by Marianne Lynch

The concept of social change gets brought up in just about all of our seminars and presentations at Emancipet New School. Whether or not it’s been written into the content doesn’t matter, somehow a conversation always begins that will lead to a discussion about social change, social good, and how the two are related. Which is great because having the ability to differentiate between the two can help you identify specific goals or needs, influence the way you approach program design, and might clear up some questions you’ve been asking yourself about why certain approaches aren’t achieving the results you were hoping for. Plus it gives us the chance to nerd out about one of our favorite topics!

Simply put, social change is a significant and sustained shift in societal behavior patterns and cultural norms (think of it as transformational). When we say behavior patterns, we are talking about trends that any large portion of a group or community engages in, like the rise of social media for instance. Twenty years ago many people did not own a computer and only college kids and the very “nerdy” accessed the internet with any regularity. Today, most people own multiple devices that can connect them to the internet and the majority of people belong to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other online social networks. A significant change has happened because most of us cannot imagine completely “unplugging” from these services. Cultural norms are the “unwritten rules” individuals adhere to that help them fit in or belong, like how smoking cigarettes used to be a standard practice that was accepted by most people. Shifting that mentality took time because social change happens slowly, not overnight. Think about how our views on smoking cigarettes have changed over the last 50 years. Thanks to a combination of scientific research, legislation, taxes, and multiple campaigns about the dangers of tobacco use, smoking rates are lower than they have ever been. It took a long time to get to this point and even though people still smoke, that number is continuing to drop because a significant and sustained shift in a cultural norm has taken place, and social change is working its magic (slowly).

A shift first begins when you’re exposed to a new message or idea, then have a personal experience with it. Through that experience a personal transformation takes place and your behavior is changed, and that’s something you will go on to share with others (whether that’s friends, family, or acquaintances). The experience you have may be good or bad, and the transformation you undergo may be for the better or worse, but either way, you’re probably going to tell somebody about it. Humans have an innate desire to share experiences and connect with others, and making sure that the experience is transformative in the way we (as social change makers) want it to be is key. That’s because the peer to peer nature of social change work is a huge part of what fuels these movements. Social change makers understand how powerful it is when people hear about transformative experiences from someone they have an established relationship with, someone who they trust and identify with. If you already know and trust someone you are more likely to be receptive to the new information they share and be more open to seeking out that experience yourself. It’s like the difference in hearing good reviews about a new restaurant in town from Yelp versus having your closest friend recommend it to you. You’re probably interested in trying it out either way, but after hearing about it from your friend you’re more excited and likely to follow through with going.

Now that we understand social change lets contrast it with social good, which is a product or service that is delivered to a named beneficiary (think of it as transactional). A great example of this is a food bank that provides free food (the “product”) to those in need of it (the “named beneficiary”). The people receiving these services need the food, so this program is important, but it is not changing their ability to access food down the road. Providing a social good may be necessary to meet the needs of a community, but on its own may not be enough to change the beliefs, behaviors, or long term outcomes of its beneficiaries. Social good and social change programs are defined differently but they can compliment one another, they are both valuable and needed, and they can even overlap. Imagine a spectrum with social good programming on one end and social change programming on the other: programs that fall on the very edges of that spectrum are either purely “social good” or “social change”. However, the reality is that many will fall between the two, providing a service or good, while effectively working towards changing behaviors at the same time. So it’s just as important to have programs that concentrate on providing social goods to meet the immediate needs of the community, as it is to have programs that aim to initiate social change. What can be helpful to ensuring the success of a program of either type, is to sit down and assess what your particular program is. It might be social good, social change, or even a little bit of both – remember, they exist on a spectrum!

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when you are trying to make the determination between the two:

  • Does the program have a named beneficiary? Who?
  • Is the program making life better for the beneficiary in some way? How?
  • Is the program changing the way society feels, thinks, or acts? How?
  • Is the program changing cultural norms? Which ones? How?

Learning the difference between social good and social change can be tricky since programs sometimes land between the two, but once you understand how they exist and interact on the spectrum, you can truly reflect on and evaluate where your own work fits into the bigger picture. That’s important because it is not uncommon to think that a program is initiating some sort of social change when it is actually providing a good instead, and not both, leading to feelings of frustration (at yourself, your organization, and even the community you serve). However, by approaching your work with a solid understanding of how to differentiate social good from social change you can design programs that address both, avoid the frustration of programs that don’t meet their intended goals, and think about ways to carve out more space for social change in your work.

Check out our article “Programming Rings for Low Cost and Free Services” for examples of how programs fit into the social good -social change spectrum. If you love thinking about this stuff as much as we do, consider attending “Big Impact: Designing Programs, Services, and Messages for Social Change” this August 20-21. We’ll spend two full days exploring social change, root causes of behavior, design thinking, and much more!


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