Five Levers of Social Change

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

Your organization probably has the core competencies to accomplish meaningful change; the hardest part is identifying the appropriate strategy and resources to get the job done. Here at Taproot, we’ve found it easier to break down the process of larger social change into five basic “levers,” or strategies, that any business or nonprofit can use. By parsing goals into smaller, manageable, and realistic parts, and by focusing on near-term accomplishments rather than long-term solutions, achieving enduring and effective social change is possible.

Looking across the world of philanthropy and social activism, we can see how these levers have been instrumental in sparking enduring and transformative change. Over a series of posts, I’ll describe each lever and share examples of organizations that have benefitted from employing it. 

First up: bright spots. 

In 1994, Alice Waters, a chef at Chez Panisse in the San Francisco Bay Area, sat down with the principal of the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. middle school and pitched a modest but innovative idea—take an unused plot of land in the back of the school and turn it into a garden for students.

The so-called Edible Schoolyard would give kids the opportunity to learn about food and the environment, and the importance of healthy and balanced diets. Letting children play such a hands-on role encouraged them to try foods that they previously might have considered “icky.” And it was entirely replicable.

Alice brought attention to an issue that most Americans were only dimly aware of: poor food quality in American schools, and how unhealthy and overly processed diets are fostering the country’s burgeoning obesity epidemic.

The Edible Schoolyard demonstrates the power to change long-held attitudes and misperceptions about food by using a very simple, low cost, and high-quality method of encouraging social change. And these qualities made it entirely replicable.

Other communities around the country have quickly followed suit with their own Edible Schoolyards—in New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York, and Greensboro, North Carolina. Alice’s advocacy has raised the profile of the connection between nutrition, healthy eating, and childhood development. As a result, more and more schools are looking for ways to bring healthy eating to schools by banning sugared drinks from vending machines and finding ways to incorporate more nutritious items on their school lunch menus.

By bringing attention to the issue, and by developing programming others could quickly understand and replicate, Alice Waters has helped to shift how people think about the food our kids eat. As a result, she has catalyzed a discussion that has the potential to re-shape our national debates about the health and welfare of our kids, and of all Americans.

There are hundreds of other examples of replicable “bright spot” programs, including Alcoholics Anonymous chapters, KIPP schools, and the domestic violence prevention program RAPP. As these organizations interweave with the fabric of our lives and communities, it’s easy to forget that at some point, someone designed a scalable program others could bring to life and leverage for social change.

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.