Ashoka founder and CEO Bill Drayton recently wrote about his vision for a “changemaker world”—a place where problems can’t outrun solutions. He told a story about Ali Raza Khan, an entrepreneur in Pakistan, who tasked 6,000 poor students with starting successful ventures. He explains how, with little more than hearty encouragement, the students managed to develop the necessary skills and resources to achieve an 80 percent success rate. 

Imagine what would happen if we were to replicate Ali’s changemaker spirit among the 3.2 million American teachers in the United States. At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we have been wrestling with how philanthropy might help individual, effective teachers spread their changemaker spirit and best practices to other classrooms. Is the answer systemic reform, or is there an alternative way?  

Typically, philanthropists rely on the following strategies to carry out their work: 

  1. Policy change. Whether from a new law or legal decision, policy often drives shifts.
  2. Direct implementation. Through pilot projects, proof points, or replication, funders make specific investments in places or systems.
  3. Technical assistance. Funders invest in high-capacity providers that can support the shifts broadly.
  4. Tool development. Funders support new tools to meet new demands.

These strategies, familiar to any funder, represent clear bets on easily identified partners. Advocacy organizations are always hungry for foundation funding to support their efforts to shift policy; districts and schools are constantly looking for resources to pilot new tools or make system changes; organizations that offer technical assistance are easy to find, but capacity and quality of services vary; and entrepreneurs aren’t shy about knocking on doors for seed funding. 

But there’s an important fifth strategy that gets less attention: “contagion” or “viral spread.” In the philanthropic context, this is when good ideas or practices take on a life of their own, and spread widely from person to person. Viral spread is more likely to happen organically when it begins with individuals or informal networks—the #BlackLivesMatter and Occupy Wall Street movements are good examples. Philanthropists don’t use this strategy as often as others, because we typically want more control over and accountability for outcomes, but our foundation has been experimenting with how to work with teachers to create viral spread of best practices as part of our K-12 strategy. 

By “encouraging contagion,” we’re of course applying positive characteristics to a term that normally describes the spread of disease, thinking of it not as a negative force but as a process for creating “an epidemic of best practice” among teachers. Embracing the phenomenon of contagion requires that leaders relinquish some measure of control. It also demands that they stop thinking of change as a process related only to systems, markets, and policies, and start thinking of it as one driven by and affecting people. Contagion asks philanthropists to rely on the collective power of people to bring about change—to depend on a “group genius mindset” that’s more bottom-up than top-down.

The challenge for leaders of social change now is to know when we should rely more heavily on viral spread than on traditional strategies, and how much to invest in making it occur. 

In pursuing our larger education goals of supporting skilled teaching and establishing goals for student success, we’ve employed traditional strategies to bring about change. The adoption of the Common Core State Standards, for instance, gave us a policy lever that encouraged innovators to come up with new tools for meeting the standards. And in a typical direct implementation strategy, we funded several districts and states to help them implement the Common Core, and develop better teacher feedback and observation systems.

But our work with teachers is as much about developing skill as it is will. Research shows teachers want greater access to high-quality resources to improve their practice. They also crave connections with other teachers and trust each other more than administrators or external professional development providers. We also learned that some teachers are particularly influential in embracing change and working to improve. This is the perfect context for a bottom-up, contagion strategy.

Encouraging contagion isn’t as nebulous or capricious as one might think. It’s actually a calculated set of strategies that harnesses at least three social forces: influencers, people who make change happen; narratives, to help people understand what is happening and what is possible; and networks, to carry the work beyond direct implementation. For best practices to spread virally, we have to catalyze all three of these social forces.

Teacher leaders are crucial to viral spread, so we’ve been investing in developing more of them. Among the initiatives are the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) and the Math Design Collaborative (MDC)—frameworks designed to help teachers improve their practice. Thanks to teacher-influencers, the LDC and MDC tools have spread from just a few districts to dozens of states, and up to 30 percent of teachers say they are now aware of them. We’ve also cultivated teacher leaders through a conference by and for teachers called Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching. Sessions include TED-style talks by teachers describing why they teach and the difference they make, as well as peer-led “colleague circles,” in which teachers help each other find solutions to challenging problems. Teachers leave the conference feeling part of a larger professional community. 

We’ve also made it a priority to meet teacher leaders who are active on social media. We’ve learned that you have to go where teachers are and that teacher influencers on social media have a different reach than teachers leading changes in a specific school or district. Teacher leaders are the most credible distributors of high-quality tools, whether their network is online or on the ground.

We’ve also listened carefully to teachers, in-person and online, to understand their values and beliefs—their narratives. We funded a research project that analyzed more than 12,000 teacher blog posts, 16,000 Twitter chats, and 24,000 tweets over a three-month period. In the process, we met a number of new influencers, and we heard three dominant narratives: Teachers deserve professional respect, are most effective when they collaborate as learners, and need ways to advance without leaving the classroom. These views have helped shape our investment strategies. We know we must support teachers in articulating their narrative so that they can propel their profession into the next phase of innovation and improvement.

Finally, in our efforts to virally spread effective instructional practices and tools, we’ve funded more than 40 teacher practice networks; these networks seek to improve teaching and learning, and view teacher leaders as critical to that endeavor. Teacher practice networks include formal organizations like the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and longstanding organizations like the National Writing Project, as well as newer networks such as Edcamp and YouCubed. Through their collective expertise and connections, these networks help teachers tell their stories and bring effective practices to places in which we don’t directly invest.

Supporting networks gives teachers opportunities to collaborate and take on leadership roles; they also facilitate the viral spread of best practices. (Photo courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

We should not underestimate the role of influencers, narratives, and networks in our efforts to bring about social change. Weaving together these three elements creates a powerful force in any scaling strategy. It’s too easy for philanthropists and other leaders to discount these forces in an effort to focus on systemic reform or products to help teachers do their jobs. It’s also too easy to ignore or discount the possibility of contagion when we so value accountability and control. But ultimately funders are just that—funders. Other people do the actual work. So why not try to balance our top-down strategies with bottom-up ones that are more viral and organic in nature? The reality is that whether we want to or not, these powerful forces are already at work, building changemaker mindsets around the world. Change might happen faster if we paid more attention to supporting and amplifying positive narratives, influencers, and networks.

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