Lessons for Leading Big Social Change: Ideas for Renewal

Lessons for Leading Big Social Change: Ideas for Renewal

This short note is coauthored by firm President Tom Freedman and firm Advisor Xav Briggs.

Today’s world demands big changes, and like many of you, Xav and I have been looking back at what we know about identifying the building blocks of successful change movements. Following is a short reflection of our thoughts.

No matter what happens in the upcoming election, we are going to need big change.

In order to guide our efforts leading up to, and following, November 3rd, we reviewed what has been written about how large-scale social movements succeed.

We came at this in two ways.

First, as a firm that often sits between various worlds interested in change, we reflected on our own experiences to come up with a separate visualization of some common elements and stages in successful movements.

Our boiled-down set of practical ingredients for a successful social movement includes:

  1. Moral Cause: A movement is based on fundamentally moral claims, rooted in values and evoking emotion. There is always a marshaling of supporting facts, to be sure, but the root is a moral interpretation and narrative—and that should be clear. It must offer a compelling interpretation of the world as it is and the gap between that state of the world and deeply held, shared values. It needs to be authentically led and not imposed by outsiders; passionate, not just well reasoned.
  2. Leveraging Crisis: Much of the talk about “not wasting” a crisis misreads the forms a crisis can take and why a crisis—or multiple, compounded ones, as we’re experiencing right now—creates meaningful opportunities for social change. Crises create dislocations, whether moral, or material, or both: Civil War losses were so extreme that our nation’s government was pressured into a direct relationship with individual citizens, including creating something new called the safety net; women and people of color were drawn into formerly exclusionary occupations, like in munitions factories or combat roles, because White men alone could not fill all those roles in the Second World War, and the inclusive narrative of “the war effort” opened new doors in spite of prior taboos and ongoing discrimination; the policy response to the foreclosure crisis and Great Recession was so incomplete that it dramatically shifted the room to talk about the underlying drivers of economic inequality, including political power and how it gets used. As one historian put it in the context of epidemics specifically, crises “show the seams of society.” Successful movements are attentive to these new openings—dislocations and revelations—and adaptive once they are leveraged, without imagining that they can create them out of thin air. Crises make possible a new contest, but it’s people, through collective action, who decide it. 
  3. Call to Action: There needs to be a specific thing(s) you can do or support—something tangible. Just turning up for something vague is not enough. There needs to be a piece of legislation, or a precise step one wants leaders and others to take—a step that, in turn, requires that supporters contribute what they can (time, money, validating endorsement, something else that’s valuable).
  4. Growth of Support: A key inflection is when support transcends the expected base. One example is when conservative senator, Jesse Helms, joined Bono on the Jubilee campaign for debt relief for developing nations. While this may seem a more circumscribed example, it is a common marker—when a movement goes beyond its traditional base of support, it is an indication that it has reached an important new milestone. We also saw this happen in the Movement for Black Lives this past summer, in the personal testimonials of new “converts” to the real goals of the movement and the urgency of achieving those goals.

Next, we tested our working thesis by reviewing more than a dozen articles that defined the elements of successful social movements and distilled our findings into nine common, though not linear, stages.

Our list below is not perfect, and it is certainly somewhat simplified. Not every author listed every stage we came up with and most did not use the exact same language, but the larger themes overlapped across the articles.

In sum, the stages we saw were:

  1. Identify a clear purpose: This is not just an analytic process, but one in which early leaders give meaning, often to a catalyzing event, and also define a focusing goal specific enough to motivate people but broad and ambitious enough to require sustained effort so the goal is not outgrown quickly, either because it’s achieved or becomes irrelevant to people’s lives and core beliefs.
  2. Identify existing power structures and resources: This takes more than moral conviction or emotional commitment. It demands a flexible look at how influence operates and what exactly would need to happen to secure the change a movement seeks. Is it mainly policy reforms, or also social attitudes and norms? Can markets play a positive role, under the right conditions, through innovation, testing competing ideas, and scaling? One differentiating feature is that some movements plan for and build in room for key defenders of the status quo—whether well-known businesses, media, national security opinion leaders, doctors or other high-status professionals, or others—to switch sides.
  3. Establish effective messaging: This one is easily misconstrued as mere sloganeering or memorable phrasing. In fact, it includes building a recognizable brand that large numbers of people can identify with (attach to), credible messengers that include everyday people sharing their connection to the cause, and deeper stories (narratives) that reflect shared values—things we prize in common even if we’re not yet in agreement about specific policies or practices.
  4. Attract new supporters: Successful movements must start with the authentic community impacted. Additionally, yes, effective movements can recruit in ways that respond to people’s righteous anger, the appetite to respond to a threat to our lives, livelihoods, and values—our sense of how the world should work. But movements that attract larger and more broad-based support inspire with hope, analyze the values and interests of other organized groups to explore alliances, and make initial asks that let new supporters take reasonable first steps (lowering the barriers to entry). Here, successful movements are very deliberate, but also experimentalist, about their major media of communication, and about reaching the grassroots along with the grasstops (outlier authority figures in the system, opinion leaders, or other influencers). Movements establish their internal networks for communicating information rapidly and reliably.
  5. Train and support participants: Some movements build capacity, including leaders, more effectively than others. Training can disseminate a shared vocabulary, but also generate norms of creativity, mutual support, and learning from set-backs. Effective capacity building always seeks to tap the lived experience and wisdom of everyday participants.
  6. Organize the movement for scale and reach: There is a critical difference between organization (which requires structure, investment and maintenance over time) and mere mobilization (which can be ad hoc and more or less spontaneous). For example, effective, large-scale movements both aggregate supporters via well-run units (such as local or state chapters) with rules and regular practices, and also federate them (vertically) into workable regional and often national networks.
  7. Face and creatively adapt to opposition: Organized and sustained opposition is one more sign of a movement’s growing success. But then what? Movement leaders and supporters must achieve several things: rallying supporters to expect push-back as a sign of progress; confront pressure without resorting to violence or other tactics that typically alienate potential supporters; and reckon pragmatically with offers from the other side(s)—in other words, judge concessions or potential concessions in discerning ways, weighing a movement’s shorter and longer term goals. At this point, loyalty shifts (by defenders of the status quo) become a real possibility, but may call for more bargaining than movement actors needed to engage in earlier stages. This is one of many critical junctures: Will movement representatives confuse specific options (proposals) on the table with underlying values and refuse any flexibility? Will they embrace the process of generating alternatives and separate that from judgment? As a negotiation classic advises, “Invent before deciding.”
  8. Gain mainstream acceptance: Movements that effectively target and shift norms see their preferred beliefs and practices hit mainstream, literally becoming normative. Meanwhile, a movement’s policy wins don’t just shift how formal authority is applied—for example, through the force of law or regulation—but also help reset public expectations. Those wins become durable when seen as broadly legitimate and functional, even worth defending. Political scientists have documented these as “positive feedback loops,” through which policy wins create or expand political constituencies that defend and build on policy wins that matter to them.
  9. Renew the movement, or wind up and shift outlook: Historically, some movements, such as those around fundamental rights, are very long-run struggles with distinct chapters. Sometimes, they unfold over decades and generations, with leaders defining new goals, explaining transitions, and building or repurposing organizations and other key sources of capacity. Some of these steps are slow, even belated, as well as wrenching and highly contested, but they represent renewal. But other movements, say around a more enlightened form of professional practice, or the establishment of a new field of practice, can declare victory and then shift their outlook. As the embodiment of a new normal, fields need mechanisms to promote accountability and ongoing learning, or else they can all too easily become a new and unaccountable establishment, unwavering defenders of a dominant paradigm, denying failures and contradictions, and even denigrating new movements for change.

We expect a constant will be that the most successful efforts always start with a focus on the people impacted and, importantly, how to empower them to make the change needed.

Please let us know if you have thoughts, edits, or suggestions, or if you’d like more detail on what literature we reviewed. We will continue to build here and welcome a broadening conversation.

There is so much that needs change in our world. We hope some of these insights are of use as our community of supporters and friends think about their strategies for big change.