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How to Think About Changing the World

January 13, 2018

Jennifer Reich is a 3L at Penn Law and the Alumni Editor of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 

 

Changing the world is hard. I know—I’ve been googling it for over a decade. As starry eyed millennials, we are often trapped between two extremes. Too many listicles on the subject aim too low, substituting human decency, like treating strangers with kindness, for world-changing. Too many hopes and dreams aim too high. One person can’t end global poverty, or climate change, or reform our education system. However, we can make a dent. 

Over time, I developed my own framework for how to make my dent count. The effective altruist movement, an evidence and data based movement led by organizations like 80,000 Hours and the Center for Effective Altruism, provides a starting point for maximizing individual impact. For those seeking a broader theoretical perspective on their roles in social change, I offer a conceptual vision for social change and how to fit a career into the messy, convoluted, humbling schematic of world-changing.

With this post, I introduce a chart to visually plot the interactions that comprise social change. After the chart, Part I offers in-depth explanations of the chart elements and a practical application of the framework. Part II offers insights gleaned from the chart. Part III outlines different ways individuals can apply the framework to suit their own needs.

We can’t change the entire world by ourselves, but we can conceptualize where our individual impacts are happening in the big picture.

 

I. Explaining the Change Cycle

From what I’ve seen, social change occurs over a six stage cycle. Fourteen categories of actors interact within those six stages, sorted into four sectors. The order of the stages can vary, and often they occur simultaneously. The complexity of interactions of different groups, partially captured here, is meant to highlight the key elements of any social change endeavor.

Mapping these ecosystems looks like this:

 

Change Cycle Stage

Information Sector

Connector Sector

Private Sector

Public Sector

Think Tanks

Academics

Media Outlets

Individuals

Nonprofits

Advocacy Groups

Foundations/ Support Orgs

Start Ups

Small Businesses

Corporations/Benefit Corps

Support Orgs

Politicians

Regulators

Law Enforcement

1. Identifying Problems

X

X

 

X

X

   

X

X

 

 

     

2. Visioning Solutions

X

X

 

X

X

X

 

X

X

 

 

     

3. Amplifying Issues

X

X

X

X

 

X

X

   

X

 

X

   

4. Integrating into Existing Frameworks

                 

X

 

X

   

5. Implementing Ideas

       

X

 

X

X

X

X

X

 

X

X

6. Enforcing New Norms

   

X

   

X

     

 

X

X

X

 The Six Stages of Change


A. The Six Stages of Change

The six stages of the change cycle lay the foundation for how and when different actors contribute to change. The titles are relatively self-explanatory, but some observations of each phase merit discussion.

  1. Identifying Problems: Often symptoms of a problem can obscure the reality of a situation and the actual crux of what needs to be solved. In this stage, entities can add most value with solid research and on-the-ground experience, nuanced understanding, and thorough contextualization.
  2. Visioning Solutions: Solutions can partially or fully address the problem from multiple angles, and therefore can seem radically different or contradictory.
  3. Amplifying Issues: As solutions are proposed, awareness generates momentum for change, inspiring entities across various spheres of influence to work towards solving the problem.
  4. Integrating into Existing Frameworks: Different solutions require accommodation and change across pre-existing institutions. Institutions must shift their messages to reflect new solutions to ensure consistency and change successfully integrated into practice at all levels.
  5. Implementing Ideas: Day-to-day implementation of new policies and ideas is crucial to the success of social change. Although implementation is often more diffuse than centralized idea generation or solutions integration, the work of individual entities towards realizing change is paramount.
  6. Enforcing New Norms: Strong enforcement of new policy and practice ensures the change will last through the long-term. Stability and buy-in from enforcement communities, legal and otherwise, can be a key complement to implementation.

B. Fourteen Categories of Actors 

The actors in social change are represented by fourteen categories: (1) think tanks, (2) academics, (3) media outlets, (4) individuals, (5) nonprofits, (6) advocacy groups and trade associations, (7) foundations and support organizations, (8) startups, (9) small businesses, (10) corporations and benefit corporations, (11) private support organizations, (12) politicians, (13) regulators, and (14) law enforcement. A few require deeper explanation than their labels. 

Individuals identify problems and vision solutions because at the individual level is where we directly experience injustice or problems that necessitate social change. When amplifying issues, individuals contribute through traditional routes of dialogue but also through riots, spontaneous protests, and, with varying degrees of effectiveness, social media. 

Nonprofits in this context refers specifically to direct services organizations like food banks, domestic violence shelters, and medical testing services. Many nonprofits, like Planned Parenthood, work in dual capacities as advocacy groups, and thus can be considered to traverse both categories depending on their specific activity in question.

Advocacy Groups is the broadest category, encompassing lobbying firms, activist groups like Amnesty International, political parties, industry trade associations, and politically oriented nonprofits.

Foundations and support organizations target funds and technical expertise to nonprofits and advocacy groups, rather than directly engaging social change themselves. They can include the more traditional Gates and Ford Foundations, as well as impact investing funds like Omidyar Network and nonprofit consultancies like the Bridgespan Group. Foundations and support organizations within the connector sector are distinguished from private sector support organizations by their singular focus on helping other connector sector entities push social change, rather than on profit.

Benefit corporations are a legal classification of corporations that include socially minded missions in their corporate charters.

Private sector support organizations are service firms like consulting firms, accounting firms, IT firms, law firms, venture capital firms, investment banks, and others. They exist to provide expertise or capital to other private sector entities, easing companies’ existence within the private sector ecosystem. Support organizations can handle day-to-day activities that are not core business concerns, like contracting out cleaning services or technology support, and tackle thorny questions, like a lawsuit or whether to make a potential new investment, that companies are not equipped to handle alone.

Law enforcement includes police and the broader justice system, like small claims court, class action lawsuits, and lawsuits to enforce or challenge specific laws.

C. Four Sectors for Action

These fourteen actors can be classified into four different sectors: (1) the public sector, the (2) private sector, (3) the information sector, and (4) the connector sector.

The public sector and private sector are intuitive: they cover government entities and business entities respectively, and the public and private ecosystems where those organizations tend to create value in standalone capacities.

The information sector focuses on generation and dissemination of ideas, covering the media, think tanks, and academics, who don’t “build” things per se, but instead facilitate the sharing of information across other entities.

The connector sector includes foundations, nonprofits, individuals, and advocacy groups. Of all sectors, these actors focus most intensely on catalyzing specific social change. By contrast, the private sector has businesses to run, the public sector wants a functioning administrative state, and the information sector does not commit to any particular social change issue. Connector sector entities rarely act independently, and instead leverage their influence with public and private sector actors, pressuring them to action and filling in gaps where the public and private sectors fall short, to accomplish broader change.

D. A More Concrete Example

To illustrate the change cycle, let’s apply it to a limited climate change example. First, academics, scientists, and think tank researchers fleshed out the scientific grounding and economic scale of the problem. Second, those same entities, as well as clean energy startups and others, started developing novel solutions to address climate change. Third, the media, advocacy groups, and eventually corporations all helped amplify the climate change issue into a national conversation. Fourth, corporations and politicians integrated new policies like corporate sustainability initiatives and California’s AB 32 law. 

Fifth, though many entities continue to work across all phases of the change cycle on climate issues, climate change has matured into an issue for which solutions are implemented. Foundations fund nonprofits doing sustainable agriculture projects, Wal-Mart carries more environmentally friendly products, venture capital firms invest in new solar energy startups, and AB 32 is transformed into actionable regulations. Sixth, a new coalition of forces is enforcing climate solutions. Regulators ensure that AB 32 standards are met, advocacy groups ensure the regulators adequately enforce new laws, trade associations monitor their members as they implement industry-wide voluntary agreements on sustainable practices, and the media shines light to elicit public pressure wherever implementation falters.

 

II. Insights from the Patterns of Change

From the above chart, a few patterns emerge by sector.

Information sector actors are most important at the beginning of the change cycle, where context is unclear and an issue is just starting to awaken in public consciousness. Media outlets are a consistent accountability mechanism, enforcing new norms even after the fact, but the information and ideas they share are most critical when change is beginning to take form. Think tanks and academics naturally mirror each other as research-focused entities, but individuals also cover the same ground as research is meant, fundamentally, to better understand the individual human experience.

Public sector entities are similarly clustered at the other end of the spectrum. They are fundamentally reactive to others’ needs, and not as focused on innovation. However, with prodding from the media and advocacy groups, the public sector primarily controls enforcement. This makes sense, as the coercive power of the state is a monopoly, while media and advocacy groups are most likely to use their public audiences to socially or economically pressure noncompliant actors, including lax government enforcers.

Connector sector actors span most of the cycle. Because they are singularly focused on change and operate outside of day-to-day societal functioning, they can only lean on other actors, like corporations or governments, to integrate solutions into existing frameworks. Compared to other sectors, connector sector actors can best concentrate on facilitating the change cycle, but lack the ability to operationalize large scale change that lasts beyond them. That being said, connector sector entities can sometimes function in unique ways because of the public credibility garnered by their focus on issues. For example, the US Green Building Council exists to credential buildings based on their environmental responsibility, which no profit-driven entity could do as effectively.

Private sector organizations represent the primary infrastructure of the world. The private sector manages the food we buy, the clothes we wear, our leisure time, and more. Because the private sector is so ubiquitous in life, it is ubiquitous across the change cycle, though our society outsources enforcement primarily to the public sector. Digging into the specifics, startups and small businesses fill the same gaps, as their small sizes mean their leaders see everyday problems that they are trying to solve. Note that nonprofits mirror startups and small businesses without the profit motive, as they are the relatively small sized entities focused solely on remedying specific on-the-ground realities. Corporations are less nimble and innovative, as their internal architectures are already set and more complex. Scale gives them the ability to amplify and implement new ideas, but they are less likely to originate those ideas. Their closest corollary outside the private sector is foundations, which are similarly large scale entities that focus on allocating resources to solve problems, rather than digging in and identifying the problems or solutions themselves.

One final insight emerges from the discrepancies between how connector sector and private sector support organizations tend to function within the change cycle. All types of support organizations help in the implementation of social change by providing expertise and funding, but the focus and type of expertise they bring can be colored by whether social change is their core operational focus or a temporary volunteer choice.

Connector and private sector organizations can also diverge in how they use their resources as well as the respect commanded by their expertise to further social change. For example, in the connector sector the Gates Foundation uses its name recognition to amplify issues beyond traditional audiences, as a broader swath of society will trust a Gates-branded assessment of food insecurity than an assessment from the agricultural industry. Private sector support organizations have parallel trust that they more often use to enforce new social norms, like individual private lawyers who take on consumer class action suits against private companies or who refuse clients representing interests they find repugnant, like perhaps the tobacco industry. For all support organizations then, the clients with whom they choose to do business or not can significantly impact social change.

 

III. Applying the Framework

This model is useful in a number of contexts, whether you want to 1) tackle a specific problem you care about, 2) find a way to give back that complements your skill sets, 3) leverage your current position to promote change, 4) identify alternate paths to change, or 5) understand your own impacts or potential for impact in a broader context.

  1. Following Your Passion: If you feel strongly about a particular cause, this framework can provide a template for considering the cause’s current place in the change cycle, and which entities are most likely to influence its progress. Let’s assume the issue you care about is freeing animals from zoos. The problem is identified and arguably understood, with solutions like animal protection laws and animal sanctuaries established, but there are very few relevant laws or wider programs that can enact more than small scale change. Broader society is still in the process of accepting that zoos are a problem for animals, and mechanisms to further the cause aren’t integrated into existing frameworks. There simply aren’t laws to enforce. In this context then, an individual might focus on amplifying the issue, finding an organization under one of those umbrellas to bring zoo animals further into the public consciousness to galvanize change.
  2. Matching Change to Your Skill Sets: Use the chart to identify the actors doing the type of work you want to do. Those who enjoy thinking about problems and cutting edge research would do well to consider organizations in the Identifying Problems and Visioning Solutions stages of the cycle. Those who want to physically see the results of their efforts may best fit at an entity in the Implementing Ideas stage. Those who enjoy persuasion and public discourse may best fit in a place Amplifying Issues.
  3. Working Within Your Current Position: For a person already working in a stable organization, the chart can help clarify where you can best leverage your career to support positive change. Someone working at a major corporation and passionate about the environment can urge procurement practices emphasizing sustainability. Politicians can leverage relationships with nonprofits, think tanks, and small businesses, to give them targeted solutions that help their constituents, rather than trying to grow ideas entirely within their own offices.
  4. Finding Alternate Paths: There will be instances where one or more of the cycle stages or actors seems blocked. Politicians from an opposing political party will refuse to integrate solutions into the relevant frameworks. Some solutions are too large to be implemented—world peace remains elusive, despite all the problems it would solve. Use the chart to brainstorm previously unexplored paths to change for a particular problem.
  5. Understanding Your Contribution: The change cycle highlights the vast diversity of change levers available to a motivated individual. Where solutions to zoo animal captivity are not implemented, work to sufficiently amplify the cause. Where national politicians rest in gridlock on climate change, find likeminded state and local politicians, use advocacy groups to replace them, or invest in a solar panel business. Thousands of ways to disrupt our society exist, and there is always a new potential avenue to incremental success.

 

IV. Conclusion

Ultimately, none of us can singlehandedly transform our community. However, to paraphrase former Phoenix Mayor and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, we can take change that was going to happen anyway and make it happen faster. Society can feel amorphous and stagnant, but focusing on the phases of change can help individuals measure our own contributions to progress.