Revealing Social Change Beliefs

What nonprofit boards and leaders think about social change matters—and it’s not always obvious.

When it comes to analyzing the effectiveness of philanthropic strategies, and nonprofit organizations and boards, the social sector tends to focus on measurement, design, and expertise in business, technology, finance, and innovation. But it’s equally important that we consider people’s deep-seeded and often unspoken beliefs about what social change approaches they think work best. Everyone—regardless of background, work experience, or skills—comes to the field with certain predisposed ideas about how to create change. These views influence how we think, listen, and feel about different social change strategies or approaches.

The sector’s current strategic planning and governance methods don’t usually explore these views or understand them, and as a result, we’re missing a critical link in a process that influences outcomes and satisfaction.

Developing a methodology to discover social change beliefs

My organization, Ideal Philanthropy & Sustainability, specializes in strategic planning for foundations and nonprofits seeking to create social change. We routinely interview board members and staff to learn about organizations’ structure and mission, as well as leaders’ professional skills and background, but as we did this, we kept feeling like we needed to learn more. In a previous post, I wrote about the need for organizations to define their primary social change role in order to frame appropriate goals and strategies.  But in our own work, we were discovering how difficult it was for organizations to make a decision about their social change identity, in part because existing strategic planning tools (including ours) didn’t seem to focus on this internal question.

Last year, we started to include some general questions around social change in our interviews. We asked open-ended questions around participants’ experiences with different social change approaches; we also asked them to respond to a variety of specific scenarios. Formalizing the process enabled us to compare answers across individual interviews, which then gave us a sense of the board’s or organization’s social change profile (SCP)—namely, their primary social change drivers and appetite for risk.

In developing these profiles, we purposely separated questions about the organization’s performance (an important element in ultimately defining an organizations’ social change goals and strategies), because social change beliefs are about what individuals find most appealing, and which may or may not be based on an assessment of effectiveness—a crucial distinction and important insight.

How we use SCP

Using these profiles in our work with organizations, we found that we were able to help make decisions about strategies and theories of change more quickly, and that the plans we helped devise seemed to live longer in the organizations. One engagement opened our eyes to the potential value of sharing this profiling with our clients as part of the process, instead of just using it for our own internal purposes. We led a strategic planning exercise for a giving circle consisting of about 10 members. During routine interviews of giving circle members, we heard some feedback about dissatisfaction with decision-making and focus.

While we weren’t surprised by the feedback—it’s not unusual for groups to disagree—when we analyzed the member responses to develop an SCP for the giving circle, we discovered that all but one of the members fit into two distinct profile groups and had fundamentally different views on how to achieve social change. Half the members were “conceivers”—risk takers open to considering innovative ways to create change on issues and institutions. Almost half were “intuitives”—they were open to system change, but needed to understand how specific individuals or specific groups of individuals would benefit. And one person—a “mediator”—was comfortable with both perspectives.

At our strategic planning meeting with the group, we explained that the conceivers were becoming dissatisfied because they felt that the circle wasn’t open to new ideas and that they were always compromising on which grantees to fund. We then explained that intuitives thought the conceivers were dissatisfied because of the circle’s focus not its approach. We also pointed out that one member was a mediator, and she was becoming frustrated because she could not see a middle ground.

Sharing the SCP and explaining how it shaped the group’s discussions, particularly around risk, turned on a light bulb; members began reflecting on past discussions and disagreements with new eyes. They soon developed new tools and language to express the type of social change strategies they were most interested in, as well as their views on risk. The circle’s SCP created the break-through this client needed to develop a strategic plan that the whole group could embrace. It was not a miracle, but the SCP and discussion gave the group new communication tools and insights to develop deeper connections, and a way of moving forward.

Our work since then has clarified how different this profiling work is from personality profiles such as Myers-Briggs. While certain personality traits may drive perceptions and beliefs, the SCP doesn’t seek to reveal what aspects of an individual’s personality influences their views on what makes particular social change approaches appealing. What it does reveal is that people don’t simply form opinions about the effectiveness of social change strategies in response to performance data or anecdotes in a boardroom, or as part of a strategic planning process.  They also bring preferences for certain approaches to social change, influenced by a wide range of life experiences, people, institutions, and/or research. This, in turn, influences how they think, listen, and feel about social change effectiveness.

Insights on using SCPs

While we are at the early stages of using the SCP as a tool with our clients, we are seeing some interesting and fruitful ways in which it can provide fresh thinking and improved decision-making:

  • It gets groups to think and talk about the different means to a desired end (social change)—early conversations at a more strategic level about how to create desired outcomes.
  • It helps people communicate their views more effectively; it depersonalizes differences of opinions, and provides groups with new language and tools.
  • It can highlight gaps in perspectives on boards and in organizations (but should not be used to assess performance of any kind).
  • It can improve decision-making by facilitating true compromise rather than majority rules.
  • Finally, it’s important to note that it is a tool, not a substitute for strategic planning or governance processes that seek to improve listening, collaborative working relationships, and shared accountability.
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  • Shaun Paul's avatar

    BY Shaun Paul

    ON May 28, 2014 05:49 PM

    Very interesting approach as we do seem to so often overlook beliefs and assumptions about how we define or value success which implicit frames what we tend to look at such as results, outcomes and impact.  Great article, great approach. Congrats Ideal Philanthropy & Sustainability.

  • BY Jonathan Lewis

    ON May 30, 2014 02:28 PM

    Useful, useful, useful.  My fav parts:  a) The humble self-notation that the SCP did not “create a miracle”—few new tools do.  b) The simple fact of “airing” perception differences moves the conversation forward.

  • BY Elsie Maio

    ON May 30, 2014 02:48 PM

    So elegant an illustration of the value of taxonomy in decision-making groups! In two ways, I think: First, in finding and importantly, naming, the tendencies of clusters of participants, you have helped them gain perspective on each other, and themselves—to depersonalize their differences. What a great way to make everybody ‘right’ so each can step outside the ego to the shared goal at hand. And second, at the same time,  your system ensures that their decision drivers are honored with the type of information and process that satisfies them.  Sweet.

  • BY Henry A. J. Ramos

    ON June 3, 2014 05:24 PM

    This is timely stuff. One of the biggest additional reasons why I think many social change nonprofits struggle with clarity is that their funders impose on, and otherwise require of, them so many competing demands that the nonprofits often get all twisted up like pretzels. It is only those with the greatest focus and discipline that seem to avoid this problem. But often the singularity in focus of such groups prevents them from being more relevant and impactful on a large scale.

    Real social change typically takes many strategies and organizations, a lot of fluidity and resilience. Too often the funders fail to support more unified and mutually-reinforcing investments that the nonprofits actually need to become - or remain - more clear, responsive and effective in pursuing their strategies.

    Great article. Thanks for sharing!

  • Theresa Fay-Bustillos's avatar

    BY Theresa Fay-Bustillos

    ON June 4, 2014 07:07 AM

    Henry—Yes, couldn’t agree more and social change profiling addresses an aspect—clarifies for funders their own personal and deep-seeded views on social change.  Gaining such insight is the beginning of more authentic conversations and openness to listening to the nonprofit perspective on social change.

    Shaun Paul—yes, very relevant for measurement too-thanks for the insight.

    Jonathan—So right, few miracles because it’s about moving the discussion forward and getting to the core of our differences in a way that is respectful and constructive. 

    Elsie—yes, it is about a new taxonomy for decision-making about social change.

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