'I'm Inspired: Now What?' -- A Beginner's Guide to Social Change

What a difference a decade makes. In 2001, when I worked with the Creative Visions Foundation to produce PBS GlobalTribe, the first T.V. series of its kind that showcased people we now refer to as "changemakers" and "social entrepreneurs," we avoided using those terms, afraid they were too esoteric for the general public.

Today, social entrepreneurship is recognized by all sectors of society even if its definition remains vague. Changemaking has gained popularity too. Many organizations and even schools now urge everyone to be changemakers, or agents of change.

Helping people become changemakers became my sole mission as well.

I stopped producing documentaries and launched a new foundation, Global Youth Fund, to engage as many young people as possible in creating social and environmental change.

Why did I feel the need to leave the media when it has unrivaled potential to raise awareness and inspire?

I suppose it has to do with what I recognized as the limits of social issues media. In my experience, media leaves most people in the same place, with the same question: "I'm inspired. Now what?"

My work in the last 10 years -- at the Creative Visions Foundation, Ashoka's Youth Venture and my own organization -- is basically a series of attempts to answer that simple question.

What have I learned?

The first thing I would say is that it remains a difficult question to answer and we shouldn't trivialize it by saying, "Just do something, anything!"

It remains difficult because most would-be changemakers are smart enough to foresee some potential problems. (And if they don't anticipate them, they run into these problems sooner rather than later.)

  1. Wrong Action

They fear they don't know enough about an issue to know what solution to champion. Even worse, they might support the wrong action and make things worse, which is actually quite common.

  • Little Impact
  • Assuming they're doing something constructive to address a problem, they worry they won't make much of a difference, that their efforts won't amount to a hill of beans.

  • No Support
  • Finally, they worry about sustainability. Even if they are doing the right thing and creating real impact, can they really sustain their efforts, given limited resources and all other demands on their time?

    These are not trivial concerns.

    Having mentored hundreds of youth in starting their own social change projects, I encounter and wrestle with these issues all the time.

    That's why I've come to believe we need to change how we engage new practitioners of social innovation so that they don't fall prey (so easily) to the most common mistakes. We need to shape a new path for "amateur" activists so that mass engagement can truly mean massive change.

    In partnership with the Creative Visions Foundation, I've put together a new road map to help individuals and teams launch new social change initiatives.

    This new "Creative Activist Toolkit" brings together several key best practices that I consider to be essential to social innovation.

    In short, they help changemakers avoid three of the most common mistakes in early stages of changemaking, namely:

    1. Locking in on ideas too quickly

    Problem solving requires creativity and, to be creative, you need both divergent and convergent thinking. Innovators need to stay open-minded to different possibilities and different solutions before locking in on one. However, most people feel lucky to come up with just one idea. Afraid they can't come up with more, they commit to it too quickly and defend it against any and all critique. Changemakers can do themselves a huge favor by staying open to different solutions and only commit to one when they have to.

  • Focusing on outputs rather than outcomes
  • What you do (outputs) is different from the difference you make (outcomes). Most people don't make this distinction. They assume the more they tutor, volunteer, fundraise, and lobby, etc., the more impact they're making for other people and the environment. So, they set goals to maximize their outputs. But, social change is ultimately about outcomes -- how people are better off or how the environment is better off. Often, maximizing outcomes is not about doing more but taking different actions. So, set goals based on outcomes, not outputs.

  • Setting unrealistic goals
  • We tend to assume there's one ultimate solution to a problem and our job as changemakers is to figure out and implement that one solution. However, that kind of thinking can easily spin out of control. It can lead us to develop solutions that we have no hope of realizing, given our abilities and resources. Instead of scaling down expectations, we scale up: we'll raise more money, stretch out the timeline, create a killer app, etc. Without concrete results, momentum and good will are quickly exhausted and one's project dies a quiet death. Instead of reaching for the moon, achieve some short-term impact using available resources and use your early success to fuel more ambitious dreams.

    I don't pretend this Creative Activist Toolkit can provide even a fraction of the guidance you'll need as changemakers but I hope it makes the journey a bit less intimidating.

    And if you're still inspired, now what?