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Understanding the process of social change

Social change is a significant, lasting alteration in a society's culture, values, norms or behavior, especially as it relates to the goal of making the world a more equitable, stable place. Examples include the abolition of slavery, the industrial revolution, women's suffrage and civil rights, among others.

Social movements arise from deep-seated tensions between those who have power and those who don't. Unlike many changes in business, social change is always contested. That's because it necessitates challenging the prevailing wisdom of the day to present an alternative vision for the future. That future might be articulated in words or manifested as a grassroots resistance to the status quo.

Either way, social change breakthroughs don't come easily. They need ardent supporters who'll seek opportunities and work through obstacles far into the future. But first, it's important to understand the process of social change.

How social change happens

The cycle of social change is inherently complicated — involving messy challenges, defeat of the prevailing wisdom, and dedicated effort to prevent society from sliding back into complacency. Simply put, social movements are the result of a highly vested person or group taking action.

Social change begins with a serious, authentic commitment to:

Identify injustice

The world is full of injustices. Social change movements are generally built around a shared sense of empathy for those who are facing persecution, disease or poverty and are held together by shared outrage at the injustice. Do you have a burning belief that there's a "wrong" in the world that demands to be fixed? Choose a cause that lights your hair on fire and refuses to be put out. Then, do all you can to understand that issue in all its complexity.

Engage with the community

Collect stories. Listen actively. Social change can take a long time and there are often many discouraging setbacks. Engage with the community to truly understand the issue, develop partnerships and collaborations, and build pressure for change — even when you meet opinions or perspectives that don't match your own. Purpose and perseverance should be the measure by which you judge your progress, especially when it feels like your work won't ever make a difference.

Challenge the prevailing wisdom

Challenging the prevailing wisdom of the day is a complicated process with many moving parts. It involves combining imagination, research, planning and anecdotal experiences into a vision for the future that addresses key needs and frustrations. In the beginning, you might need to concentrate on simply keeping your new idea alive. As you gain support, however, you'll be able to actively "break through" existing networks to disrupt the prevailing wisdom.

Identify assets and obstacles

What are the obstacles standing between your movement and your goal? Do you have the necessary supplies, capital and human power? Have you identified others who are working toward the same cause? A thorough accounting of existing assets will give you an idea of what tools you already have and how you can best utilize them to achieve your goals.

Initiate a plan and study the results

All plans, no matter their size, will ultimately succeed or fail on the back of two qualities:

  • Purpose: the personal or deeply held desire to create change
  • Perseverance: the drive to work as long and as hard as it takes to effect that change

Studying the results of any new initiatives you put in place is key. The future is inherently uncertain, and there are likely a hundred different paths to effect change. Studying results will help you determine whether you're on the right course or if you should invest your resources and energy elsewhere.

The 20 percent rule

Stanford University conducted a study that determined a new idea becomes embedded in society when just 5 percent of people accept it. When 20 percent of the population is on board, the movement is categorized as "unstoppable." Understanding this 20 percent rule and how social change actually happens is the first step in making your impossible, complicated, wonderful dreams a reality.

Ready to get to work? Consider the role of a nonprofit in social change.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Nonprofit Quarterly: Driving social change by Paul Light (2011)

Animating Democracy: What is social change?

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Social change defined



Writer and firm believer in using business as a tool for positive change