Creating a Social Movement with Grand Challenges

Christina Economos’s Ten Key Elements for Social Change inspire my approach.

My work on Grand Challenges has taught me how difficult it can be to take on a systemic issue. I have found inspiration in the work of Dr. Christina Economos, a leader in the field of social change. Economos studied past successful social movements that shifted Americans’ attitudes dramatically on systemic societal issues.

Economos is the Dean for Research Strategy and a professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. She is also the Co-Director, Tufts Institute for Global Obesity Research and Cofounder and Director, ChildObesity180, an organization that brings together leaders from diverse disciplines to find solutions to the childhood obesity epidemic.

Economos led a team in a study of social movements that required a change in Americans’ attitudes and behavior 180 degrees, including breastfeeding, recycling, tobacco reduction, and seatbelt use. By studying each of these in detail, she developed a critical understanding of how social movements take shape. The team identified ten key elements in the creation of a successful social change model.

I use these ten elements as a diagnostic tool when I am working on a Grand Challenge. I go through each with my team and ask for an intuitive rating of where we stand. For example, have we framed the common agenda as a crisis? Is there a body of science-based research we have gathered and made available to our stakeholders? Do we have an economic case for our objective? Once I have gone through all ten elements, we have a birds-eye view of where we need to do additional work.

How to Spread Change on a Massive Scale

Using Economos’s unparalleled work, I have adapted her ten key elements into a model for addressing a Grand Challenge. I’ve grouped her ten elements of a social movement into three phases. 

In the first phase, Frame and Build the Case, leaders articulate the Grand Challenge as an urgent and threatening problem with dire consequences if left unchecked, in other words, they frame the crisis. They use science-based research to make the case for intervention. Economics are quantified and demonstrated, showing the cost of failure to take action. This frame is what ignites momentum in the early days of a social movement.

In the second phase, Gather Allies, momentum builds. Champions are identified. These are leader-activists who ignite passion for the cause and transform it into fuel to sustain initiatives as they take shape. Coalition building mobilizes networks of people who share the Common Agenda. Government involvement at the federal, state, and local levels engages public servants who can rally constituents, pass legislation, and spearhead the necessary policy changes and solution sets. The allies that have gathered around the Grand Challenge develop a plan that provides interested parties with the reassurance that they are joining a valid strategic effort.

 The plan promotes widespread involvement, is flexible enough to take advantage of emerging data and unforeseen events, and garners buy-in, involvement, and coordination at all levels.

In the third phase, Implement the Plan, synergy is spurred across the different initiatives underway, and early wins turn into sustained impact. Here, advocacy is critical including both media and grassroots support. Where there are significant obstacles, Champions are called on to sway influencers. Mass communication is used to reach large-scale audiences, raise awareness, and influence public opinion. The work underway drives environment and policy change that supports the desired behavior changes.

[click here to download the infographic]

Let me give you a specific example. In 2014 I began work for the American Nurses Association’s Grand Challenge, Healthy Nurse Healthy Nation, to measurably improve the health of America’s four million nurses and by extension, the rest of the country’s. In our early days we went around the wheel and identified the areas where we had work to do. At that fledgling stage we had only two elements: Frame the Crisis, and Science-based Research. A year later when we did the same exercise we saw progress in Develop a Plan, Champions, and Coalition Building. Given that we were just getting things off the ground, we saw quickly that we had more to accomplish when it came to Economics (making the economic case), and Government Involvement. Through regular reviews we were able to see progress as well as identify areas that required more effort.

Try this Diagnostic Tool with Your Grand Challenge

I developed this diagnostic tool to help assess your organization’s readiness to start a social movement. Link to tool

Join Me in Creating Social Movements

Solving social problems is inherently SOCIAL–it happens in community. I’m looking for researchers, academicians, and those on the front lines who are battling overwhelming issues. The community will include leaders in all aspects of society: nonprofits, corporations, government agencies, independent agents, and thought leaders.

If you’re into Grand Challenges or would like to be, visit my Medium account, where I am publishing on Grand Challenges. Let’s work together to address these sticky, systemic, complex, and wicked issues once and for all, for the sake of future generations of life on Earth.

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