck your memes out of the obscurity of Reddit or 4chan and tweet them out.’” Heimans explains that Trump is not trying to circumscribe how his movement behaves. “Trump’s value proposition to those people is very old power, offering certainty: ‘I’ll look after everything, I know you’re anxious about the future, I alone can fix it.’ ISIS is a medieval theocracy that could not be more old power, a brutal hierarchy. And yet how they spread that energy and build that movement is very new power: letting their supporters do what they want, not being doctrinal in allowing them to build on their idea in an extensible way. My worry is that this combination of strategies could be very effective. If you’re a potential ISIS recruit, you’re getting both more agency and more belonging and certainty.”

Heimans says that the aim of New Power changed as it was being written. Now it is about getting new power “into the hands of the angels”. But as the GetUp! experience has shown, it’s rarely simple. Who is funding the “angels”, and what influence do those funders exert? How do the angels reconcile their own conflicting aims? And, going back to the most personal thread in Heimans’ life, how to maintain independence when the money has different ideas? Or, in a much older language: how do you stay effective without selling out?

Madden, who now works for social ventures investment company Omidyar Network, says independence was never negotiable in any enterprise he and Heimans set up. “We always took the position that if a donor wasn’t willing to support a 100 per cent independent GetUp!, then we weren’t interested, and we would always make that clear to people who wanted to get involved.”

Thornley, from a donor’s point of view, says Heimans never compromised values for money. “The deal is, if you support the values, please give money.”

Youth is well represented at Purpose and GetUp!, and in their membership. Heimans’ own transition from professional young person to established player, from mentee to mentor, has refreshed his optimism. He is no longer the kid who was only interested in adults, and what he has found coming up behind him is an antidote to despair: new power for new people. “I was a very unusual child in that I believed I could impact the wider world. The expectations I had as an unusual kid in the ’80s and ’90s – young people today have very good reason to believe they can do that, and they are doing it more effectively.”

There’s a lot of talk, but it’s not all talk. Real change has been achieved. GetUp! helped get John Howard out and David Hicks home. In its first year, it played a major role in securing $88 million in extra funding for the ABC. It now has more than a million members, a new power organisation dwarfing the membership of all political parties combined. Thornley says the biggest change in Heimans has been the evolution from ideas and the “founder” mentality at GetUp! to “proving his leadership chops” at Purpose. The organisations that Heimans founded and nurtured have achieved tangible results around the world. The citizens of Delhi can be confident their children will breathe cleaner air than they do. The anti-gun movement in America will outlast Trump. Same-sex marriage will be legal for more people every year. Corporations now seriously seek a social dividend. “When I watch these levers work together and bring about dramatic change, that’s the most satisfying thing,” Heimans says. “Earlier in my career I would have been more excited about the numbers, the 10 million people signing a petition. Now we can be much more active and creative in getting new ways for people to participate. The satisfaction is in seeing it all come together.”

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica, The Life and Bluebird.

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