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Transformation Insights

Social Transformation (n): The solving of social problems at the magnitude they exist.

KaBOOM!-Workers-2At Community Wealth Partners we set out to answer one powerful question: Why do some social change initiatives achieve transformational results while others only make incremental progress? Drawing on lessons from the anti-malaria movement, the designated driver campaign, the anti-tobacco movement, the revitalization of Harlem and the anti-hunger movement, and our ongoing partnerships with clients nationwide, we are decoding what works and bringing you our insights—insights that anyone who dreams of solving a social problem can apply.

Although this work is complex and messy, we’ve found that transformational efforts often progress through a common set of stages. Across each stage, there are critical questions with which change agents must wrestle, and ultimately answer to make progress. In addition to exploring the insights on this page, we would encourage you to download the Social Transformation Lifecycle, a tool to help you ask the powerful questions necessary for gauging and advancing your progress toward transformational change.

Related Blog Post: Creating Transformational Change: Top Ten Insights

Please explore our top ten insights:

1. Be Bold & Believable

A bold goal that articulates how the world will look dramatically different is essential to solving problems at the magnitude they exist. It leads to different decisions that propel social change agents on a different trajectory, which ultimately leads to greater impact, faster. It requires change agents to use their imaginations to create a world that does not yet exist but is within reach. This generally translates into the development of a 10-, 15-, 20-, 25-year goal. Malaria No More, for example, set a goal to end deaths from malaria in Africa by 2015. The bold goal—considered ‘crazy’ by many inside and outside of the malaria field—inspired other organizations to join them in achieving it, and since 2000, these organizations, along with other efforts, have reduced malaria deaths in Africa by more than 25 percent. Nine African countries have reduced deaths from the disease by more than 50 percent. On its own, however, a bold goal is not enough. It’s also important to create a sense of urgency and give people a reason to believe that the goal can be accomplished, and therefore, a reason to continue to engage. This can be achieved by setting shorter-term milestones and developing small-scale proof points. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and its partners in their efforts to end death and disease from tobacco set a milestone to achieve FDA jurisdiction over tobacco, which they achieved.

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2. Discipline is Key

Articulating a bold vision is important, but doing so without discipline will not lead to success. Much of the private sector research suggests that leaders who are successful aren’t any more bold or visionary than less successful leaders. However, they are more disciplined: they observe what works, figure out why it worked and build upon it. Or, if something is not working, they stop doing it. Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone discusses how his team launched an employment program to help realize the vision of breaking the cycle of poverty in Harlem by sending every child who lives in the 97-block area to college. However, they eventually made a decision to shut down the program, as data showed that it wasn’t advancing the mission in the way they originally expected.

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3. Create Shared Leadership

It’s critical to focus on creating shared leadership and ownership from the onset of an initiative to ensure it is sustainable. For example, Dr. Jay Winsten, one of the designated driver movement’s leaders, talks about engaging influencers—most importantly Hollywood executives, writers and producers—to embrace the designated driver concept and encouraging them to incorporate it into scripts; however, he emphasized that it was critical to leave it up to these influencers exactly if and how they did so. Many Hollywood executives, writers and producers took the cause on as their own, which led to frequent mentions of the concept in leading shows, such as Cheers. The designated-driver campaign is credited with playing a significant role in the decline of alcohol-related fatalities between 1988 and 1993, and it has been shown that the concept has been passed down from one generation to the next. 

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4. Open Your Circle

No one organization and its direct staff and stakeholders can solve a complex social problem on their own. Every leader trying to solve a problem must ask the simple question: Who do I need to engage to solve this problem? Generally, this involves a broad cross section of stakeholders from the nonprofit, private and public sectors. It involves both those who are effected by and affect the problem. For example, in the fight to end deaths from malaria in Africa by 2015, there are hundreds of partners engaged across all three sectors to work toward this common goal.

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5. Communications is Strategy

Communications must be viewed as a critical function. At the end of the day, building initiatives that solve problems at the magnitude they exist requires the engagement of many stakeholders, and it takes targeted, consistent communications to sustain engagement. Scott Case, former CEO of Malaria No More, said it best: “Raising awareness about the cause, your initiative, and how individuals can support it is a fundamental aspect of the work and as important as anything else. We looked it as a programmatic function rather than just a support function.” 

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6. Change the Conversation

Sometimes the most powerful thing a leader can do is change the conversation, which changes the outcome. This is especially true when it comes to talking about financial resources. Rather than getting stuck in the weeds of existing structures and processes—such as funding guidelines, reporting requirements, etc.—change agents need to focus on what it is they are really trying to achieve and what is really required to get there. Solving any complex social problem is going to require long-term, flexible funding, and changing the conversation is key to realizing this outcome. In his effort to send every child who lives in the 97-block area of Harlem to college, Geoffrey Canada at Harlem Children’s Zone explains how he did this in the early days of his work: “We honestly would not take money that was not multi-year and it had to be unrestricted. You had to fund the plan, not a specific program.” 

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7. Build Public Support

Building public support can lead to substantial government dollars and/or changes in legislation that can help accelerate widespread, systemic change. For example, in the anti-smoking movement, increases in cigarette taxes at the federal and state levels have helped decrease smoking rates. 

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8. Live in the Market

Those trying to solve social problems at the magnitude they exist spend the majority of their time living in the market.  They are continuously observing, engaging with, seeking to understand, and learning from their external environment and the many stakeholders who are critical to the advancement of their cause. Understanding this market, of course, is not enough. It’s what the social change agents do with the information that makes them successful. They use it to guide decision-making. They use it to adapt and change, as appropriate, to ensure that all aspects of their work are relevant to the interests and needs of their stakeholders and environment. They use it to capitalize on opportunities to advance their cause. The designated driver movement, for example, seized the opportunity to engage national media in the movement after one of their own—a fellow journalist—was killed by a drunk driver.

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9. Build Culture, Intentionally

It’s critical to intentionally build culture— values, norms and behaviors—at two levels: 1) within the organizations working together to transform a social problem and 2) within society as a whole. The designated driver movement of the 1980s and ‘90s set its sights on making designated drivers the norm in our nation’s culture. The movement engaged some of the country’s most influential cultural leaders—Hollywood executives, writers and producers—to incorporate the designated driver concept into their scripts. Today, the designated driver concept remains strong in generations that weren’t even alive during the initial movement efforts, demonstrating how integrated it has become in the fabric of U.S. culture. 

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10. Experiment, Learn & Evolve

Solving problems at this magnitude doesn’t happen overnight, but rather through a disciplined process of rapidly experimenting with solutions, analyzing the results, and building upon what works. For example, in the ongoing journey to immigration reform, The Atlantic Philanthropies learned that it, along with its fellow advocates, needed to engage both political parties, which ran counter to an early assumption within the immigration reform community that success would come as a result of focusing on influencing the Democratic party. Additionally, immigration reform advocates learned over time that their way of communicating with Republican party members was ineffective. Atlantic shifted its framing from a more emotional argument to focus on the values that tended to attract Republicans to their jobs: making the government more efficient and effective.  

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