Five Levers of Social Change

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

This is the fourth in a series on the five drivers of social change. In previous posts, we explored models such as Alice Water’s Edible Garden that serve as “bright spots” for change, the role of new data and insights in the way we think about issues such as HIV, and the important role of public perception, including how grassroots and institutional investments can alter it. In this piece, we look at how to catalyze change through shifts in policy. 

The most important lever for transformation often can be a shift in policy. Policy changes include efforts such as the anti-smoking restrictions implemented in New York City, the Affordable Care Act health and safety legislation, and the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal.

Local, state, and federal government policy can impact our social contract (drug laws, taxation policy, etc.), the dollars allocated to critical programs (for example, Nurse Family Partnership funding), and decisions around government contracts (such as food sources for school lunches). The latter impacts the food kids eat; and given the size of the contract, it impacts the food market and pricing.

Today, many companies are as big as nations; Walmart is bigger than 160 countries. This means that companies increasingly impact social change in many of the same ways that government does. Their labor practices serve as de facto social contracts with large numbers of people. Their products shape consumer behavior and health. Companies’ buying decisions—again, like governments—alter the economics of markets.

As we look at changing policy, we now need to include corporate policy in the discussion. This is one of the most dynamic and exciting areas in the field right now. 

Walmart, for example, has 200 million customers, 2 million employees, and 100,000 suppliers. What started out at Wal-Mart as an effort to improve the company’s reputation evolved into well-researched and comprehensive program that began to change the fundamental economics of the green economy, moving it from the fringe to mainstream.

It also caused a ripple effect of greener policies: WalMart started requiring that suppliers follow environmentally sustainable business practices. This forced suppliers to make a choice: to rethink how they could manufacture, package, and transport their products in a way that limited greenhouse gas emissions, or to lose a major client. Since, other companies have followed WalMart’s lead.

Government and F100 corporate policies, services, and purchasing move markets and change the rules of the game. They are not easy to shift, but it is hard to find a more powerful lever for social change.

Moving these giants often requires using other levers to build an environment that makes taking risks attractive. They need to see the bright spots to know it works; they need to know that public perception supports the change; and they need to see the data that shows the change will matter.

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.