Putting the “Social” in Social Change

You may sometimes feel like you’re one of the few – if not the only – advocates for the issue you care about. You’ve shown all your friends (and random acquaintances too) the data about the disparities in public education. You’ve met with elected officials and made public comments at school board meetings. No one seems to be taking action – at least not quickly enough. They’re busy, distracted, or tied up with other priorities and you are at least a little frustrated. You’re aware that change requires many individuals and systems to adapt and adjust: it’s a complex task to transform just one community’s public education system so that all kids, especially those most disadvantaged, have access to a high-quality education. To move forward, you need to identify and highlight micro-examples of what a more equitable system might look like, support community members’ efforts to demand change, and hold elected officials accountable for adopting and implementing supportive policies and practices. It’s an impossible solo mission.

Even more, it is very likely that your resources are limited. In our work with forward-thinking philanthropists and change agents, we identify the highest leverage opportunities, which also means there are, at times, worthy opportunities that do not receive their support. And often, more limited than your resources is your time. Whether driving social change is how you spend all, some, or part of your day, you only have so many waking hours to make the world a better place. Addressing social issues requires collective social action, so how do you jumpstart the “social” part?

So, where do you start?

At Building Impact, we tend to think of collaboration along a continuum from solo change agent to movement-builder. Here are two initial steps you should take to build momentum for collective social action:

1. Understand vision, values, and interests

This is the first and most critical step in building the alliances necessary to address social issues. At Building Impact, we start by honing in on our client’s vision, values, and interests; getting a clear and comprehensive understanding is a prerequisite to building authentic partnerships. We’ve found that if you take the time to understand these things, you can both predict and influence others’ engagement. 

Steps you can take: 

  • Make a list of the top 5 individuals in your community who’ve expressed interest in and/or have resources (e.g, relationships, time, or money) to address the social issue you care most deeply about. 
  • Now jot down each individual’s (1) vision statement for this social issue, (2) 3-5 core values, and (3) 2-3 key interests. 
  • If you’re unable to complete this exercise for anyone on your list (or uncertain about the answers), this is your starting point. Have coffee, invite people over for dinner, and have the conversations that allow you to answer these questions confidently.

2. Practice friendraising

If you’ve completed the first step, then you’re likely well on your way to friendraising – getting fellow philanthropists and change agents to support key organizations and efforts directly. Through the process of understanding their vision, values, and interests, you’ve likely built a relationship that you can now leverage to support a community leader whose work is particularly relevant to the issue. For example, with your new understanding you might know that a fellow change agent is likely willing to support a particular healthcare organization because:

  • It’s driven by community needs (one of their values), 
  • Provides accessible healthcare services (part of their vision),
  • And is not engaged in political activities that might bring scrutiny or exposure (in their interest).

Now what?

The next step beyond friendraising (and sometimes co-mingled with it) is coordinated giving – multiple individuals supporting different organizations as part of a shared strategy for addressing a social issue. This requires deep trust – as impact is contingent upon each individual’s taking action. It takes the “social” part of social change to the next level – and underscores that to address pressing social issues, you can’t go it alone. You have to make friends – and you have to understand them deeply.