Resetting our default: Making Change Reflexive

We know that making things easier for people makes things, well, easier.

Within the nonprofit world, there is a whole industry around reducing the number of times a donor needs to click to make a contribution, another around making databases communicate with each other, and more around deducting charitable contributions directly from people’s paychecks.

Companies spend millions of dollars trying to be your default: the browser that pops up automatically on your computer, the item placed at eye level at the grocery store, the piece of information that makes you click “share”, the bank on your way home.

In public policy, we’ve discovered the power of the default in retirement planning, public health, and energy efficiency.

And history is filled with other examples of “The Triumph of the Default.”

Empowering people to make choices is wonderful. And essential.

But there’s nothing wrong with making the best choice the easiest choice they can make.

In Cognitive Surplus, this idea of capturing the power of the default is applied to the challenge of getting people to use their free time to make the world a better place: essentially, that if we make that as natural and “automatic” as turning on the television, people will do it, because they already possess powerful internal motivators towards collective action.

As Shirky explains, taking advantage of this default effect means steering your system so that people will gravitate towards the behaviors and actions that you want to promote. They can’t drive behavior; if people didn’t want to save for retirement, for example, 401(k) plans would never have gotten far. But they can shift the currents, so that people will find it far easier to do that which they are motivated to want to do in the first place.

And that concept has potential application in the world of nonprofit advocacy and community organizing, too.

What if people had to “opt-out” of being part of our organization’s advocacy campaign, rather than find their way in? What if our clients were naturally registered to vote as a part of intake, and if elements of radical social work were woven into our daily interactions with them? What if staff members were automatically part of policy change efforts, rather than reserving those functions for the select few? What if our volunteers were routinely included in strategic planning and advocacy strategy sessions? What if we always shared key information transparently, rather than defaulting to silos and secrecy?

What if we engineered our organizations so that participation, shared ownership, individual transformation, and collective action were the defaults?

What if we made change easier than maintaining the status quo?

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3 responses to “Resetting our default: Making Change Reflexive

  1. Oh, Melinda! I am loving you! Happy to follow via RSS and happy to retwee this post, too!

  2. What a clever out-of-the-box idea…I would envision our world being such a different place if the default were to be involved participatory citizens…

    We would probably be living in a much more continuous self-improving and fulfilling society for all.

    Now the question is how to go about doing this…my guess is to try to implement it where we can in small ways and then hopefully, over time, it will have wonderful ripple effects.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dorlee. I think it requires changing our expectations, too–if we anticipate that people want to be engaged in social change, and so we create institutions that facilitate that, it’s significantly different than building structures that presume timidity and maintenance of the status quo. Happy New Year to you!

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