Nonprofits & NGOs

Five Levers of Social Change: Part 4

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 fourth in a series on the five drivers of social change. In previous posts, we explored models such as Alice Water’s Edible Garden that serve as “bright spots” for change, the role of new data and insights in the way we think about issues such as HIV, and the important role of public perception, including how grassroots and institutional investments can alter it. In this piece, we look at how to catalyze change through shifts in policy. 

The most important lever for transformation often can be a shift in policy. Policy changes include efforts such as the anti-smoking restrictions implemented in New York City, the Affordable Care Act health and safety legislation, and the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal.

Local, state, and federal government policy can impact our social contract (drug laws, taxation policy, etc.), the dollars allocated to critical programs (for example, Nurse Family Partnership funding), and decisions around government contracts (such as food sources for school lunches). The latter impacts the food kids eat; and given the size of the contract, it impacts the food market and pricing.

Today, many companies are as big as nations; Walmart is bigger than 160 countries. This means that companies increasingly impact social change in many of the same ways that government does. Their labor practices serve as de facto social contracts with large numbers of people. Their products shape consumer behavior and health. Companies’ buying decisions—again, like governments—alter the economics of markets.

As we look at changing policy, we now need to include corporate policy in the discussion. This is one of the most dynamic and exciting areas in the field right now. 

Walmart, for example, has 200 million customers, 2 million employees, and 100,000 suppliers. What started out at Wal-Mart as an effort to improve the company’s reputation evolved into well-researched and comprehensive program that began to change the fundamental economics of the green economy, moving it from the fringe to mainstream.

It also caused a ripple effect of greener policies: WalMart started requiring that suppliers follow environmentally sustainable business practices. This forced suppliers to make a choice: to rethink how they could manufacture, package, and transport their products in a way that limited greenhouse gas emissions, or to lose a major client. Since, other companies have followed WalMart’s lead.

Government and F100 corporate policies, services, and purchasing move markets and change the rules of the game. They are not easy to shift, but it is hard to find a more powerful lever for social change.

Moving these giants often requires using other levers to build an environment that makes taking risks attractive. They need to see the bright spots to know it works; they need to know that public perception supports the change; and they need to see the data that shows the change will matter.

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.

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  • BY Thien Nguyen-Trung

    ON March 27, 2012 10:58 PM


    Thanks for the excellent series.

    I buy all the levers for social change but believe one additional lever (lest you planned another post for it) is missing.

    After social change agents have used all four levers to get things to tilt the way they wanted, they need to entrust to a fifth lever, which is “social safe-guarding” (once again quoting Paul C. Light’s language).

    In other words, social change, unlike business change, is prone to revert back to the previous “prevailing wisdom” or status quo for many reasons - not least because causes can be politicized the wrong way and abused by various stakeholders for their own agendas.

    That is why, after all is said and done, we have to make sure that the policy change is properly defended and adjusted as necessary for the changed state of affairs to remain as long as it is useful.

    The process then of course begins again once someone finds even THAT state of affairs to be unsatisfactory or inappropriate and initiates the “creative destruction” through social entrepreneurship and advocacy.

    It is this circular nature of social change that many people fail to address in discussions of how to make a difference. While the 4 levers are no doubt valid and powerful, we must put some more thought around the amount of ongoing research, case studying, data collection, toolbox creation and monitoring that is needed to constantly assess if the change we brought about (even in Walmart’s sourcing policies) is 1) what we wanted, 2) as good as it can be and 3) sustainable

    Given that this fifth activity or “lever” is not necessarily the sexiest, it is no surprise why it is not being taken up much by the current literature that emphasizes action. After-all, overthrowing something is always more fun and exciting than protecting that same thing from dying a quiet death behind the public’s awareness.

    The question is: how can we make social safeguarding cool and sexy?

    We all want to change the world and enjoy the rush of the process. But what would we think if we knew the things we fought for long and hard could not too long after our “victories” be reversed, corrupted or plain out destroyed?

    I have no answer to this but applaud those of us willing to take on the role of safeguarders, e.g., in government, overseeing institutions, watchdogs, etc. at a time when the glory disproportionately befalls the entrepreneurs.

    Again, thanks for this series! But let me raise my glass as well to the fifth lever of social change - or shall I call it the first lever of maintaining social justice?


  • BY Aaron Hurst

    ON March 28, 2012 10:37 AM

    Thien, love your comments.  Couldn’t agree more that maintaining social change can be a huge task.  The fifth lever is actually disruptive technology.  It should be posted next week.

    Would be interesting to look at an additional framework for maintaining social change.  There are likely several levers for making that happen.  You point to several. Data showing it is working.  Ongoing political support.

    This is especially timely given what is happening in the Supreme Court today.

  • BY Thien Nguyen-Trung

    ON March 29, 2012 10:44 PM

    Aaron, pardon my short-sightedness, I indeed thought the series was already done, which is why I mentioned the “fifth” lever as if it were not coming yet! Did not mean to steal your thunder. Something about the words “four” and “five” that confuses slow-minded folks like myself…

    Fully agree that we need to incorporate social change stewarding/maintenance, but instead of yet another framework again, perhaps we should simply make a habit of fully integrating this into any blog post series or academic approach to “social change” as the part that is just as critical as all the others, despite being neglected.

    Looking forward then to the FIFTH post, ahem!


  • BY Mike Zeidler

    ON March 29, 2012 11:37 PM

    I stumbled across this story by happy accident this morning and really like both the series (to date!) and the comment stream just here.  If you view ‘bright spots’ as ‘what’s working well’ and use that part of the cycle as a checking mechanism, then social safeguarding is already in there I think.

    This model neatly captures a systemic approach to social change which I’ve not seen before, and I’d be interested to know what inspired the thinking?  With your permission, I’d also like to cite the ideas in our work, which uses all 5 drivers at a city scale. 

    The way we describe our approach is 1) change perceptions, 2) provide skills so that people can work with their new ideas more effectively and 3) guide people to the places & projects where they can put their new perceptions & skills to good use. We have our own very simple diagramme which I can share with you if you ping me an e-mail…

    Best wishes
    Mike Zeidler
    The Happy City Initiative (

  • BY Aaron Hurst

    ON March 30, 2012 12:56 PM

    Mike, sounds like you are doing some amazing work.  Please feel free to cite the drivers and model.  The goal is to help people make an impact so psyched to think it is being used.  Would also love to see your work.  Don’t want to post an email here or SPAM spiders will get it but I will give you a hint - .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

    Look forward to hearing from you.


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