Just because an idea might change the world doesn’t mean it will spread: Though promotable concepts like civic engagement or not texting while driving can change communities and save lives, people haven’t embraced them in widespread or persistent ways.

The challenge of how to spread ideas and influence behavior is increasingly at the heart of the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and many other organizations looking to effect large-scale social change. RWJF’s new aspirational vision for a Culture of Health—to improve health and health care for all Americans—is an effort that will require more than the usual philanthropy; it will require that we figure out a way to spread ideas that can influence how political entities, businesses, households, and individuals make health-related decisions.

Of course successfully spreading new ideas on a large scale is easier said than done. New social networking tools and big data increase transparency and accelerate the pace at which we can exchange ideas, yet the resulting flood of information makes it difficult to get mindshare and attention. We must target platforms and strategies to effectively reach different groups, yet increasing demographic diversity makes it impossible to build universal shared sentiment with a single approach.

In light of these trends, we decided to work with the Monitor Institute to explore what we know about how ideas spread. Together we’ve been gathering information from a variety of creative thinkers—with interdisciplinary perspectives from science and practice—who are advancing and spreading ideas. From there, we have convened experts to discuss the initial insights, and then translated both inputs into a set of recommended principles to guide the foundation’s approach. We expect to continue learning what makes influence effective, but just in the past six months, we’ve gleaned four insights about what it takes to spread ideas that others adopt, adapt, integrate, and ultimately take up as their own:

1. Where you intervene in a system is important.

Understanding where and how to place bets in a particular environment can significantly enhance the spread of an idea. For example, the sustainable seafood supply chain Future of Fish recognized that consumers’ adoption of sustainable fish was slow. Through anthropological research and fieldwork, the organization found that what blocks the idea of responsibly caught fish from spreading has everything to do with everyday decisions in processing, labeling, distribution, rather than overt lack of concern for the environment on the part of individuals, organizations, or industry. Understanding the nuance involved in spreading the idea of trustworthy, traceable, legally caught fish downstream, while at the same time empathizing with the complexity of making tweaks to change the systems that produce overfishing upstream, has enabled Future of Fish to target specific stuck points and incubate innovative solutions at those junctures (more efficient utilization, more local handling, more information transparency, etc.). This will drive changes, and directly and indirectly help save fish.

2. Stakeholders don’t act on abstract ideas.

Ideas that provide clear social incentives and compelling benefits spread more easily and help spark action. For example, GirlTrek, which supports African American girls to live healthy and fulfilling lives through walking, is founded on shared values around history, health, control, and independence. Rather than a call to action for weight loss, it is a culturally relevant charge to “engage in the journey” to live a healthy and inspired life. The organization’s acknowledgement of salient cultural and personal struggles, provides a means to build social capital, and empowers women to engage with and be part of a solution in their own communities.

3. Moving away from a traditional program focus is useful.

Agreement between partners on an outcome, not an approach, enables them to co-create ideas and spread solutions that stick. Strive Together illustrates what can happen when partners focus on what they want to accomplish together, without imposing specific protocols for how each will make progress toward that aim. With its collective impact approach to building strong local education systems, Strive understands that national ideas imposed on local communities often don’t get traction; instead, it enables change-makers to align to a north star while owning their local direction. In this way, the ideas that spread tend to lead to persistent change, because they derive from people who have experienced the social issues Strive seeks to address.

4. Shape the rhetoric and shift action.

For people to “pull in” an idea, there must be trust, authenticity, relevance, and salience in the message, messenger, and medium. The Center for American Progress (CAP), a nonpartisan educational institute, has successfully and effectively developed new, innovative policy ideas and views by ensuring that they are compelling to the hearts and minds of those they seek to reach. CAP invests heavily in: generating new thinking, figuring out the needs and wants of each market it serves, understanding local perception of issues under national debate (across a wide range of topics), co-creating language by unearthing stories from communities that will resonate not alienate, building relationships with trusted agents for each message, and then taking themselves out of the equation and letting others deliver ideas in the ways that matter most to them.

What we describe here may seem intuitive, but we find that capturing and consolidating common-sense approaches and bright-spot examples can serve as an instructive, integrated set of considerations for foundations and nonprofits to explore as they make choices about how to invest in various activities. As a whole, these insights are guiding our examination of where day-to-day decisions are unintentionally impacting the quality, efficiency, and/or equity of health and health care systems. They are helping us involve all stakeholders in meaningful ways, facilitating social cohesion and shared value of health. They are also helping us activate, empower, and collaborate with new partners from across multiple different sectors through an aligned focus on improved and equitable opportunities for healthy choices and environments, rather than on program-specific techniques. And finally, they are informing our understanding of the current rhetoric, how elements of the debate form, and what information we need to change the conversation in a way that can profoundly shift mindsets and behaviors to promote a Culture of Health.

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