Five Levers of Social Change

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

This piece is the second in a series on five drivers of social change. The first lever we looked at was creating replicable initiatives such as Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard, which we term “bright spots.” Here, we focus on the tremendous impact that data and data-based insights can have for the greater good.

When the Nike Foundation was first conceived in 2004, its founders set their sights on breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and effectively supporting the world’s developing countries.

Their first step: research. The founders had conversations with top thinkers working in international development, read the reports, and analyzed existing data to find out how they could have the greatest possible impact.

What quickly emerged was a single alarming trend showing that women suffer most from poverty: they are overwhelmingly more likely to lack access to education, to enter arranged marriage before maturity, and to contract HIV/AIDS. They are also the main link in passing the cycle of poverty to their children.

This important insight determined Nike Foundation’s mission to invest in adolescent girls “as powerful agents of change in the developing world.” In 2008, the foundation created the Girl Effect, an organization dedicated to putting the issue on the global agenda.

One of the organization’s earliest investments was generating the Girls Count reports, which pulled together data from across the international development spectrum that proved interventions focused on keeping adolescent girls in school and giving them access to more opportunities (thus delaying arranged marriages and the risk of contracting HIV) were key. These reports provided the necessary basis to justify the foundation’s work. The powerful data they gathered have become the central feature of the Girl Effect campaigns.

Reaching out to girls at an early age is now recognized as the key to breaking the cycle of poverty before it begins. Studies show that women reinvest 90 percent of their earnings back into their families (compared to 35 percent for men) and that a secondary education can increase that income by 25 percent. For every additional 10 percent of girls who go to secondary school, their country’s economy is boosted by 3 percent. The economic ripples are enormous, with billions of dollars in potential income at stake.

Through its focus on data and insight, the Nike Foundation has effectively broadened the conversation, from the social justice issue that directly affects only a specific subset of the population to a global development issue that drives the success of the entire international community. It successfully secured women in poverty on the agenda at influential meetings such as the 2009 World Economic Forum and the Clinton Global Initiative 2010.

“For a long time, there was a sense that this issue was “nice, but not necessary,” said Maria Eitel, Nike Foundation president and CEO. “All of the evidence says this is a whole lot more than nice. Girls are at the center of every issue the world cares about, and that’s something that people are starting to understand.”

There are many other organizations using data to affect significant social change. For example, when research revealed that the highest rates of HIV/AIDS were among the African American population, the response to the epidemic shifted. The data drove new funding, new programs and additional research around a group that wasn’t considered particularly at risk 20 years ago.

Another example: going back more than a hundred years, it wasn’t until the numbers backed up the germ theory of disease that it gained credibility, resulting in new procedures and increased sanitation, and saving millions of lives.

Yet another clear example of data-driven change was the decrease in smoking in New York City, a story that combines a few of the levers I’ll cover in upcoming posts. In 2002, public health officials were presented with new information that showed the smoking rate in New York City had remained unchanged for a decade. Despite the landmark 1964 Surgeon General warning and substantial evidence that smoke had devastating impact of smoking on smokers and those around them, one out of five residents continued to smoke regularly.

It was this data that triggered a concerted effort by public health advocates and government officials to reduce rates of smoking. They implemented “sin taxes” that made it prohibitively expensive to smoke, secured smoke-free air restrictions, and launched an advertising campaign that shined a spotlight on the potential horrors of tobacco use (according to a follow-up survey, 9 out of 10 smokers said they saw the ads, and half of smokers said the ads made them want to quit). By 2006, tobacco use had dropped by nearly 20 percent: there were 240,000 fewer New York City smokers.

This is yet another case for how comprehensive and multi-faceted campaigns—backed up by hard facts and driven by ordinary people willing to roll up their sleeves—can catalyze social change.

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.