Getting People to Care: 4 Tips for Social Innovators

Okay, so you're a change agent at a traditional company or nonprofit organization -- or you're a social entrepreneur who has just started a social enterprise. You've got your seed funding and a rock-solid business plan. So now what? How do you inspire people, from your CEO to rural farmers to consumers, to "do good" (or at least better) for society?

Don't laugh. How to get people to care more about "doing good" is one of the hottest new topics making the rounds of this year's social innovation conferences. Referred to more clinically as "the neuroscience of change," the topic popped up for the first time last spring, at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, then again last month at the recent National Conference on Volunteering and Service -- and then again this past week, at the annual Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.

Whether inspiring consumers toward fair trade, persuading corporate executives to care more deeply about labor practices, or empowering women in a rural village, the challenge to influence behavior is a tough one, indeed.

Neuroscientists, including Chris Frith, a professor of neuropsychology at London's University College, say that based on the circuitry of our brains and the emotional responses that direct our behavior, there is some practical knowledge that can be used by social innovators to be more effective in changing hearts and minds.

Here are four quick pointers about the people you're trying to influence (with apologies to conference presenters):

They/We Are Not Different. Neuroscientists say our brains have an "us-versus-them" default; individuals have a tendency to think they are special, or different. We all stereotype others, whether consciously or not, as a sort of primal safety mechanism; we tend to frame the world in terms of people who belong to our "in group" and those who do not. To be more effective in building support for change, social entrepreneurs need to hone in on the similarities they share with their constituents -- and emphasize what common traits and values their constituents share with each other. Key are storytelling initiatives or strategic interactions that show donors and higher-ups that they're not much different than the people your "do-good" efforts are attempting to serve.

They/We Have Choices. How you frame the challenges you face is key in gaining support for your work. For example, 600 people are on a deserted island and are hit by a deadly flu. You have a life-saving vaccine. The catch? You can give people two options. Option 1: You have 200 doses of the vaccine and can give it to 200 people, guaranteeing their recovery. Option 2: You can try a new vaccine on all 600 people with a one-third chance it will save them all. Most people will choose Option 1. But if you frame the dilemma differently -- that Option 1 will kill 400 people and save only 200 lives, most people will choose Option 2. Stress positive outcomes.

They/We Are Not Helpless. Donors, people in need and frustrated social entrepreneurs can confuse frustration with a feeling of helplessness -- the sense that, in the face of challenge, nobody can really make a lasting difference. To avoid this, draw up clear goals along with a list of steps required to achieve them. Set deadlines. Start measuring your progress. Broadcast your accomplishments. Measuring incremental change sets up a continuous improvement loop. Also key? Invite the people you're trying to serve to be part of the process. Train them how to measure results incrementally. As long as there is knowledge of impact, the "we are helpless" syndrome won't stand a chance.

They/We Are Not Smarter. Neuroscientists on recent panels refer to stagnant thinking that tends to challenge donors and executives, who have self-wired their brains with data and categorizations. New thinking that challenges these categories tends to be dismissed or downplayed -- not so much because it is bad or good, but rather because it falls outside the categories that most people have already built for themselves to cope with their everyday challenges and to compensate for what they think they do well or poorly. The antidote? Don't ask people to take action. Instead, create situations in which people are expected to act in a certain way unless they take decisive action to behave otherwise. If they opt out, then reach out again, rinse and repeat.

These are just four tips from the pros -- and maybe they're intuitive. What could you add to their short list?

(Illustration by Mark Strozier for