• Alyssa Barton

How Change Happens

Updated: May 19, 2019



Crutchfield, Leslie. “How Change Happens. Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t.” (2018) John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken New Jersey

Think for a moment:

  • Do you watch TV or consume social media on your smartphone?

  • Do you purchase goods or services from any businesses?

  • Do you interact with people?

  • Do you live in a town, city, county, state, or other distinct area defined by boundaries and subject to a local government?

  • Is there anything about our world in 2018 that you wish were different?

If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, then the information in this book is relevant to you.

Whoever you are, and whatever you spend your time and passion pursuing for work, hobbies or interests, this book is a good read if you live in the 21st century.

This book is about how to change the world.

Leslie Crutchfield, working with the Global Social Enterprise Initiative, researched social and environmental movements that peaked between the 1980’s and 2016 to identify major patterns and trends. The team also looked at social movements that have not yet achieved their policy goals. They analyzed characteristics lacking or present in each campaign and in so doing, crystalized the data down to six major strategies that they say mark successful policy change campaigns. These form the six chapters in this book.

They tell stories of how various policy campaigns, from the gay rights movement to gun control, implemented six strategies – or didn’t – and lessons learned. In so doing, the author demonstrates how other movements might employ these strategies to achieve national change. She flatly rejects the idea that the book might be used to further hate groups’ causes.

I loved learning about the social movements in this book – the battle against Big Tobacco, the MADD quest to stop drunk driving, and why the NRA has been so successful squashing most gun control efforts in the U.S. despite that so many Americans support “smarter gun laws.” Some of these I’d never even learned about, like the mission to eradicate polio by the Rotary Club, and the successful campaign to stop acid rain in the 1990’s. I also loved the synchronous feelings of empowerment and responsibility that blossomed in me when I realized the central tenet of this book: that change happens only when a LOT of people care about an issue and take concerted action on it – so if there’s something you care about, fight for it! And this book can help you win the fight.

I also loved learning about the social movements in this book because it’s highly applicable to my current work in the non-profit realm.

At the same time, working in this world I felt a heavy weight contemplating the long and hard path that awaits those who set out to build a successful movement. But I digress.


Meow! Seattle Women's March, January 21 2017

Here are the six strategies of successful movements, and some examples from the text

Turn Grassroots Gold:

  • “The most successful organizational leaders understand they must turn their approach to power upside-down and let local activists lead. They recognize that seeding and growing vast networks of millions of passionate individuals organized around a common cause is infinitely more powerful than any single organization or association – no matter how well resourced or branded. They invest their assets …into ensuring the grassroots not only survive but thrive. They do this by fostering bonds between individual members as well as by empowering them to collectively fight for a cause.” P. 12.


  • “The NRA’s grassroots organizing strategy is the single most important reason why the movement has been so successful in defending and expanding the rights of gun owners in the United States. Its grassroots membership is far more importing than the financial support the NRA receives from gun manufacturers…” pp. 22-23. They are 5 million members strong. “At the local level, even when the most seemingly innocuous [gun control] resolution is up for consideration by city councils, NRA members and gun rights supporters mobilize to express their views and defend Second Amendment rights. They show up, the speak up, they vote – and dutifully persuade family members, neighbors, and friends to do the same.” P. 22.


  • Forging bonds amongst members is the glue that holds grassroots movements together. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) does this by providing victim support services like counseling, justice system guidance, and other supportive resources to family and friends of those killed by drunk drivers. Pp 28-29. It is important that these bonds be “strong ties.” Civil disobedience campaigns can put members in the line of fire of physical violence and emotional adversity - these strong ties can win the day.


  • One example of a campaign that failed due to lack of grassroots support was the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009-2010, a cap and trade policy based off of the successful acid rain policy of the 90’s. Pp 46-47. Supporters attempted to pass the bill from the top down, attempting to push the policy through the legislature without having the broad public support needed to bolster it. Don’t do this! You risk failure if you do.

Sharpen your 10/10/10/20 = 50 vision.

  • “Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson understood that the way to win over the country [in support of gay marriage] was to get one of the two national players, either Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court, to act. But history also showed that a critical mass of states and a majority of public support were necessary before either entity would do so.” Pp. 54-55. Because the 50 states were all in different places on the topic of gay marriage, they decided to brainstorm what the campaign could accomplish in every state in 10-15 years. They asked: “what if we could get ten states with full marriage, ten with full civil unions, ten with some form of relationship recognition laws (like full partnership), and the remaining twenty with either non-discrimination laws or significant cultural climate change?” pp. 55. In this way, they divided and conquered, state by state.


  • “Ultimately, by the time the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, the marriage equality movement had achieved what civil rights and women’s suffrage activists had achieved in prior era – a groundswell of momentum across a majority of states that tilted the balance toward accepting, or at least recognizing, same-sex marriage. … “As history has shown time and again, “Change doesn’t come from Washington. It comes to Washington.” P. 56.


  • The key insight: don’t push for sweeping federal change until a solid majority of support has already been cemented in most of the states. P. 57.


  • “Successful U.S. movements plow through all fifty states with their change campaigns, rather than focusing only on sweeping federal reforms. They do the yeoman’s work of pushing for improvements at the state and local level, advocating town by town, racking up small wins and building momentum incrementally.” P. 12.


  • Campaign for tobacco free kids employed a 3 part strategy: “First, provide technical assistance to local coalitions enabling them to drive more sophisticated, nationally coordinated policy advocacy initiatives based on the most up-to-date information; second, infuse the movement with a savvy communications strategy deigned to shift public attitudes and change the public debate and media coverage of tobacco issues at national, state, and local levels; and third, elevate the quality of tobacco control policy advocacy nationally.” P. 63.


  • While the power of people and strategy is critical, “[t]he importance of private funding to support state and local advocacy cannot be underestimated; it’s the oxygen grassroots groups and coalitions need to survive.” P. 64. The one real disappointment I had with How Change Happens is that the campaigns discussed in the book all appear to have cost millions – if not hundreds of millions – of dollars over the course of decades before they succeeded. This left me with a sour taste in my mouth but: that is the reality. Money is an integral part of what makes change happen.

Change Hearts and Policy.

  • This succinctly paraphrases the entire concept: great social change leaders push for policy reform as well as shifting social norms. P. 13.


  • Successful campaigns implement a full court press. They address the full range of platforms within which the product or adversary operates. For cigarettes, that was pricing, placement, products, and promotion. Anti-tobacco advocates were able to:


- Increase the cost of cigarettes through taxes

- Remove access to cigarettes in public spaces like airplanes and restaurants

- Introduce alternative products – like Nicorette gum and patches

- Raise awareness through clever and highly successful, targeted marketing campaigns.

  • The #CATmageddon ad by an anti-tobacco campaign was highly successful, leveraging social media and cat memes to get the attention of kids. The message was simple: smoking causes cancer in pets. The ad doesn’t say “don’t smoke,” rather, it says: “Smoking = No Cats = No Cat Videos.” P. 82. This appeals to the viewers desire to watch more cat videos - an ongoing trend and fascination in U.S. culture.


  • My favorite example of changing hearts and minds is that of the LGBT movement. Polls showed that heterosexual folks polled just didn’t “get” why gay couples wanted to married. When asked, hetero respondents said that if they were to marry, it would be for love. But when asked “why do you think gay people want to get married,” there was a disconnect. They just didn’t get it. They thought perhaps the real goal was to take advantage of benefits. The activists grabbed this opportunity, and transitioned their strategy away from emphasizing marriage as a “right” to emphasizing that “love is love” - that gay couples want to, and should be able to, get married because they fall in love just like heterosexual couples. The campaign thus targeted heterosexuals to educate them and change their hearts and minds – and it worked.


  • You cannot try to convince people to do the opposite of what the adversary wants you to do. You must present your target audience with an even more enticing appeal than what your opponent offers. P. 83.


  • I love this tidbit: neurobiology shows that people feel, then do, and then think - in that order. Feel à Do à Think. Pursuant to this model, emotions are neurologically the precipitators of human behavior, not the other way around! P. 97 This means that having an enticing message and vision of the future is critical to successful campaign. The closer you get to invoking a gut-wrenching or deeply felt reaction quickly, the better.

Reckon with Adversarial Allies.

  • “Every movement – whether winning or struggling – faces intra-field challenges.” These arise when allies have different visions, perspectives, or opinions. There is no clear path spelled out in the book regarding how to resolve conflicts arising from differences in opinion regarding strategy, extreme factions of movements, money and funding feuds, and the like – but successful movements are able to bring disparate factions together around a common agenda. P. 13.


  • Tools like MOU’s – Memorandums of Understanding between all of the organizational allies – as well as effective communication and transparency can help circumvent or more smoothly address squabbles when they arise.

Break from Business as Usual.

  • The wisdom behind this tactic is that you can, and should, go against the traditional model of pitting a group or movement against an industry or business. Rather, successful movements often leverage businesses to win on their issue, through their employee policies, their voices to influence public debates, their innovative capabilities, and branding and customer loyalty. “Companies willing to risk proactively pushing for positive social and environmental changes demonstrate that capitalist market forces can contribute to advancing many important causes.” P 14.


  • Acid rain: in the 1990’s, the policy that ultimately succeeded much more quickly and efficiently than expected was one where companies would compete to reduce their pollution. It was a cap and trade scheme, conceived of by an economist.


  • Businesses can drive change. They can educate and promote causes, like the Rotary club, which has helped eradicate polio on 99% of the planet. They can change policies to entice more employees – like California companies that started to recognize same sex marriages and offer them benefits they couldn’t get elsewhere p. 124.


  • The author posits that there are four roles that businesses can play in a movement:

- Policy first movers

- Allies in advocacy and education

- Product innovators

- Hyper-exposed targets. At times, a business or industry will be the enemy, and can be

attacked on various fronts, such as a shame campaign. P. 127


Be Leaderfull

  • Rather than being leader-led, or leaderless, the findings suggest that successful movements are lead from the bottom up and have many strong leaders. They are “leader-full.” “Effective movement leaders share power, authority, and limelight and lead from behind, embracing a long-term view.” P. 14.


  • Networked leadership: leaders don’t dictate, rather, “they ask how they can help others around them do things better.” P. 59.


  • “Advocates must pull all of the different levers of social change – policy lobbying, litigation, electioneering, as well a social marketing – to achieve the desired attitudinal shifts and, ultimately, the behavioral changes they seek.” P. 84.


  • The author compares the starfish to the spider, drawing the analogy from authors Brafman and Beckstrom. They contrast the spider’s system, with a centralized brain, to the “networked” style starfish, a critter with 8 independent arms. Each can tell the body what to do and it will follow. Each can operate independently and can regenerate if severed. The authors liken networked social movements to the starfish – the idea being that the starfish is more powerful than the spider, it can withstand more adversity.


  • Traits of successful movement leaders:

- They hail from unlikely backgrounds

- Listen to the point of transcendence

- Relentlessly pursue impact

- Let go of ego


  • Finally: leaderfull movements have leaders that lead from behind, not out front. P. 161.


I’m super excited to read more of Leslie Crutchfield’s work after finishing this book. I love learning about how systems work in our society as well as psychology – so this book packed a double whammy. It covers how psychology and people’s passions are really the essential drivers and levers for policy change within our political systems.

“There’s no getting around one fundamental fact: Change makers must work within the confines of the system created by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who purposely constructed a federalist scheme designed to vest very limited powers with the higher levels of government and push most authority out to the states. This was specifically designed to ensure that any major federal changes happened slowly and by consensus.” P 74.


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©2019 by Alyssa Barton