At Purpose, we tackle a wide range of issues in the world—from reducing air pollution in Delhi to fighting for the health of moms and babies—but common to them all is that we’re trying to change them for the better. Thus, a foundational question we always try to answer is what type of change are we trying to create, and what’s our role in creating that change?  

We’ve discussed this before and continue to ask because affecting social change is not getting any less complex. Let’s not kid ourselves that if we just raise awareness or get a new law passed that magically a problem in the world will be resolved. Every issue is shaped by its relevant context, can have many dynamic factors at play, and poses multiple systemic rabbit holes—or rabbit warrens—to run down.  

Wholesale change, more often than not, requires multiple interrelated changes to occur. As we’d written previously, while the success of social movements requires multiple types of change over the long term, successful campaigns are often best served when focused on one type of change at a time.

 

To refresh, we break down our work into four types of change:

The more we’ve employed this framework, the more we’ve revealed further complexity to evaluate. But before jumping to what type of change we want to create, let’s look at the bigger picture first to try and make sense of it all.

What types of change need to occur on a given issue to achieve long-term impact, and what are the interdependencies between them? Is there a clear cart vs. horse, or is it more chicken and egg? 

Take single-use plastics. If we want to dramatically reduce the waste and use of single-use plastics, what types of change does that require: The public to appreciate the environmental and health crisis? Individual voluntary actions to stop using single-use plastics, or at least recycle them? New policies and legislation? Improved recycling collection and infrastructure? A little bit of everything?

And how are they related to each other: Do we need legislation that shifts incentives to induce behavior change, such as a bag fee, or an outright ban that forces it? Or do we need public support for new legislation on single-use plastic before it can get passed in the first place? And once legislation is passed, will we have the right infrastructure in place to ensure everyone can smoothly transition to reusable bags, particularly with numerous access and equity considerations?

Clear as mud? Feel stuck in a recursive loop? That’s ok, because it probably means you’ve revealed a dynamic system at play, where each aspect influences the other – which takes us to our next question:

What type of change are we best-placed to pursue? What are other actors focused on and how can we best complement their efforts?

As this crude exploration of single-use plastics hopefully revealed, trying to take on all that change at once may feel ambitious: one can map out a long-term multi-faceted plan to do so, but like our previous writing on this topic, distinct campaigns can be most successful when focused on one type of change.

Prioritizing the type of change to target shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. We need to consider the other actors working on the issue, what types of change they’re focused on, and where we are best placed to affect change as part of larger systemic change.

To explore this, we’ve taken the types of change framework a level deeper to look at organizational capabilities, starting with: as an actor in this system, are you looking to drive change from the top-down (e.g. as an institutional actor) or from the bottom-up (e.g. as a grassroots actor)? From there, we have developed archetypal top-down and bottom-up roles for each type of change to help identify: Where do we sit? Where do other others sit? And does our role and capabilities line up with the type of change we want to focus on?

Are you a top-down actor, one with institutional power and capacity to effect change?  

 

To continue the single-use plastics example, this might look like:

  • An Influencer could be a think tank or thought leader on the circular economy, like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation;
  • A Convener could be an independent body that brings together key actors to chart a new course, such as the 40-company strong New Plastics Economy initiative (also led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation);
  • A Policy Shaper could be elected officials pushing policies and goals to end single-use plastics, like politicians in India building on recent state-level bans to set ambitious national goals, or a policy shop or lobbyist doing similar behind the scenes; while
  • A Programmer could be a government or company department, nonprofit, or service provider that implements a new system, such as NYC’s Water on the Go stations

 

Or are you a bottom-up actor, one that leverages people, new power, and participation to create change?

 

 

This might look like:

  • A Storyteller could be Story of Stuff creating unique and diverse stories about (over)consumption – and complements their Storyteller role with Mobilizer actions
  • A Motivator could be Stop Sucking campaign by Lonely Whale using social circles to encourage followers to stop using straws
  • A Mobilizer could be the Wildlife Conservation Society organizing their supporters to push for legislative change with the Give A Sip campaign
  • A Platform Builder could be Refill that created a wide-reaching network of cafes, bars, and stores for people to refill their bottle – no need for new infrastructure, just better ways to use what already exists

 

Like any set of archetypes, there’s always some contextual nuance and overlaps can exist—Stop Sucking has some Mobilizer overlap with pushing restaurants and cities to change policies, while the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is arguably filling a few roles—but taking the types of change exercise these additional steps can be immensely clarifying. At its simplest, it can validate your initial perspective. In more expansive ways, it can reveal: dependencies we need to account for, potential partnership needs to fulfill other capabilities, the need to invest in new or different capabilities, or (less commonly) a complete mismatch between what we were hoping to do and what our actual capabilities are.

There is much to be gained from such an exploration, but at its core, this helps reveal two foundational aspects to pursuing social impact: what change are we trying to create, and what is our role in doing so. In developing your next campaign or broader initiative, take the time upfront to explore these questions and it can provide clarity and focus for every step to follow—from target audience definition, to creative execution, to call-to-action, to tracking and measurement—and ensure we stay true to the positive change we’re trying to create in the world.


Mathew McDermid
Strategy Director