Nonprofits & NGOs

Five Levers for Social Change: Part 5

Practical Advice Series: Five basic “levers,” or strategies, to help businesses or nonprofits achieve social change.

Five Levers of Social Change

Practical Advice Series: Five basic “levers,” or strategies, to help businesses or nonprofits achieve social change.

This is the last in a series on the five drivers of social change. Here, we look at the role of disruptive technology.

In recent years, few advances have done more to spur the process of social change than the development of new technologies. But what is perhaps most fascinating about these advances is that even the smallest evolution can have lasting effects. Take, for example, the extraordinary ability of digital technology to connect individuals and help them share information.

In San Francisco, the fire department came up with a brilliant web application that is literally saving lives. The Local Lifesavers App is designed to alert CPR-certified technicians when there’s a local emergency. The technology works by tracking the location of each technician via their smartphone’s GPS; when an operator/dispatcher logs a 911 call, nearby people who know CPR and are part of the program receive the exact location of the emergency, as well as the location of nearby defibrillators. The technology allows people with basic emergency training to respond quickly—even before an EMT team arrives—and when seconds count, this app can make all the difference.

New Yorkers will be familiar with another example: the MTA App Quest. This government-funded program challenges app developers to improve the experience of the 8.5 million New Yorkers who rely on public transit daily. The recent grand prize winner, Embark, is an interactive program that provides users with directions, as well as a step-by-step guide (based on user preferences) that details train schedules and delays, uses GPS mapping, and identifies places to stop for coffee on the way—all accessible underground.

Sometimes these sorts of information-sharing advances can connect people who live thousands of miles apart but who have similar needs, interests, or priorities. One of the more transformative recent examples of this is the It Gets Better Project, started by advice columnist and activist Dan Savage. During the summer and fall of 2010, a number of teenagers who had been targets of homophobic bullying committed suicide. Savage saw an urgent need to bring attention to the growing bullying epidemic directed at gay and lesbian teens. He created a video where he and his partner, Terry, talked about their own terrifying experience of being bullied as children—and more importantly, how they were able to move beyond on and discover that their lives would in fact get better. Not long afterward, celebrities, politicians, and ordinary citizens began making their own videos, describing their own experiences, and encouraging others to not give up hope about the future.

Savage’s effort put a spotlight on an issue that was often quietly acknowledged but rarely discussed in public—and it’s precisely this sort of attention that can foster larger social changes. Savage relied on established technology—YouTube, Facebook, and other social media sites—to speak directly to young people. As he noted in an interview right after launching the project, “High schools don’t bring me in, and those are the ages that young gay people are committing suicide. Because of technology, we don’t need to wait for an invitation anymore to speak to these kids. We can speak to them directly.”

Conclusion: Putting the Five Levers to Work

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, authors Dan and Chip Heath suggest that the best way to create change is to shape the path—remove ambiguity so that people can take action and feel confident that their efforts will yield results.


The “five levers for social change” I’ve laid out in this series can help shape the path for any individual, organization, or government to create change. It clearly lays out the only five strategies that we at Taproot know work.

Here’s a framework for getting started:

First, define the desired change you want to make in the community, nation, or world, whether it’s increasing the percentage of K-12 students with access to healthy school lunches, decreasing the smoking rate in New York City, cutting the response rate for emergency services in San Francisco, or decreasing suicide rates for gay teens.

Second, understand the ecosystem of the issue. Is the issue framed in an actionable way for the community? Are there existing bright spots that you can use as models? Does the public support the change? What role do the government and companies play supporting the status quo or supporting change? Is there a potential technology that could shift the understanding of what is possible?

The third step is to identify which of the levers you need to address the issues, given what you understand of the ecosystem. Most issues require multiple levers and in some cases, you will need to use all five.

Next, identify the partners you need to create the change (local government, philanthropy, community groups, business, etc.). Who do you need to engage to activate each lever? How do you bring them all to the table behind your vision?

Then get started and begin to pull the levers—applying pressure while exercising a great deal of humility and patience. Social change is hard to accomplish. Focus your efforts in the right areas and make the greatest possible use of your energy.

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.

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  • BY Thien Nguyen-Trung

    ON April 5, 2012 02:26 AM

    Aaron, thanks for the awesome series!

    Wanted to point others also to not-to-be-missed projects like “Code for America” (dot org) for amazing public service initiatives enabled through technology like the fire hydrant.

    Also highly recommend Jennifer Pahlka’s TED Talk where she highlights some examples of the work done by people in the above initiative. Some really hilarious while useful (like what to do when you find a possibly dead possum in your trash can and need neighbors’ advice on how to deal with the situation).



  • Katy Hamilton's avatar

    BY Katy Hamilton

    ON April 9, 2012 10:24 AM

    I agree with your article, we are in a technology era now.  Some people may not like that kids spend so much time on the internet but that is what this new decade calls for.  Facebook to a lot of us young adults is not a way to post disturbing things but to stay in touch with friends once we have gone to college or rekindle with old friends we haven’t seen in years.  People just need to face the fact that computers and technology are a thing of the future.

  • BY Greg Berger

    ON May 13, 2012 09:08 AM

    Social media was once an “experimental communication tool used by a few forward‐thinking firms” in our industry. Now, on nearly every financial firm’s website you’ll find a trio of little blue boxes somewhere near the bottom. Corporate Insight, a research firm that provides competitive intelligence to financial institutions, released on Thursday a report spotlighting how financial firms have taken that growth and turned it into effective social media strategies.

  • BY Laurence Lang

    ON May 13, 2012 09:12 AM

    The report examines 90 financial services firms and ranks their Facebook pages, Twitter profiles, proprietary communities and blogs. While most firms that commit to a social media strategy will utilize the Big Three—Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn—Corporate Insight excluded LinkedIn from its report, as well as Google+ and YouTube.

  • BY Marshall Goodman

    ON May 13, 2012 09:17 AM

    Furthermore, most interactions are private, making engagement exceedingly difficult to measure accurately. YouTube offers better metrics by which to measure engagement, but the report found engagement tends to be low. The commenting feature is rarely used by fans of financial services channels, and in fact, is often disabled by the firms. Since Google+ allowed firms to create business pages in November 2011, roughly 50% of the firms tracked by Corporate Insight established a business page in their name. However, they appear to have done little more than that. “Until more firms have the chance to establish functioning accounts on this new community, we feel it is premature to grade their efforts,” the report says

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