Social Ecology as a Nonprofit Model for Change

Social Ecology as a Nonprofit Model for Change

Increasingly, it is important for nonprofits to this about the systems in which they work. In that thinking, it is important to consider Social Ecology as a nonprofit model for change.  This article, written five years ago, still conveys a foundation of nonprofit strategy.  As I argue elsewhere, being clear about your theory of change matters (see here) and most often a theory of change includes adopting a social ecology perspective.

I started my social sector career over 20 years ago in California with freshly printed Masters Degree in Public Health. I graduated about the same time that California passed Proposition 99, a tax on tobacco products that generated over $100 million a year for tobacco control in schools, communities, in counties, and at the state level. I found my first professional position in Orange County Health Care Agency helping to launch a multifaceted program to reduce tobacco use across the county. It was nothing short of a thriving sandbox of innovation that allowed us to implement multiple strategies of direct service programs, media messaging, and public policy change. We worked with schools, neighborhoods, community agencies, and even private worksites. In graduate school, we called this approach a socio-ecological approach. In the field, we called it taking on the tobacco industry. The result of this approach was a sea-change in the health of the public. Smoking among adults was slashed by 35% in less than 10 years and the per capita cigarette consumption decreased by 60% (see reference). California became a model for the nation and I was fortunate to have spent over 5 years working in the program not only in Orange County but at the regional and state level as well.

My experience cemented in my practice, the relationship between the system (or ecology) and social change. As illustrated in the figure (see reference), the socio-ecological model is used by academics and theorists to describe the complexity of social change. In short, the model suggests that there are a number of concentric circles of intervention required to create social change. I like this representation of the socio-ecological model because it evokes the imagery of a pebble being dropped in a body of still water creating larger and larger ripples of change.

Starting with the core of the individual, and rippling through social relationships, families, institutions, and community, a socio-ecological approach to change ultimately creates a new understanding of community norms and social policy. In my work with nonprofits, philanthropy, and government, I often see organizations excel in one, or perhaps two, circles of the model but rare is the organization that thinks about its programs and services across the entire socio-ecological system.

At the same time, the word performance continues to gain momentum among nonprofits, philanthropy and government agencies. The performance trend is moving at an accelerated speed and suggests that attention will increasingly focus on impact and outcomes across nonprofits, philanthropy, and government organizations. The democratization of data coupled with the proliferation of options to invest philanthropic resources will force the social-citizen sector to become savvy about tying their need for capital to the outcomes that they produce. So a theory of change and performance collide. Organizations that can lead from a position of articulating a theory of change that is based on social ecology will be better positioned to approach donors for resources. Rather than asking for funds to “keep the doors open” a nonprofit can approach donors as investors, inviting them to invest in the nonprofit’s programs and services that will create social impact at the community level.

So the question that emerges is, “how does one think about creating a socio-ecological change?” I believe that there are several strategic domains of action that an agency should explore to build a social system – social ecology approach.

Create an Audacious Goal: Jim Collins in his infamous books and articles related to the “Good to Great” research, popularized the concept of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG). In short, a BHAG “is clear and compelling, serves as a unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines. A BHAG engages people – it reaches out and grabs them. It is tangible, energizing, highly focused. People get it right away; it takes little or no explanation.” (see reference) The social-citizen sector is in desperate need of nonprofit leading willing to embrace BHAGs and, I believe that it is only when an agency embraces a BHAG does social systems – social ecology approach become compelling.

Create a Clear Social Impact Model: Elsewhere I have fully described several approaches to developing a social impact model (here, here, & here). In this post, it is important to simply reiterate that an intentional model of social impact is one of the core organizing documents for every nonprofit. Whether you use a logic model, social impact framework, pathway model or some hybrid approach, any external funding agency, donor, or social investor should be able to see your model of impact.

Create a Network: When considering the concentric circles of the socio-ecological model it can be intimidating, if not overwhelming to think about. I have had nonprofit leaders say, “there is no way our agency can embrace such an ambitious change agenda.” My response is to agree with the premise that socio-ecological change is beyond the reach of many individual agencies but that organizations as a network have tremendous power. In fact, creating a socio-ecological network holds tremendous potential to address compelling community needs. When a network of agencies are committed to the core processes of communication, coordination, and collaboration the network effects magnify individual contributions of the network members.

Create Accountability: With a goal, model, and network in place, the next strategic domain to consider is describing how the agency will be accountable to the goal. The three standard measures are processed (did we deliver what we said we would deliver?), quality (how well did we deliver what we said we would deliver?) and outcome (did what we deliver make a difference?). Evaluation is essential to s socio-ecological approach because, without evaluation, there can be no confidence in the program impact. Stories and anecdotes are increasingly ineffective in justifying the support for social-citizen sector programs. Evidence matters.

Communicate the Results: Finally, completing an organizational focus on the social ecology, it is important to build effective methods to help others understand what you are doing. Communications planning should begin early and continue as an ongoing story. The better the community understands how your mission, vision, programs, services, and outcomes connect with a systemic model of change, the more successful you will be in building lasting support for your organization.

Placing these action areas together, the contours of a strategic process become clearer. Without a robust and organizing theory of change, many nonprofits string together related programs and services as opportunities emerge. While in the past, a patchwork strategy may have served the social-citizen sector, such a strategy is less sustainable and durable in today’s increasingly performance-based context. By focusing myopically on the social ecology and systems-change, nonprofits have the opportunity to strengthen its internal mission, vision, programs, and services as well as strengthen the community that supports it.

~ Mark

Photo Credit Fernando Ribas



Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.