Transformation Insights

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Transformation Insights


what works


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

At Community Wealth Partners we set out to answer one powerful question: How can social change initiatives achieve transformational results? Drawing on lessons from a variety of social movements 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, iterative and nonlinear, we’ve found that transformational efforts often progress through a common set of stages, depicted in our Social Transformation Lifecycle. In each stage, there are critical questions to consider. (Learn more about these insights and lifecycle in these Spark Podcast episodes.)



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 organizations 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-, or 25-year goal.

For example, Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger nonprofit and our parent organization, set out to end childhood hunger through its No Kid Hungry campaign. While ambitious, the bold goal and Share Our Strength’s vision for achieving it inspired a diverse range of partners including leaders from business, government, philanthropy, and the entertainment industry. Since then, Share Our Strength has made tremendous strides, serving more than 1 billion meals to children. As a sign of the progress Share Our Strength contributed to, in 2018, the federal government reported that the number of children living with hunger dropped by a third since 2008, when the No Kid Hungry campaign began.

A bold goal is not enough on its own. It’s also important to create a sense of urgency and give people a reason to believe that the goal can be accomplished so they will continue to engage. Setting shorter-term milestones and developing small-scale proof points help you and your stakeholders see the progress you are making. For example, in their efforts to end death and disease caused by tobacco, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and its partners set and achieved a major milestone — securing FDA jurisdiction over tobacco.



A bold, long-term goal needs a tactical strategy that lays out plans to achieve the goal. In setting this strategy, be methodical — consider milestones you’d want to see in one, three, or five years to help you know you are on the right track. Achieving transformative change on a complex issue will likely require multiple strategies. Clarify discrete outcomes for each strategy.

For example, the Movement for Black Lives created a policy platform outlining six areas where change is needed to achieve the movement’s vision of Black humanity and dignity. Each area includes calls for specific outcomes that represent meaningful steps in the movement for racial justice.

It is equally important for organizations, coalitions, and movements to be adaptive — recognizing when strategies need to shift to achieve better results and making necessary changes. As adrienne maree brown writes in “Emergent Strategy,” social transformation happens in ways that are nonlinear and iterative. Learning can happen every step of the way to help adapt and evolve strategies in pursuit of the goal.



In order to ensure an initiative is sustainable, it’s critical to focus from the onset on creating shared ownership. No single organization can tackle complex social issues alone, so it is important to engage and collaborate with others working in pursuit of a common vision. In addition to creating shared ownership of the vision of what you want to accomplish, organizations also must work diligently to create shared ownership of how the goal will be achieved. Consider doing so among a diverse range of stakeholders, including other nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, government, and the private sector. However, the most critical stakeholders to create shared ownership with are those in the community most affected by the issue you seek to address. Creating shared ownership with communities includes sharing decision-making power, creating a platform for their voices, holding yourself accountable to them, and providing resources so that community stakeholders can implement and sustain solutions.

To make community change that sticks, the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation turns to those who know best what a neighborhood needs: community members themselves. For more than 20 years, the foundation has invested in improving the quality of life for children and families living in low-income communities in Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The foundation works toward this goal by giving multiyear grants — often supporting organizations for more than 10 years — and capacity-building support to nonprofits that plan and implement neighborhood revitalization initiatives. The foundation’s grantees develop plans for community development that are driven by resident engagement, and the foundation helps build nonprofits’ capacity for resident engagement as well. This approach has resulted in significant development including new homes, strengthened commercial corridors, renovated community centers, safer parks, and more. 



Fostering shared ownership for your vision will require you to work with a diverse network of stakeholders. To make real progress on solving a social problem we must ask the question: Who has a role to play in solving this problem? The answer often includes a highly disparate group of stakeholders, including representatives from the public, private, and government sectors; those who affect the problem and those affected by it; and those we do and do not know.

The most important people to include in your circle are those who are closest to the issue you’re trying to address because their knowledge and perspective are critical for shaping effective solutions. A bold goal and its supporting strategy must rally those closest to the problem and engage them in creating solutions.

Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit committed to ending chronic homelessness in Washington, DC, has a core value that its chronically homeless guests are at the center of everything the organization does. To live this value, the staff have built intentional opportunities to gather input from guests and incorporate that input into decisions about strategy and day-to-day operations. For example, Miriam’s Kitchen has a Guest Engagement Working Group in which guests meet regularly to offer input on services. As the organization was refining its theory of change, staff invited a few guests to provide feedback.

In addition to seeking input and feedback, organizations and movements can open their circles by looking for ways to build and restore power within communities and making space for the voices and expertise of those who have historically been left out of the conversation. A key way to do this is ensuring that the communities you are working to support are involved in making decisions. You can begin to do this in various ways, such as ensuring staff and boards are representative of the communities in which you work and creating committees or advisory boards to guide or make decisions. Some grantmakers, including the Jacobs Family Foundation and the Heinz Endowments, use participatory grantmaking models to cede grantmaking decisions to representatives of the communities the funding is intended to benefit.



Communications must be viewed as a critical cornerstone of the strategy to solve a social problem. Building initiatives that solve problems at the magnitude they at 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 at it as a programmatic function rather than just a support function.” 


As the marriage equality movement sought support from more segments of the public, the Marriage Research Consortium conducted polls that found that more poll voters believed same-sex couples got married for “rights and benefits” rather than “love and commitment.” This finding led some movement leaders to realize they’d been leading with an ineffective message — an argument for equal rights and benefits. By reframing communications to focus on love and commitment, the movement was able to build significantly more public support for marriage equality. By 2010, a Pew Research Center poll found that for the first time ever, fewer than half of Americans opposed marriage equality. (By 2017, the share had shrunk to 32 percent.) This was a watershed moment leading up to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling granting marriage equality nationwide.

Explore More



Sometimes the most powerful thing a leader can do is change the conversation to help people gain a deeper understanding of an issue and ultimately drive more investment in and support for the cause. We found that leaders who are working toward transformational change are especially skilled at this. Rather than getting stuck in the status quo, they reframe what’s being talked about, and ultimately this drives behavior change and results.


For example, KaBOOM! realized that in order to achieve its mission of creating the conditions where all kids get the play they need, the nonprofit had to change the conversation with their stakeholders from a focus on outputs — playspaces built — to outcomes — kids’ health and wellbeing. Play is more than just a nice-to-have for kids. It is critical for healthy growth and development. Active play can help curb obesity; enable the development of important social, cognitive, and creative skills; and help protect kids from the harmful effects of toxic stress. Changing the conversation about the problem also helped KaBOOM! change the conversation about the solution — linking the building of playspaces to national imperatives like combatting childhood obesity, preparing the next-generation workforce, and the need for a collective responsibility to protect and promote play. As a result, KaBOOM! has gained traction with a larger group of stakeholders, including city governments, community organizations, and institutional philanthropy, which has allowed the organization to reach more kids and build stronger ties in communities.



Restructuring existing systems is necessary for systemic change, and it is work that cannot be done alone. The power of building public support is that it not only increases the number of people who believe in and advocate for your organization’s priorities, but it can also lead to changes in funding, legislation, public opinion, or behavior that can help accelerate widespread, systemic change.


As Leslie Crutchfield writes in How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t, movements with grassroots that are strong and robust — both in size and intensity — are more likely to achieve their goals.


One striking example of this phenomenon is the anti-smoking movement. In 1965, 42 percent of the US adult population smoked cigarettes. According to CDC data from 2016, that number has decreased to 16 percent. These significant declines in smoking rates were generated through legislative changes and increased federal and state cigarette taxes, which are directly attributable to the anti-smoking movement and its success in generating public support.



Too often there are gaps between those making decisions about how to address social problems and those who are affected by those problems. Data show that nonprofit organizations and foundations by and large do not reflect the communities they serve, and this creates gaps in relationships, life experience, and understanding. Those trying to solve social problems at the magnitude they exist must work to close these gaps and build deep empathy for the people and communities they serve.


A key way to build deep empathy is to ensure your board and staff include people from the communities in which you work. A few years ago, The Colorado Trust restructured its staff with this goal. Rather than having a team of program officers based in the home office in Denver, The Trust hired a team of community partners who are living and working in cities, towns, and neighborhoods across the state. The role of the community partners is to help organize, encourage, and build power among people — especially those who have historically been left out of such conversations and decision-making — leading to resident-led initiatives to improve communities and make them healthier places to live, with funding from The Trust.

Explore More



Culture is often described as “the way we do things around here.” It is built whether you focus on it or not. We’ve learned from organizations achieving transformational change that intentionally building culture should be a primary focus that closely aligns with and supports its goals. Building culture happens at multiple levels: within organizations, across movements, and in communities.


To build culture within organizations, there must be explicit structures, processes, and policies (norms) that reinforce organizational values. These norms will incentivize the types of individual behaviors that will reinforce the culture. Similarly, organizations must reflect on norms, both implicit and explicit, that might be incentivizing behaviors that conflict with organizational values and determine ways to change those norms.


When Helios Education Foundation worked to strengthen its culture, one value it prioritized was collaboration. Behaviors to support that value included greater shared ownership and delegation of projects, open two-way communication, and sharing credit with colleagues and partners.


Similarly, attention to culture across collaboratives or movements can enable players to work better together and achieve greater impact. Sometimes achieving a bold vision requires shifting national culture as well. For example, the designated driver movement of the 1980s and ‘90s set its sights on making designated drivers the norm in U.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.



Solving complex social problems calls for a disciplined process of experimenting, tracking and analyzing results, building upon lessons learned from successes and failures, and evolving our strategies to the realities of the times.


Experimenting allows us to try bold solutions to big problems. We must be willing to accept failure and recognize that there is valuable learning to be gained from it.


Learning means measuring results, seeking to understand and nuance qualitative and quantitative data, and humbly accepting what you discover. As we learn, we must adapt our strategies with the end goal in mind.


Having a strategy is important, but just as important is being clear about what success looks like and being willing to evolve through the process of experimenting and learning. As Jean Case writes in “Be Fearless,” innovative leaders make setbacks matter by applying lessons learned and sharing them with others.


Guided by the question, How can the arts be transformative in the lives of youth living in African American and “distressed” communities in Pittsburgh?, The Heinz Endowments’ creativity program initially made investments in a cohort of institutional projects they believed could rise to this challenge. From these efforts, staff learned that in order to achieve greater success, the local arts community would benefit from a field-building strategy, deeper relationships, and different resource streams than were previously available. The Endowments made some initial attempts at field-building and learned the approaches were not in the best interests of those doing the work. In response to that learning, in 2014, the Endowments began an experiment in participatory grantmaking to support field-building strategies directed toward teaching artists, young people, and arts organizations working with youth in predominantly African American neighborhoods where creative arts and culture needs received little attention and fewer resources. To increase community participation, the Endowments invited participation from a paid advisory board that brought the community’s experts in teaching artistry, including youth, to the center of the design and decision-making process.


We’re consistently writing about what we’re learning in our blog and publishing actionable tools and in-depth articles in our resources.