Saturday, July 10, 2010

Minding the Gap

Okay, so you're a change agent at a traditional nonprofit organization -- or you're a social entrepreneur who has just started a social enterprise. You've got your seed funding and a rock-solid business plan. So now what? How do you inspire people, from your CEO to rural farmers to consumers, to change their ways to do good (or at least better) for society?

Don't laugh. How to get people to care more about "doing good" is one of the hottest new topics making the rounds of this season's social innovation conferences. Referred to more clinically as "the neuroscience of change," the topic popped up for the first time last spring, at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, then again last month at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service -- and then again this past week, at the annual Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.

Whether inspiring consumers toward fair trade, persuading corporate executives to care more deeply about labor practices or empowering women in a rural village, the challenge to influence behavior is a tough one, indeed. Neuroscientists, including Chris Frith, a professor of neuropsychology at London's University College, say that based on the circuitry of our brains and the emotional responses that direct our behavior, there is some practical knowledge that can be used by social innovators to be more effective in changing hearts and minds.

Here are four quick pointers about the people you're trying to influence (with apologies to conference presenters):

They/We Are Not Different. Neuroscientists say our brains have an "us-versus-them" default; individuals have a tendency to think they are special, or different, than the people in need of help around them. We all stereotype others, whether we do it consciously or not, as a sort of primal safety mechanism. Humans have a tendency to frame the world in terms of people who belong to our "in group" and those who do not. Social entrepreneurs need to fight that human reflex by honing in on the similarities that unite them to their constituents. Key are storytelling initiatives or strategic interactions that show donors and higher-ups that they're not much different than the people your "do-good" efforts are attempting to serve.

They/We Have Choices. Framing the challenges you are trying to ease is key in gaining support for your work. For example, 600 people are on a deserted island and are hit by a deadly flu. You have a life-saving vaccine. The catch? You can give people two options. Option 1: You have 200 doses of the vaccine and can give it to 200 people, guaranteeing their recovery. Option 2: You can try a new vaccine on all 600 people with only a one-third chance it will save them all. Most people will choose Option 1. But if you frame the dilemma differently -- that Option 1 will kill 400 people and save only 200 lives, most people will opt for Option 2. Stress positive outcomes.

They/We Are Not Helpless. Donors, people in need and frustrated social entrepreneurs need to avoid confusing frustration with the feeling of helplessness -- that sense that, in the face of challenge, nobody can really make a lasting difference. To avoid this, draw up clear goals along with a list of steps required to achieve them. Set deadlines. Start measuring your progress. Broadcast your accomplishments. Measuring incremental change sets up a continuous improvement loop. Also key? Invite the people you're trying to serve to be part of the process. Train them how to measure results incrementally. As long as there is knowledge of impact, the "we are helpless" syndrome won't stand a chance.

They/We Are Not Smarter. Neuroscientists on recent panels refer to stagnant thinking that tends to challenge donors and executives, who have self-wired their brains with data and categorizations. New thinking that challenges these categories tends to be dismissed or downplayed -- not so much because it is bad or good, but rather because it falls outside the categories that most people have already built for themselves to cope with their everyday challenges and to compensate for what they think they do well or poorly. The antidote? Don't ask people to take action. Instead, create situations in which people are expected to act in a certain way unless they take decisive action to behave otherwise. If they opt out, then rinse and repeat. [See the previous bullet point, "They/We Are Not Helpless."]

These are just four quick tips from the pros. What might you add to the list?

(Post by Marcia Stepanek; illustration by Mark Strozier for

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Anonymous Bonnie Koenig said...

Neuroscientists also say we need to 'retrain our brain' or 'recharge the neurons' to create new patterns. This takes time, reflection and often practice. We thus need to build in workshop, reflection or other time to allow for this to happen.

July 14, 2010 at 8:39 AM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Bonnie, for your comment. Great point. I think that in some ways we've been tricked by the culture of "now" to demand immediacy from that which cannot be hurried. I've been been watching with great interest the slow food and slow money movements and the lessons both hold for contemporary leadership challenges.

July 14, 2010 at 9:08 AM  
Anonymous Susan Fassberg said...

Yes, if one reads all the current commentary about how our obsessiveness with data flow and instant gratification is actually hindering our capacity to engage in contemplative practice and thought, one quickly sees we've got a wee dilemma. The trick will be developing a healthy balance between unplugged experiences/ savoring and data management (i use the term loosely here).

July 14, 2010 at 2:46 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

So I think two things are going on here -- the challenge of acceleration in our culture and cultural dictates that say speed is good and reward it. Again, I think the "new leadership" will need to reward skillsets that include pacing, prioritizing, backbone (to say no) and a living, breathing internal culture that worships "less-is-more." Otherwise, the proverbial rat race will ever-more become a marathon than nobody wins.

July 14, 2010 at 3:59 PM  
Blogger Michael Beaton said...

This is a really good article and gives some validation to what I've been working on for a few months. I'm a social entrepreneur building a social change marketing agency. Too often, especially where I live, Detroit, MI, we are spoonfed the promise of "urban renewal" by our leaders. While investing in infrastructure is nice, it doesn't really change the people side of the formula. Hence, we at Reframe Detroit are developing a "people renewal" organization that focuses on changing the values, attitudes, beliefs, and eventually, behaviors. I believe the nueroscience approach is the only way to right my community and save it. I'd appreciate it you follow our progress and offer any advice or kind words as we embark on our mission. Feel free to follow us on twitter, @reframedetroit or on our website at

July 15, 2010 at 4:44 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Michael - Sounds like a great project; I lived in Detroit for a segment of my life and still have family in Grosse Pointe. I'll definitely want to hear more. Keep us posted.

July 16, 2010 at 5:18 AM  
Blogger dmccaff23 said...

This is a great article! As a neuroscientist in training I love learning about new theory's. Dr. Frith is a great researcher!

My social enterprise does similar work with neuroscience and inspiring change makers. Check us out at

July 19, 2010 at 10:03 AM  

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