Social movements are nothing new. People always seem to be marching for — or against — something. Part of this is due to the fact that social movements often take decades to achieve the change they seek, while many never get there.
While there is no simple recipe for social movement success, Leslie Crutchfield, executive director of the Global Social Enterprise Initiative (GSEI) at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, and her research team have identified a number of patterns that distinguish successful social movements from those that didn't succeed and shares them in her latest book, How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don't. The six she identifies are a focus on the grassroots; a recognition of the importance of state and local efforts; a commitment to changing norms and attitudes as well as policy; a willingness to reckon with adversarial allies; acceptance of the fact that business is not always the enemy and often can be a key ally; and being "leaderfull."
Crutchfield argues that successful social change leaders invariably recognize the importance of advocating for a shift in social norms, not just policy reforms, and that they never prioritize one over the other. To support that contention, she shares some key insights from successful change leaders. In the movement for marriage equality in the United States, for example, LGBT advocates used polling research to reframe the focus of the campaign's messaging from "rights" to "love" and "commitment," which in turn led to the dissemination of now-familiar slogans such as "Love is Love" and, eventually, a change in marriage laws.
To further illustrate how change happens, Crutchfield highlights a number of instances where a movement prevailed over a determined counter-movement that strayed from one or more of the patterns. Most telling, perhaps, is the success the National Rifle Association has had "in defending and expanding the gun rights of gun owners in the United States" through a relentless focus on grassroots organizing. Indeed, "[t]he gun rights movement's grassroots army is the reason why, despite the waves of angry anti-gun protests, heartbreaking vigils, and pleading calls for reform that erupt after each tragic mass shooting…gun violence prevention groups still largely lose ground." Over the years, NRA leaders have been laser-focused in growing and emboldening their grassroots base through community events such as barbecues and town hall meetings. In contrast, gun safety advocates have been more oriented "toward elite politics at the national level" and in "push[ing] a comprehensive gun control bill through Congress." The dichotomous results of the two approaches speak for themselves and serve as additional support for Crutchfield's contention that the single most important decision movement leaders have to make is whether "to let their grassroots fade to brown or...turn [them] gold."
A more recent trend benefiting social movements is the growing willingness of the private sector to get behind and support so-called "double-bottom-line" values. According to Crutchfield, businesses increasingly are interested in demonstrating their social and environmental bona fides — in part due to pressure from activists and in part in pursuit of increased profits — and sometimes both. From beverage and car companies working with groups like MADD to promote safer drinking and driving habits to businesses increasingly opting for more inclusive choices in their branding strategies, businesses have proven to be an influential force in driving social change.
At the end of the day, however, a social movement is only as effective as its leaders, and the most effective leaders, writes Cructhfield, are those willing to share power and "lead from behind." Indeed, a "leaderfull" movement (a term inspired by the thinking and writing of civil rights activist Ella Baker) successfully harnesses the energy of many, rather than a few, and channels that energy into a common cause. According to Crutchfield, leaderfull movements share three traits: they empower local grassroots leaders to step forward; they are built around coalitions of like-minded and "unusual suspects"; and they are filled with people who have a "lived experience" of the problem and are empowered to speak and act on behalf of the organization. Indeed, we can see the idea in action in recent movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the gun control advocacy work propelled by the students from Parkland High School in Florida.
All this sounds good on the theoretical level, but young people and activists are looking for more than theory. Fortunately, each chapter of How Change Happens offers practical advice, tactics, and long-term strategies designed to help movement leaders and participants advance their cause. In the chapter on reckoning with adversarial allies, for instance, Crutchfield stresses the importance of forging consensus, building trust, and settling on concrete goals. She also warns readers about the traps of policy disagreement, personality conflict, and arguments over who gets credit. (It will be interesting to watch #BlackLivesMatter and the student-led gun control movement — both strong at the grassroots but without a unifying policy objective — wrestle with these traps as they continue to advance their respective causes.)
So what do the findings in How Change Happens mean for social change? According to Crutchfield, it depends on where you sit. Foundations and high-net-worth donors, policy officials and agency heads, business leaders, and citizen activists all bring specific assets and have different roles to play in the process. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest healthcare philanthropy, committed $700 million over a decade in support of tobacco control initiatives and played a critical role in that movement's success. Few entities have those kinds of financial resources at their disposal, however, and cash is no guarantee of success. (In fact, over-generous donors have been known to smother, undermine, and destroy movements.) Instead, each of us needs to reflect on the unique assets we bring, as individuals or organizations, to the table and think creatively about how we can "operationalize" those assets in service to the cause.
As Crutchfield makes clear, movement building is process-oriented, relational, and iterative. With a diverse set of examples that spans decades, issue areas, and organizational composition, her book is a reminder that the past holds countless lessons that can inform how we create meaningful, sustainable change today — and into the future. And while the examples she shares are largely drawn from the U.S., her findings will resonate with today's movement leaders and the legions of activists driving movements around the world. That's a good thing because, as Crutchfield puts it, "change rises up to the top, not the other way around."
Sarina Dayal is a Knowledge Services associate at Foundation Center.