Three Ways to Accelerate Social Change
By Rachel Hutchisson and Paul Klein. Published on October 21, 2021.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
The opening paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens described the chaotic situation in 18th century England. It also strikes a chord with what many of us are feeling today. It also captures the paradoxical state of affairs with respect to social change.
On the one hand, much progress has been made and there are many reasons to be hopeful that a bright future is possible. “The COVID-19 crisis demonstrated inspiring community resilience, highlighted the Herculean work by essential workers in myriad fields and facilitated the rapid expansion of social protection, the acceleration of digital transformation and unprecedented worldwide collaboration on the development of vaccines,” said António Guterres Secretary-General, United Nations.
On the other hand, the crisis has eroded decades of development gains, delayed the urgent need to transition to greener, more inclusive economies, and made achieving the Sustainable Development Goals far more difficult. According to Secretary-General Guterres, “more than a year into the global pandemic, millions of lives have been lost, the human and economic toll has been unprecedented, and recovery efforts so far have been uneven, inequitable and insufficiently geared towards achieving sustainable development.”
According to Secretary-General Guterres, “more than a year into the global pandemic, millions of lives have been lost, the human and economic toll has been unprecedented, and recovery efforts so far have been uneven, inequitable and insufficiently geared towards achieving sustainable development.”
We believe that organizations in every sector have a role to play in bringing the global social change agenda back on track. This doesn’t mean simply reverting to social change as it was pre-pandemic. It means walking away from approaches and programs that haven’t resulted in enough change. It also means investing more in initiatives that work and have the potential to deliver even more impact. Finally, we believe that there is much to be learned from the ways that organizations in all sectors are using technology to respond to the urgent needs of employees and communities during the pandemic. There are three specific areas that we think have the potential to accelerate social change: technology, volunteerism and education.
Although technology has been of tremendous value in helping to keep people connected during the pandemic, it became clear very early that access to technology is skewed to people of privilege. Too many people who are low income and racialized live in internet deserts that have contributed to social isolation, loss of employment and higher incidence of COVID-19 infection. Although not a panacea for complex, intersectional problems, we have seen examples of business and social service organizations that have shown a remarkable ability to be innovative, move fast and have impact on our most vulnerable populations.
One example is what3words, a UK-based global address system that divides the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares, each allocated with a fixed and unique three-word address. The platform is proving an essential tool for UK health services, enabling them to direct volunteers, key workers and patients to hospitals, or to testing and vaccination sites around the country. “In the battle against COVID-19, directing people, services and equipment from place to place efficiently and safely has been, quite literally, a matter of life and death,” says Chris Sheldrick, Co-Founder and CEO of what3words.
On a more local level, River Oaks Baptist High School in Houston turned to its technology infrastructure powered by Blackbaud’s total school solution to move all students to online asynchronous learning. Fortunately the school already had communication tools, resource boards, and community groups in place to support connectivity. Nearly 900 students transitioned to remote instruction using familiar Blackbaud platforms—all in a matter of 3 days. The closure was announced on spring break, and by Thursday of the next week, virtual learning had begun
Corporate volunteerism is another area that has so much to offer to employees, business and community organizations and is also in need of new thinking. As the pandemic ebbs and conditions permit, we believe that it will be important for businesses to move away from community beautification and clean-up projects to focusing on how employees can use their professional skills to make meaningful contributions to social change. In doing this, focusing on how these opportunities are served up is also vital. With more people working remotely, the demand for ways to serve virtually also increases.
We encourage employers to move away from “top-down” approaches that reflect corporate priorities in favour of creating opportunities for their people to be Agents of Good who are focusing on what they care most about. People want choice, and companies that adopt mixed portfolios that allow for their people to decide for themselves will benefit from increased engagement. Doing so will bring rewards in many ways, not just in employee engagement but also as a way to build belonging among their people in an increasingly virtual world.
We encourage employers to move away from “top-down” approaches that reflect corporate priorities in favour of creating opportunities for their people to be Agents of Good who are focusing on what they care most about.
Microvolunteering is a promising new approach where volunteers can choose activities that align with their interests and skills. For example, the UK-based platform helpfromhome.org
offers hundreds of actions that people can take part in. These include blogging, tweeting, document review, policy work, graphic design, website testing and translating that people all over the world are volunteering to take part in. UN Volunteers (unv.org) offers people with research, training or project management skill opportunities to support projects worldwide that are in need of specialized expertise.
Turning now to education, we believe there is an urgent need to reimagine how young people learn about social change and, as a result, pursue careers as leaders in this space. For example, more collaboration between undergraduate programs and graduate business schools is needed to ensure that young people have an in-depth understanding of social issues and social change in addition to understanding the principles and operations of how organizations operate and thrive. One without the other doesn’t work. The reality is that solving social problems is almost always complex and slow and requires a foundation of business training, qualitative learning and critical thinking.
One interesting example is Huron College at the University of Western Ontario. At Huron, president Barry Craig has developed an approach to undergraduate post secondary education that is designed to nurture the next generation of social change leaders. Creative disciplines also have a role to play in helping people develop innovative approaches to social change. For example, according to Frank Fitzpatick, author of Amplified: Unlock Your Potential Through the Power of Music, listening to or performing music can help people unlock new easy to solve challenging and complex problems.
It’s also important to recognize that there isn’t a “plug and play” approach to each of the areas we’ve discussed above. Improving social outcomes depends on listening to, co-creating with, and empowering people to take action. It also depends on including people with lived experience at the table every step of the way. Although many budding social change leaders are eager to act and “make things happen,” doing so can actually add to the problem at hand. Lasting change comes over time, with everyone involved learning along the way.
Despite the challenges, we believe that there’s never been a time when so many people are aware of the need for social change and are taking action. By using technology in new ways to help solve social problems, by applying human capital in ways that make sense for volunteers and for the recipients of their service and by better educating the next generation of change- makers, we can help solve the world’s most pressing social problems.
Vice President, Global Social Responsibility at Blackbaud
Founder and CEO, impakt