If You Want to Change the World, You Need a System

Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

Imagine this: A nonprofit dedicated to promoting sustainability in Nashville just started. The founders want to address many issues of conservation, waste, energy use, social inequality, and pollution. They have to start somewhere and they have limited resources.

With guidance from their volunteer board, they hashed out a valid starting point. The charity will promote recycling and reuse. Recycling isn’t exactly popular. People in Nashville don’t seem to think about creative ways to reuse a wide range of items they would otherwise throw out. Why start there? These two issues stood out in some market research done with help from a Vanderbilt marketing intern and a board member who has experience in sustainable development.

Like most startup nonprofits, this one is being run on a shoestring budget. Founder One and Founder Two drew on some of their own savings and credit to get things going. They also managed to raise $1500 from friends and relatives. The founders recruited a few other folks to carry out some volunteer fundraising and advocacy work, to make up for not having the money to pay staff. Not a bad start all in all.

But, this imaginary organization faces many challenges. You can probably guess some of them based on your own life experience:

  1. Funding
  2. Breaking through the noise and clutter to get attention.
  3. Securing the money and in-kind contributions they need to grow
  4. Hiring and retaining qualified people
  5. Demonstrating their impact over time

A few of those challenges might yield to obvious solutions, but what if they don’t? This article walks through the elements of a new system for tackling these challenges and generating good new solutions when the obvious ones aren’t workable.

Using a New System

A plan for weaving new brainstorming and problem-solving methods into the organization’s work should be part of that strategic approach. Some questions need to be answered at the outset:

  • Do you plan to work alone or involve other people?
  • Which people should you “recruit”?
  • What are your broad objectives — to sell an idea, to raise money, create an innovative public education campaign?
  • How big do you need your problem-solving efforts to be?
  • How many people need to be involved?
  • What is the geographic scope of your efforts?
  • Are you starting a Web site, working with a community group, working in a nonprofit with national programs?
  • How much money do you have?

The size of your organization will influence what you can accomplish in a given amount of time. The scale of the problem you want to address will also influence what you can expect to accomplish in a given amount of time. The scale of the problem may also influence your need for new ideas versus adaptation of original ideas. The complexity of a problem, and most social problems are complex, will influence your decision to focus on problem solving versus creative thinking about the problem. You may need both to analyze the issue that interests you and engage in some formal brainstorming to determine the best approach for your organization.

How many people do you want to be involved in this effort? You should probably start small. Recruit one or two people to study and practice brainstorming techniques, to use one example. Maybe you can start a bigger group. Maybe you can convince the big shots in your organization to invest in training or in enterprise software. Starting small is probably a better idea.

Determining the best starting place for your individual or group efforts is not too difficult. You only need to consider whether to go it alone or to involve other people. You could begin by reading a book on creativity or on problem-solving. You could download brainstorming software and give it a try. The more ambitious sorts could start off by attending a class on lateral thinking, for example. You can pay for some training in creative-thinking skills. The classes can be hard to find and can be rather expensive, over $1500.

Challenges and Opportunities

The world is full of both problems to solve and opportunities to exploit. Entrepreneurs, managers, and executives are keenly aware of those facts. Likewise, many people in the social sector are familiar with the practice of looking for problems and opportunities real or potentially real. That is the basic idea, but with a structure for streamlining the work.

Explore the social environment for current opportunities. Being aware of real or potential problems is also important. Sure, problems usually become apparent at some point because they are problems. The symptoms present themselves and we decide to take action. Maybe our response is good enough to solve the problem and maybe not. It would almost always be more effective to see the problem coming and take steps to prevent it or to develop a coping strategy. Can we prevent global climate change or merely adapt to the effects?

Some opportunities are obvious and important. Opportunities that aren’t so obvious may be quite valuable anyway. Finding opportunities to raise more money, serve more people, get better results, or gain media attention for issues are always welcome. Some opportunities or potential future opportunities are going to come to our attention in the normal course of our work. Others will only appear if we can spare a little time each week to look for them. Potential threats/challenges/problems will be easier to see and deflect by setting aside time to scan for them.

Some problems really can’t be solved, at least by you or by your organization. A workaround of some sort needs to be devised. A nonprofit that uses a raffle as its principle fundraising tool may find that raffles are going to be illegal soon. The organization can’t expect to stop that legislation; the only solution is to find a new source of revenue. Substance abuse can’t be stopped, but we can come up with better ways to discourage substance abuse or to mitigate the impacts on peoples’ lives. Maybe there are some unrealized opportunities in mitigating the impacts of substance abuse on your community?

Knowledge gaps can be a problem when we need to vote on a ballot initiative, on a politician, or make a significant purchase decision. Do people know what social scientists consider the main contributors to crime, or overuse of credit? If not, maybe their votes or their political activism will not give desirable results. Find out where the knowledge gap exists and how big it is, and even what some of the consequences are.

Strategic Thinking

Any strategy has to have a focus and any strategic planning process needs a structure. What do you want to achieve? How, in general, do you want to achieve that goal? What process will you use? What interim objectives do you want/need to reach? Answering such questions should be the beginning of any strategic approach to innovation in the social sector. Those are a few of the possibilities.

Several possible processes could be helpful. There are general techniques of brainstorming, systematic idea generation (logical forms of brainstorming), problem analysis, and decision analysis. There are also comprehensive approaches to innovation. Engineers have TRIZ (theory of inventive problem solving). Nonprofits have lateral thinking®, design thinking, Einstein thinking, and other comprehensive procedures for getting new ideas.

Your strategic goal could be to educate the public so that some critical mass of people recognizes X as a problem. People will start to demand that corporate executives or government officials do something about X. Maybe there is a political gap to be filled. We need a law or regulation or policy. You can’t track current events for more than a few days before you encounter some person or group who wants a particular law, policy, or regulation.

You may want to start building a strategy by scanning the environment. SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, as it is called in strategic planning literature, is standard practice. You can teach yourself and your team how to do a SWOT analysis as you do it.

Studying the social environment needs to be a regular activity and not something that happens when you decide to update your strategic plan. Read to find information on politics, economic trends, and popular culture. Real and proposed legislation of certain types may also be relevant. New social science research, particularly in various branches of psychology can also be valuable. Your primary sources should be scholarly journals, specialized Web sites, and specialty magazines.

Where do you steal ideas from anyway? Content analysis may help. You will see a program or policy or education strategy that’s working in a different context. Maybe the education idea was created for high school students. Is there anything to stop you from stealing the idea and using it to educate adults in the community? Nope. Ideas can’t be patented or copyrighted. Books and magazines from outside your area of work and outside your personal sphere of interest may be useful.

Do you need a new idea and not just one that’s already been used elsewhere? Content analysis can show you a new idea that you can use. The idea still needs to be adapted to your particular circumstances. This process may be relatively straightforward. Or, you may need to create a slightly different “design” for your borrowed idea. And completely different ideas can also be useful if you apply some imagination. Asking outrageous questions can help. How can a vending machine get inner city poor people more interested in their health?

Stealing Ideas

Consider design thinking. As Edward De Bono points out the cause of a problem can be something that cannot be remedied or removed, at least by any imaginable human effort. If “human nature” is at the root of the problem, or seems to be a major contributor then you have to create a new way to move forward. You leave human nature alone and find a way to work around it.

Wide-ranging reading interests form the foundation for good idea stealing. How else will you find something to steal? Well, wide-ranging Web surfing and conversation work too. All three approaches should be part of an effort to find ideas that can be copied, adapted, or combined in some way. Reading about a variety of subjects will naturally expose you to new concepts and innovations that might be helpful in some way. Conversations will people working in different fields or in the same field can lead to new ideas and insights.

Creativity and Design

Our culture, including values, norms, beliefs, and technology, may be missing something that’s relevant to solving a problem or exploiting an opportunity. Problem analysis is likely to be needed here, so you can identify what needs to be created, changed, or improved.

Specific processes and concepts that support design thinking can be learned and used by anyone. The design of social innovations is not an esoteric craft that only the university-educated can master. Considering the fit between your idea and the community or organization that’s supposed to use the idea is not difficult to do. The point is to consider the value, fit and other elements in a systematic fashion.

What about the “gaps” in society between how things do work and could work? Those gaps are places where new ideas need to be created and sold. Maybe there are problems that have gone unsolved because no solution that will sell has yet been put forth. Maybe the problem has not, as yet, been recognized as a problem. Maybe you can see an opportunity to improve society in some way. There is no real problem, just a way to do more of something or to do something better. You can probably think of something about society that is not an actual problem but could be made better. Go ahead and think of something, then start reading again.

Any sort of social betterment effort is likely to need new ideas from time to time. New ideas can mean better fundraising results, more people changing a certain behavior, or an idea that becomes a ballot initiative. There are books, card decks (yes, card decks), classes, and software available.

Starting off with one or two simple techniques applied with the help of a pen and a piece of paper might just do the trick. If not, there are sophisticated techniques that may give better results. Some creative-thinking techniques are intuitive — they are probably the sorts of tools you would think of when you think of brainstorming — but logical techniques also exist.

Creativity can be a solitary effort, but probably shouldn’t be! Involve other people to generate ideas, evaluate ideas, or to refine your thinking about what counts as a good idea. Collaboration doesn’t even require being in the same area as the other people. The Internet makes it easy to work together on brainstorming, evaluating ideas, improving ideas, and implementing ideas.

Scientific Thinking

The desire to make things happen and feel like we are doing something important really shouldn’t get in the way of facts, logic, and theory. Facts are obviously important to understanding an issue. But they also help us determine if our program or project is really working and how well. Focusing on the facts keeps us grounded in reality. How many well-intentioned efforts have fallen short because the relevant facts got ignored? How much money and effort were wasted?

Logic forces us to make arguments that hold together when we examine the premises and assumptions behind our ideas. We can also apply some logic to other peoples’ ideas. For activists, this is a good tactic to use in fighting someone else’s opposing idea. Logic can lead to insights that change peoples’ perceptions of an issue, policy, program, attitude, or behavior.

Social science research can help us understand an issue and can lend credibility to our cause. Of course, that credibility only goes so far, since ideology and emotion tend to trump facts. The research also helps us understand the mechanisms that lead to social conditions that we want to change. Developing and testing hypotheses about a problem can be even more helpful. Hypothesis testing sounds like an esoteric intellectual exercise, but it can actually be quite simple.

Logic can spare us from pursuing silly ideas that we can’t sell to anyone and that may not do any good even if they are implemented. Your credibility with a skeptical and potentially hostile public or government is on the line.

Numbers are important to any effort at changing society or improving peoples’ lives. The right data will tell you where you are, whether things are getting better or worse, and whether your efforts are paying off or not. Finding and understanding statistical data is not hard, really. Using the data to help you understand or publicize the issue in question is also not that hard. True, social scientists do use sophisticated techniques to model behavior and describe relationships between social phenomena.

Many books and Web sites combine to offer a flood of statistics that might help you. It can be a bit like opening your over-full closet and having things spill out closet all over the floor. You can manage this problem by starting with a few tried and true sources. The United States Census Bureau conducts several surveys, including the famous decennial census. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes extensive data on business and employment. State governments will generally have the same kind of data available at the state level. Some city governments will also have statistics available.

As you dig for statistics, remember that rates and percentages are typically more important than raw numbers. Trends are also more important than raw numbers.

Statistics have at least four general uses. The right data can help people decide how to focus their resources. Statistics can be good public education tools because they make it easy to see the scale of the problem or a trend. Statistics could also help an organization raise money through grants or fundraising letters or appeals on Web sites. Finally, statistics can help in attempts to change behavior.

Study the parts of a challenge and see how they relate to one another. Look for influences from the political environment, the natural environment, technology, demographics, or the local economy. No problem or opportunity exists in a vacuum, as you well know. The point is to take that common sense idea and apply it as needed.

Instead of asserting that the root of the problem is X or Y, state a specific hypothesis about the problem. Identify evidence that would show whether the hypothesis is true or false. Then, analyze the evidence and act on the results. That process is similar to but less rigorous than, the standard scientific process.

Ask questions about your challenge. Explore the likely root of the problem, the contributing factors that can make things worse (or better!), and the criteria that a solution has to meet. Ask questions about the characteristics of a good solution to a challenge.

Decision analysis can help us to choose a good way of addressing the knowledge gap. We can see the likely consequences of a certain decision’s implementation. We can also systematically and with reduced bias see the pros and cons of a course of action. We can make better-informed decisions by learning to prioritize ideas according to an explicit set of criteria.

Analytical thinking will not replace emotion or ideology. Pure rationality is not the point, and can’t be achieved anyway. The point is to try and divorce thinking about what ought to be done, which is rightly the domain of human values, with how things ought to be done, which should be largely objective.

Values play a vital role in guiding our selection of strategies and tactics. That would be unrealistic and undesirable, at least in the case of replacing emotion with cold calculation. Analytical thinking is more relevant to the arguable useful task of forming a buffer between our emotions and biases and the decision to engage in a particular action.

Marketing Mindset

Activists, fundraisers, and anyone with an education message or program to promote are participating in a marketplace. Programs, policies, and behavior changes have to be sold to the appropriate audience. Why should someone donate to your cause instead of another, or instead of just keeping their money? Activists must compete for attention and money with other causes, peoples’ hobbies, and commercial products and services. It can’t hurt to consider the audience for your message or idea:

  1. Who is the audience?
  2. How can you reach them?
  3. What do they want? What do they care about?
  4. How do they think about the world?
  5. What benefits can you offer your audience?
  6. What evidence can you present to show that your audience will get the benefits?
  7. What exactly do you want your audience to do?

Social Innovation Strategy

What came before is the outline of a strategy, a way of going from “Let’s do something about X.” to “Look what we did?” Changing something in the structure of society — including the relationships between different groups of people — may be your strategic focus. You’ll need some tools for determining which structural gap your group should focus on. Then you’ll need to create or adapt ideas. You may need to do some problem analysis first. What is the cause of this problem in the structure of society? How do we act to improve things? Creative thinking can help you identify options.

Why wait to start attacking a problem or trying to exploit an opportunity. OK, so identifying the cause(s) of a problem may be the right first step. The right first step may also be to look at approaches to an opportunity that you’ve discovered. How can you best proceed and take advantage of the opportunity? What is your first move? What is your second move?



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Chester Davis

Chester Davis


Sociologist, blogger, and sci-fi writer who cares about sociological thinking, science fiction, sustainability, social change, and nonprofits