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September 21, 2012

Three insights from David Bornstein

How does a vision for change come to life in transformed lives? Social entrepreneurship author David Bornstein has spent his career writing in answer to that question. He studies organizations and individuals who effectively mobilize change in their communities and around the world, and his work is critical for Christian leaders, who have been in the life-changing business for a couple of millennia already.

Here are three strategies Bornstein identifies as keys to social change.

Make habitual change easier. Organizations “need to make desired behaviors as simple as possible -- removing the need to make decisions, so people act reflexively.” As an illustration, Bornstein discusses the confusing world of recycling: there are a myriad of labels used to designate recycling bins (paper vs. cardboard vs. electronics), and this abundance bewilders people looking to ditch their newspapers. The result: a population eager to recycle, but unsure how. This problem will continue “until recycling becomes automatic, like slowing down when you see a stop sign” (imagine the carnage, he suggests, if every town designed its own!). A habitual behavior, particularly a communal one, is hard enough to change without making it more complex than it needs to be.

Approach your community as an ecology or web of relationships. Bornstein emphasizes that societies are webs of relationships, and that effective leaders know how to apply their efforts so change cascades through those networks. Consider what he calls “the Girl Effect” and social challenges related to nutrition. If you want to catalyze change in a community around a web of problems related to disease, education and poverty, pay attention to the influential role mothers play in a community, particularly in the lives of children. Because no one is a brain floating in a vat, influence can only reach individuals by flowing along the channels of family and friendship, of institutions and traditions. Together, those form an ecology.

Think in combinations. Bornstein stresses that social entrepreneurs are “creative combiners” whose institutions “foster whole solutions” to pressing social ills. This is how local networks of micro-lending made Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank an explosive force for change, or the Harlem Children’s Zone addressed poverty in its community. Dr. King was thinking like a social entrepreneur when he suggested that good Samaritans needed to think about repaving the road to Jericho. Bornstein teaches Christian leaders to look at the parts in light of the whole, to (for example) prudently combine generous giving with skillful advocacy for communal needs and strategic local partnerships to remedy them.

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