Mapping it out: Social change approaches


In earlier posts, I mulled over social change overall, the need and opportunity for describing shared visions for the change, and two overarching paths (social marketing/education and policy/advocacy) to pushing change along the ‘social diffusion bell curve”. The lens for all these ideas is focused on social change organizations, or actors, in terms of their approaches to ‘pushing’ change along the bell-curve of a community.

Within the broader policy/advocacy vs. social marketing/education frames, most organizations concentrate on one or two specific strategies. Here’s a menu of some of the most basic strategies. Within each of these, there are further subsets of strategies and approaches. As I see it, they’re all important, and they all have a role. But some approaches leverage change more quickly, systematically and broadly (across communities) than others, depending on the degree to which they focus on systems vs. individuals.

1. Direct service: This is ground zero for perhaps most charities in North America and Europe, and it is the zone where most people are pretty comfortable. Say the word “charity” and most folks tend to think of traditional direct service non-profits focused on health, education, and poverty reduction. Directly provided goods and services are vitally important to the ‘clients’ in need, and can change individual lives. Examples: food distributed through food banks; support services for the disabled; settlement services for new Canadians; or methadone treatment programs for addicts. They could also include “personal development” kinds of service. The tag-line for the Bikram’s Yoga Studio down the street is: “building strong communities by building strong individuals.” This kind of direct, one-on-one support is vitally important – AND, it seldom leverages change for larger groups of people in any sustainable way. Direct services fall in the “give a man a fish” category.

2. Social marketing/Education: Social marketing focuses on trying to reach larger numbers of people to change individual attitudes or behaviours. Here, I’m conflating social marketing and education. Education is almost always a part of social marketing campaigns. It makes sense: people won’t adapt new behaviours or attitudes unless they encounter plenty of facts and ‘validators’ to back up the new idea, facts that tend to fit within their pre-existing ‘frames’ or terms of reference. Examples of social marketing campaigns: public health campaigns focused on anti-smoking, fitness, condom use; anti-bullying education; drinking-and-driving education; or reducing energy consumption. But like direct services, social marketing campaigns focus on individuals, rather than systems. They may focus on relatively large numbers of people, but don’t really address the landscape in which people make decisions in the first place.

3. Business/consumerism: In the past 20 years across Europe and North America, the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) world has exploded. The underlying assumption for CSR advocates is that as market economies are here to stay, and allow educated consumers to “vote” for some kinds of change with their dollars : so let’s develop pockets and swirls of positive, equity-focused, environmentally responsible market forces that can eventually shift the voluntary behaviour of at least some corporations and market sectors. Examples of CSR initiatives range from the development of “climate-friendly mortgages” (eg. to encourage energy efficient building and renovations), organic foods and fair trade consumer products, to cross-branding with progressive social causes (eg. The Red Campaign). On the consulting side, there’s a host of “sustainability practitioners” to go along with the trend (I confess to still not understanding what that means, exactly!). This so-called “pocket-book activism” has power in numbers – huge numbers – of consumers. Presumably, if alternative markets develop and become sufficiently large to truly compete with resource-depleting, inequitable, conventional businesses, they can yield change in the broader system over time. Or, one could argue, pocketbook activism can lull consumers into thinking they’ve done their bit, without substantially changing anything.

4. Policy Advocacy: Advocacy – that is, advocacy centred around clear calls for policy change – addresses power. It is a central strategy for many environmental and anti-poverty groups in their roles as “third party” influencers of the actual decision-makers. Activists often use the term “advocacy” to mean a wide range of activities, from government relations (seeking to influence policy, and decision-makers, through relationship-building and persuasion) to rabble-rousing (negative media attention, petitions, public rallies, organizing and voter education). These efforts come with an implicit (but not always clear) call to action in terms of corporate or governmental policy change. The role of third parties is tricky, because no matter how intense or ‘loud’ advocacy efforts may be, they won’t necessarily lead to change. Advocacy has to be linked to a clear understanding of actual levers of power in the decision-making process. Is there a city council vote coming up? A Treasury Board or finance committee debate about the next budget? A desperate need for supporters by one potential candidate in an upcoming internal party nomination campaign?

Before moving along the continuum, it’s worth pausing to map out this territory a bit further – because it is the primary approach used by most social change organizations. Again, by ‘social change’ (vs. social wellbeing) organizations, I mean those organizations seeking to change the system, or triggers within the system, in order to leverage greater equity or environmental responsibility. Within this policy advocacy realm, there are many strategies groups use to shift power and effect systemic change:

‘Public will’: Public will campaigns are about mobilizing ‘key publics’ to communicate with their elected officials in sufficiently strong numbers and effective formats (eg. real letters vs. postcards) to encourage shifts in decision-making. This can be even more effective when those constituents wield power themselves in relatively direct ways that matter to elected officials – party donors, business allies, or voters in key ridings, for example. Within public will campaigns, there are a host of approaches or sub-strategies:

Organizing – eg. ‘concentric circle organizing’, old-fashioned face-to-face ‘shoe-leather’ outreach (canvassing, streeters, house parties, etc); ‘netcentric’ campaigns using on-line and off-line approaches; ‘viral’ on-line approaches, and likely dozens of others; the idea is to target current and potential supporters, build relationships, listen and where values align, help them move them up the ‘leadership ladder’ to greater and greater levels of engagement – ideally, to create a whole new cadre of organizers

‘Gatekeeper’ campaigns – campaigns aimed at targeting a few individuals who have access to broader groups of people, access that the social change actor or organization does not easily have on its own

Celebrity or ‘opinion leader’ endorsement for positioning and profile (‘surprising bedfellow’ strategies could fall under here)

‘Inside champions’ to provide access to internal podiums, provide endorsements & positioning

Government relations: For me, one big learning over the past year has been how few organizations do any government relations at all – when policy change is at the heart of their entire strategy. Government – both at the staff and political level – is where policies are made. A solid government relations (GR) program provides intelligence about what laws and policies have the potential to move through the internal ‘food chain’ of government decision-making. It can inform what stage policies are at, whether the time is right for moving specific initiatives forward (and when such efforts will realistically be futile), and what the specific levers of change are for moving them more quickly and in a stronger direction. GR is about research, listening, and learning. It is about relationship-building that leads to a deeper understanding of how, where and when to shift power. It is as essential to any effective policy effort as opinion research is to any broad public communications effort.

Litigation: This form of advocacy involves using existing policy levers and legal tools (statutory tools and precedents through the courts). Litigation has been used with incredible, tangible impact by groups such as the Sierra Legal Defence Fund and Pivot Legal. During more progressive government administrations, where ‘third party’ civil society groups tend to have more access and influence on policy development, litigation strategies are less needed, and tend to wane. But during relatively regressive, inaccessible administrations, litigation can be a vitally powerful advocacy tool for advancing social change.

Market Campaigns are about going to a different kind of power source: corporations. So much can be written about this approach, and in this globalized economy, usually only organizations with global reach themselves can use them. But the basic model (which groups like ForestEthics use masterfully) looks something like this:

1. identify a corporate target, ideally an iconic or influential member of a broader sector. Research it thoroughly in terms of chain of supply, investors, distribution networks etc
2. ask for change in policy (eg. procurement policies like selling paper products derived from pristine old-growth forests, or marketing policies like targeting children in tobacco marketing campaigns)
3. when the change doesn’t come, organize creative, public communications initiatives, generating plenty of earned media, that position the company negatively and potentially harm market share and/or investment potential, in order to drive the target to the negotiating table
4. negotiate for the change; agree to publicly praise the company for its leadership when the change comes
5. and here’s a twist that applies to some campaigns: as part of the negotiations, ask the newly-converted company champion(s) to meet with government to encourage a broader policy change that levels the playing field for all companies in the industry – thereby leveraging a more lasting, systematic shift in the decision-making landscape

5. Politics: Politics are about going to the heart of the matter – the matter being power. It is the stage where the complicated dance between vision and compromise plays out most starkly. Politics are not about being ‘pure’, or necessarily right – because in a democracy there may be many variations of ‘right’. As my partner says, “do we want to be a club – or a movement?” Initially, it is about battling it out in the arena of votes, at both the nomination and election stage. But when those battles are over, politics is about the opportunity to roll up your sleeves and dive into the messy work of sorting through diverse and sometimes conflicting values and solutions by tapping into collective intelligence and into leadership, all to develop policy. In the elections process, third party of civil society groups can play indirectly in this arena in several ways: building relationships with prospective candidates (one they’re in power it becomes a government relations exercise); organizing and list-building in specific electoral districts to build power through ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) work on e-day; endorsing specific candidates; volunteering or otherwise building the capacity of specific candidate campaigns; and various forms of voter education.

Final word:
Power lies at the heart of each of these approaches, as I believe it lies at the heart of all social change. Each approach has value. But I believe that the closer each is to addressing power, the harder the work becomes – and the more likely it is to have lasting, systemic impact. In developing strategies for social change, and for building movements that lead to social change, we are continually faced with the cost-benefit analysis of which approach will best serve, or be more fruitful, given our own assets, resources and ability – and willingness – to wield power.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Mapping it out: Social change approaches

  1. This is a very nice way to organize the different approaches to social change. I usually think about it in terms of education vs. persuasion vs. coercion, but your list slices the distinctions more finely. And outside of meaning “finding other means of support after this grant is up,” I admit that I have a hard time understanding what people mean by the term “sustainability.” 🙂

  2. Thank you Nina; and thanks for posting the first comment on this site! Jim Hoggan and Associates recently led the largest communications initiative about ‘sustainability’ in Canada, looking at how ‘thought leaders’ as well as Canadians in general think about the term. There’s a summary presentation of some of their work, at http://www.hoggan.com/sustainability.html. Cheers, Suzanne

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