Social change work is hard and frustrating and wonderful and terrible; it is also, at times, funny, quirky and just plain fascinating. With this blog we hope to capture all that goes into what we do at Capital Good Fund, and we invite you to join the conversation!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

It Can't Be That Easy

No, change is not easy, but what never ceases to amaze me is the difference between the most and least effective programs--something well designed seems to unlock potential in a way that almost, kinda, sorta, makes thing look easy.  And often, the product or service that works best is counter-intuitive or so obvious as to be overlooked.

A recent NPR story, A Chat With the Doctor Can Help Kids Resist Smoking, illustrates the point.  We are all so familiar with the numerous, costly, and complicated initiatives to reduce teenage smoking--ad campaigns, taxes, rules and regulations, and so on--that simple interventions can seen inane.  For example, what would you say to the assertion that simply having a doctor talk to a teen about smoking can actually reduce the likelihood that they will pick up this addictive, dangerous and expensive habit?  I imagine your reaction would be similar to mine: 'isn't that going to be as ineffective as having teachers or parents lectures teens about the issue?  No, we need a more sophisticated approach!'

Yet the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now has clear evidence that this can work, and for that reason they have "...called for pediatricians and other primary care doctors to talk with children, teenagers and parents about the harms of smoking." What's fascinating, and so promising, is that this costs almost nothing beyond a few additional minutes during a checkup, and its benefits are so great as to be nearly incalculable.  Indeed, speaking about this technique for smoking prevention, one member of the task force said "This is one of the most effective things that a provider can do to keep kids healthy over their life course."

Think about that, and think about how much money is spent on efforts that cost orders of magnitude more money while achieving far less impact.  Imagine if we focused on these kinds of low-cost, high-impact programs!  But here's the big takeaway: it isn't easy to find the things that are easy.  It takes a lot of research, out-of-the-box thinking, an unbiased look at the data, and a willingness to experiment.  However, once you hit on something, whether it's a well-design savings program, an initiative to reduce hunger, improve educational achievement or any number of other social goals, you need to go full bore on that front: invest time and money, figure out the details, test and retest and tweak until you succeed.

Social change is hard, yes, and it takes a lot of work.  But maybe we should be putting in all that work, not so that we are always rolling the proverbial rock up the hill, but rather so that we can find a way of letting it roll back down and still meet our goals. I know there's a tendency in the social change sector to embody what I call the "martyr complex," where everything has to be miserable and difficult and exhausting, because you are fighting for the social good.  Yet something tells me that this approach only serves the martyr, and that our time is best spent laboring to find ways to reduce the difficulty of the task.  In so doing, I believe we can smooth out the path to social change and think more clearly about how we are going, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., speed up that day "Justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

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