In 1995, KaBOOM! Founder Darell Hammond set out to build a playground with a Washington, D.C., community, where two children had suffocated while playing in a car because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Nearly 20 years and 15,000 playgrounds later, Hammond and his team were proud of the difference KaBOOM! made in the lives of millions of kids, but they weren’t satisfied. Through the lens of their work, they were seeing a complex social problem: Kids were playing less than any previous generation and missing out on play’s physical, cognitive, creative, social, and emotional benefits. More playgrounds alone would not solve the problem. KaBOOM! faced a choice: either continue along the same path and grow its impact incrementally, or chart a new path that addresses the fact that kids are increasingly deprived of the play critical for their development. KaBOOM! chose the latter and created what we call a bold goal; it committed to ensuring that all kids in America—including the 16 million who are growing up in poverty—get the childhood they deserve filled with the balanced and active play they need to thrive.
The sheer complexity of the problem KaBOOM! aimed to tackle; the number of people and web of systems and policies involved; and an environment of finite resources gave us pause as we worked to create the strategy. In partnering with social sector organizations to achieve transformational change, we’ve experienced moments when our instincts told us something was missing from a strategy. With KaBOOM!, as with other clients, that missing thing was this: intentional influence. We describe intentional influence as the practice of moving likely and unlikely stakeholders within an ecosystem to take the actions required to solve a problem at the magnitude it exists.
The ability to influence resides within all of us and our organizations. The daily work of social sector organizations often endows them with assets such as credibility and connections that are necessary to wield influence. Social sector leaders engage in various forms of influence every day, whether through mobilizing individuals to vote for a proposition or by guiding a hard-to-employ population to adopt behaviors that will make them successful in the workplace. Yet we see a missed opportunity to create more dramatic impact by better leveraging influence, with greater intentionality. To avoid taking the easy route and shrinking the problem to the size of our financial resources, we have to leverage different currencies. Could intentional influence be one of our most readily available but underutilized currencies in solving social problems?
The KaBOOM! team recognized the need to dramatically change the behaviors and decisions of key people, and ultimately to change the norm in society to one where kids play, the people around them expect it, and their environments make it easy. In looking at the ecosystem surrounding kids, KaBOOM! saw the need to focus on the parents and caregivers responsible for day-to-day decisions about kids’ activities and the city leaders responsible for decisions about the policies, programs, and infrastructure that support play in a community.
To move city leaders, the organization’s influence strategy is now focused on standard-setting and driving innovation in ways that lead to behavior and norm change at scale. KaBOOM! started by coining the term “playability”—the extent to which a city makes it easy for kids to get that balanced and active play they need to thrive—with the aim of elevating play to the same status as walkability and bikability in determining a city’s competitiveness and vitality. Now, KaBOOM! is mobilizing cities to develop big ideas for using play to address challenges such as childhood health, educational attainment, and urban revitalization. The organization views these playability leaders as “the first dominos to fall,” with other cities poised to follow suit just as hundreds of cities are emulating walkable and bikable cities like New York and Chicago. To increase the likelihood that the cities’ big ideas will succeed, KaBOOM! is partnering with ideas42, a nonprofit design lab that uses the latest research in behavioral science to achieve social impact at scale, to apply its expertise and better understand why kids aren’t playing. This understanding is leading to hypotheses for designing approaches that will yield the desired behavior change among kids and families. KaBOOM! is using this work to inspire cities to embed play everywhere in their communities, particularly in places like bus stops, Laundromats and health clinics, where play can turn moments of frustration into moments of joy. When done well, these innovations will not only get kids playing more, but also grab the attention of peer cities who will then take up the mantle.
The exploration of intentional influence is part of our ongoing journey to decode what it takes to solve social problems, not just make them “less worse.” We’ve spent time talking with experts in influence, persuasion, and behavior change. We’ve reviewed influence-related disciplines and theories, including those commonly recognized in the social sector, such as community organizing and advocacy, and those less commonly discussed, such as choice architecture. We’ve convened social sector practitioners. Repeatedly, the notion of influence resonates with leaders, and many of them see influence in their work. Yet as a sector we’re overlooking elements that make intentional influence distinct and could help us achieve bold goals.
This series will explore these distinctive elements, as well as why an organization might pursue intentional influence, how it might think about focusing its efforts, and the barriers of one’s own creation that must be overcome to effectively influence. And a number of foundation leaders will share their personal stories of pursuing intentional influence in different contexts—both local and nationwide—to achieve bold goals. We hope that you will join us on this journey to better understand the potential and power of intentional influence, and that you’ll share your own thoughts and experiences.