How to Change the World

By: Michael Norton


I believe in trigger points. Your life proceeds, and then you experience something, meet somebody, or are inspired by hearing about something and suddenly your life takes a new direction.

My own trigger point was when I left university and got my first job; my father asked me if I was going to volunteer. It was not something that I had considered, but it seemed easier to say "Yes" rather than "No". So it was that I found myself as a volunteer youth worker at a Youth Center every Monday evening.

One of the projects I started was to get young people in pairs visiting old people in the local community. One evening just after I had arrived, two girls came up to me with a big smile on their faces. "Why are you smiling?" I asked them. "Well, we took an old lady out for a walk." "But what's so special about that?"

The old lady had not left her apartment for three years. Despite a stream of health workers, care workers, social workers, nobody had thought to ask her if she would like to go out. The girls had borrowed a wheelbarrow, filled it with cushions, carried the old lady downstairs, wheeled her to the shops, helped her with her shopping, wheeled her back home, carried her upstairs and had a cup of tea with her.

The girls had solved a problem using their imagination and creativity. We could call this "social entrepreneurship". But in 1964 the term had not been invented.

Inspired by this incident, I decided to start my own project. I was concerned about immigration into the UK and the rough time that many immigrants were having due to the racism that was prevalent at that time. I talked about my ideas and sought advice, which is something that I continue to do when I am starting a new project.

A professor of social work advised me not just to try to do good, but to use some skill I had to do good. The skill I decided that I had was that I spoke English. So I decided to start a language teaching program for incoming children families who could not speak English.

This was actually the first such programme in the UK. It was run by me in my spare time (I was working as a banker at the time), and soon I had round 300 volunteers each giving one lesson a week in people's homes, and an after-school centre with 6 classes operating 5 nights a week.

We had no money, no bank account, no organisational structure and not even a name. We just did it! One of the things I believe strongly is that money is never the essence of what you are doing. You can do an awful lot without having to fundraise, and what you start to do provides a much better basis for then raising the money you need.

When I reached the ripe old age of 30 (I am now 73), and after a successful career in banking and publishing, I decided to move full time into the social sector. I started a non-profit that eventually become the largest provider of information and training to the non-profit sector in the UK, concentrating on management, fundraising, finance, communication and the law. As a social enterprise we covered our costs by charging for our services.

I "retired" again after 20 years to develop ideas and turn them into successful and sustainable organisations. Since 1995, I have created philanthropy programmes for young people, street children's banking, homeless self-help groups, environmental action programmes and much more.

I started a foundation that supports start-up social entrepreneurs with cash awards and support even before they have any form of organisation (which won a $200m endowment from our national lottery). And I co-founded the International Centre for Social Franchising, to help successful social ventures go to scale.

My latest projects are a change-the-world app based on a book I wrote called 365 Ways to Change the World, which will give people a daily nudge to do something, a fund for "enlightened agriculture", and an environmental incubator in Shenzhen to encourage and support environmental innovations from China and beyond.

When I started out I was shy and unconfident. But your confidence grows as you do things. I now feel that I can do almost anything. The bigger the challenge, the more exciting it is.

I have also learned never to tell any of the people that I mentor or advise that something is impossible. You may think it is, but you will always be surprised by people's creativity, energy and passion.

So with 50 years of world-changing behind me (and I hope many more years ahead of me), my advice to people is "Just do it" and "Do it now". Get started, learn from experience as you go. Anything is possible!


Pioneers for Change is a seed-bed for innovative thought. An activator of personal potential. A catalyst for collective energy. A community to drive social change.

Our annual, international Fellowship is open to anyone aged 28 -- 108 years old. We gather change-makers -- a business person, a community person, an investor, a thinker or doer -- who are willing to harness their talents, energy and resources as a force for good. 2016 dates available soon. Pioneers for Change is an initiative of Adessy Associates.

Adessy Associates works with organizations and individuals in their quest to be a greater force for good in society.

About Michael Norton OBE
In 1975 Michael Norton set up Directory of Social Change, which became the UK's leading provider of information and training to the non-profit sector. In 1995, he left to set up Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action through which he has initiated a range of innovative projects worldwide including: a banking system for street children in South Asia; village publishing in India; he co-founded UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs in the UK and Social Enterprise Foundation India, which is a similar foundation in India; Changemakers, YouthBank and MyBnk all of which provide opportunities to young people to play an active role in society; FoodCycle, where volunteers cook donated food in donated kitchens to feed the hungry (Best New Charity 2010); and The Otesha Project (UK), which promotes sustainable living in a fairer world, and supports environmental entrepreneurs and green jobs.

He established the SmallWorks network of Innovation Labs based in housing estates. In 2011, he launched Buzzbnk, an internet platform to enable the crowdfunding of social ventures, which has now merged with The Trillion Fund, which raises money for green energy projects, where he is the Chairman.

In 2011, he also co-founded the International Centre for Social Franchising to help successful projects scale up nationally or internationally, which is now spreading internationally including into China (in partnership with NPI).

He has professorships at the China Philanthropy Research Institute (Beijing Normal University) and the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship (University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business). He has authored a range of books on activism, including: "365 Ways to Change the World" (which has been published around the world), "The Everyday Activist" and "Click2Change" on internet activism; and a number of standard books on fundraising, "The Complete Fundraising Handbook", the "WorldWide Fundraisers Handbook" and "Writing Better Applications".

He is based in London. He gives talks frequently on all aspects of social entrepreneurship, community engagement and fundraising. He is the recipient of the award for Outstanding Achievement (UK Charity Awards 2014) and for Lifetime Achievement (Professional Fundraising, 2008).