The Nudge Factor

It’s notoriously difficult for nonprofits—even ones with good ideas—to scale up their social impact.

Writing in the latest Stanford Social Innovation ReviewJeffrey Bradach and Abe Grindle of the Bridgespan Group suggest nine ways to go about it. We thought we’d zero in on No. 9: “Alter people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.”

The authors write that some issues, if you’re really going to change the world, require “altering the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of many people so that the change becomes the new social norm.” They offer as one example something created by the UK government: “the Behavioural Insights Team, aka the ‘Nudge Unit,’ that aims to steer people to better choices through small behavioral changes.”

For instance, they note, while “standard letters warning people to pay their overdue car tax get only about an 11% response,” a test letter “declaring in big letters ‘Pay your tax or lose your [make of car]’ got double the normal response.” The authors believe that “many of the issues that the social-change sector cares most about affecting, such as health, education and criminal justice, are rooted in behavioral choice that may be subject to similar nudges.”

Peter Drucker didn’t discount nudges, but he likely would have added an important caveat: They tend to work only if the listener is already on board most of the way, at least in terms of his or her expectations and values. If not, only a shock can normally break through the shell.

Photo: Andy Lapham

“A ‘gradual’ change in which the mind is supposedly led by small, incremental steps to realize that what is perceived is not what it expects to perceive will not work,” Drucker wrote.

So before trying to change someone’s mindset, Drucker’s advice was to assess what sort of person and mindset you’re working with. “Only then can we know whether communication can utilize his expectations—and what they are—or whether there is need for the ‘shock of alienation,’ for an ‘awakening’ that breaks through the recipient’s expectations and forces him to realize that the unexpected is happening,” Drucker wrote. “Even the Lord, the Bible reports, first had to strike Saul blind before he could raise him as Paul.”

Not that we’re saying nonprofits, even when scaling up, should employ this particular technique. Unless, perhaps, it’s a church group.

Which organizations do you think have been especially effective in changing people’s mindsets and habits on a large scale?