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Transformational Change Requires More Than Program Replication

By Amy Celep

This post was written for inclusion in a series of response essays to Social Impact Exchange’s 2013 Conference on Scaling Impact. You can find the original essay here and additional essays on the Social Impact Exchange blog.

You may have heard the story of the babies in the river. There was a small village on the edge of a river. One day a villager notices a baby floating down the river. As she calls to fellow villagers to alert them to the startling sight, she sees more babies coming around the bend. Villagers begin to organize to rescue the babies, setting up an elaborate 24-hour watch, all the while the number of babies floating down the river continues to increase. One day, a villager suggests that someone go upstream to see where all these babies are coming from. A controversy erupts. One group argues that every possible hand is needed to save the babies downstream, as they can barely keep up with the current flow, and it would take too long to investigate the issue upstream. Another group argues that if they can find out how the babies are ending up in the water, they could solve the problem upstream, saving all the babies and eliminating the need for the rescue operation.

While a simplistic story, it’s a familiar one in the social sector that is charged with helping to fill the gap and solve social problems as our political and economic markets fail. Where do we best focus our efforts and resources—on the short-term immediate need that is critical but yields incremental results, or the harder to achieve long-term outcome that addresses the root cause of an issue and ultimately solves the problem at the magnitude it exists? I advocate for us to focus more effort than we currently do on the latter, not to say that there isn’t a role for filling the short-term immediate need.

As an observer of the five presentations that were part of the Scaling in Action sessions at the Conference on Scaling Impact, I was impressed and moved by the powerful stories—from significant reductions in recidivism among participants in the Center for Employment Opportunities’ program, to increases in teacher retention and practice among new teachers supported by the New Teacher Center. The compelling results of these five organizations also confirmed my belief that as a sector we can solve social problems. With these types of proof points, we can create transformational change.

What might we expect to see more of if the sector fully embraced the opportunity to define success as solving problems at the magnitude they exist? I’d like to highlight three specific items, which are derived from insights we’ve developed by researching a number of historical and present-day efforts that are tackling problems at the magnitude they exist—such as the anti-malaria movement, the designated driver campaign, the reduction in crime in New York City in the 1990s, and the anti-tobacco movement.[i]

1)    Focus: Set a Bold Goal

Solving a social problem at the magnitude it exists requires an organization to shift from focusing on short-term incremental progress to focusing on long-term transformational change. The latter is risky, hard to measure, and even harder to achieve, but it provides the inspiration that generates motivation, resources, and a new sense of what is possible. This means developing a population-level, outcome-focused, long-term bold goal.

Malaria No More, for example, adopted the goal in 2006 to end all deaths from malaria in Africa by 2015. This bold goal—considered ‘crazy’ by many inside and outside the malaria field—eventually inspired other organizations to join them in achieving it. Since 2006 malaria deaths have fallen by 33 percent in Africa.

During the Scaling in Action presentations, all organizations presented growth goals that articulated increases in the number of people reached or number of sites established. For example, the Center for Employment Opportunities, which helps formerly incarcerated individuals enter the workforce, has a goal to double the number of people it serves to reach 5,000 individuals a year across five states.  Similarly, The Achievement Network works alongside school leadership to provide schools with effective data-driven strategies to identify and close gaps in student learning and embed those strategies into schools’ everyday routines. Its goal is to reach 250,000 children by 2017, reaching 10% of its target national market.

These are worthy goals and not easy to achieve, yet the question I leave with is might the impact be even greater if these organizations leveraged their tremendous credibility and evidence-base and tackled the next frontier: articulate and hold themselves accountable to outcomes-oriented goals such as student academic performance or the health and well-being of a population. Our research suggests that these types of bold goals create the motivation to work in new ways—for example, focusing on underlying issues rather than symptoms, working as part of an integrated system instead of program silos, organizing to deliver sustainable change for a person or community rather than a narrowly tailored program or benefit—that can lead to greater impact.

2)    Stakeholders: Open Up Your Circle

Transformational change requires an organization to look outside of its core group of true believers and put greater emphasis on mobilizing those less engaged. Every leader trying to solve a problem at the magnitude it exists must ask the simple question: Who has a role to play in solving this problem? The answer often includes cross-sector stakeholders, and those making transformational change are particularly adept at moving beyond their core champions and engaging seemingly unlikely partners. They excel at converting the “maybes”—the largest stakeholder group by far for any social goal—into “yeses.”

Dr. Jay Winsten at the Harvard School for Public Health and one of the architects behind the “designated driver” movement, demonstrated the value of opening one’s circle by successfully engaging the Hollywood community in an effort to make the designated driver concept a social norm. Many Hollywood elites adopted the cause as their own, writing it into scripts of shows such as Cheers. The designated driver campaign played a significant role in the 24 percent decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities between 1988 and 1992. The concept has since been passed down from one generation to the next.

The Scaling in Action presenters referenced many of the stakeholder groups they have engaged in their work. The question for each presenter is whether these stakeholders are those who already are enthusiasts for their cause, or whether they have succeeded in tackling the next frontier by mobilizing those who are inclined to be less interested, less engaged. Take the New Teacher Center, for example, which is part of the teacher effectiveness movement. It is critical for the New Teacher Center to develop deep credibility among the teacher effectiveness enthusiasts, but the reality is that these enthusiasts tend to be a small portion of the overall civic square. Truly transformative social movements move out beyond their core and make their message relevant and actionable to a much broader audience.  For example, can the New Teacher Center motivate parents across the country who might be interested in the effectiveness of their own child’s teacher, but less engaged in taking significant action to improve teacher effectiveness across their community or the country. Can the New Teacher Center capture their hearts and minds, create a sense of urgency, and show them how they can take action?

3)    Approach: Invest in Influence Strategies

Creating transformational change often requires going beyond replication of programs or direct services and focusing on influence strategies, such as advocacy, communications, capacity-building, and community organizing, in order to reach all affected by a problem. When you count the number of individuals any one organization’s programs would need to directly support, you often see a gap larger than any influx of funding could close. The math starts not to add up and one has to look to other strategies.

KaBOOM!, for example, which is focused on the lack of opportunities for play, realized in 2012 that despite its growth and success, it wasn’t solving the problem at the magnitude it existed. It wasn’t just about building more places for kids to play; there was a more complex problem around how society thinks about, values, and engages in play. It couldn’t continue to ignore that many playgrounds are empty most of the time, that active play is disappearing in America, that kids are spending more than eight hours a day in front of a screen, and that almost half of all kids living in poverty attend schools that don’t offer recess.

For KaBOOM!, the choice was stark: continue its almost exclusive focus on building playgrounds—providing tangible benefits to communities with incremental impact—or take a risk and chart a new course that would maintain what had made KaBOOM! successful so far and also address the broad scale and complexity of the issue with the hope of creating transformational change. KaBOOM! chose the latter. Its new goal: All children, particularly the 16 million children living in poverty, get the play they need to become successful and healthy adults. Thinking at this level changed everything for KaBOOM!. It is adding new strategies—inspiring, empowering, and leading play advocates and informing while elevating the societal conversation about the importance of play in kids’ lives—that leverage its core strength of creating and catalyzing great places to play.

Nearly all the Scaling in Action presenters mentioned various types of influence strategies; however, the next frontier is greater emphasis, development and investment in these strategies if we are to realize transformational change. For example, David Shapiro of MENTOR, which advances mentoring as a proven strategy for improving life outcomes for youth, discussed his organization’s efforts to advocate for public policies and funding for mentoring programs. This is critical if MENTOR is going to meet the needs of the 15 million U.S. youth who still are in need of mentoring.  Dr. Sanjeev Arora of Project ECHO, which focuses on developing the capacity to treat chronic, common and complex diseases in rural and underserved areas, discussed the creation of knowledge networks that build the capacity of clinicians to provide specialty care to underserved populations without dependence on Project ECHO specialists.  An organization has a much greater chance of reaching all the people affected by its issue when it invests in these types of influence strategies.

Now back to the babies floating down the river. Many organizations, ones similar to those that presented during the Scaling in Action session, are creating powerful proof points that demonstrate that real change is possible. We as a sector now must build upon these proof points and muster the courage to aim for the harder to achieve, long-term outcomes that will solve social problems and put an end to the babies floating down the river once and for all.


[i] Many of the qualitative details relating to the social change initiatives are derived from interviews with leaders of the respective initiatives. These interviews were conducted by Amy Celep and other Community Wealth Partners’ staff in August and September 2011.  Interviewees included: Suprotik Basu, managing director of the Office of the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Malaria; Bill Bratton, 38th commissioner of the NYPD; Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone; Scott Case, vice chairman and founding member of Malaria No More; Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids; Dr. Jay Winsten, founding director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication and manager of the Harvard Alcohol Project.

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Amy Celep

About Amy Celep

As CEO of Community Wealth Partners, Amy Celep guides the organization’s strategic direction and oversees its more than 20 employees in their efforts to support partners in solving problems at the magnitude they exist. Amy was named to this role in April 2010, and since then has led the organization in developing and implementing a new strategy for greater impact, while achieving 50 percent revenue growth and securing a marquee list of partners. See Amy's full bio

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