12 habits of successful change-makers: the primacy of relationships

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders and invite you to do the same.

Habit #6: we all know that relationships are vital for effective social change – for individuals, communities, attitudes and policies – but how do we make room for something that we cannot count or predict?

Relationships sit at the heart of most social change. Whether between campaigner and politician, individual and service provider, or supporter and organisation, they hold the power to transform. They help to shape our knowledge, our views, and our priorities. They have the power to make us feel secure or uncomfortable, included or barred, valued or dismissed: all things that have a profound effect on our lives.

The Social Change Project found that, through relationships, civil society is unlocking people’s power across every part of the change eco-system. Innovative service providers are building trust and agency by working with people to identify the support and services they need. Communities are building their power by growing strong relationships with each other as well as those who wield formal and economic power in their area. Movements are growing by shouting out into the digital universe and building real-world relationships with those who shout back.

When we invited Irish campaigners to unpack the success of the Together for Yes campaign at a recent Change Network, it was the conversations between ordinary people that emerged as one the key influences in the abortion referendum. These one-to-one links are so powerful that the Relationship Project has been founded to explore their potential.

Even more traditional ‘formal power’ institutions are starting to recognise the potential of human relationships – be they criminal justice services, NHS trusts or local authorities. Yet few can match the depth and responsiveness of relationships built between voluntary organisations and the people they serve. Certainly, there are many places in which civil society is far more trusted than state actors.

When SMK goes out to talk about this, we are invariably faced with a sea of nodding heads (‘of course relationships are vital’, the audience says, ‘of course they can unlock social change’). And yet, our organisational cultures, funding, evaluation and performance management rarely take skilled relationship-building into account.

This is partly because the value of relationships is hard to measure. They are not mechanistic (if I invest x, I can expect to get y). They cannot be scheduled. Depending as they do on human complexity, they will not ‘pay out’ on demand. We find common ground, vital pieces of information, or the mutual trust we need to take a risk by investing consistently but asking only when the time seems right. Often, serendipity intervenes. How often have you stumbled across an opportunity through a chance conversation?

So how, as leaders, do we make room for something that we deeply value but cannot count or predict?

When it comes to the people we serve, perhaps it’s about giving them the power to judge the quality and effectiveness of our service, which will include the relationships they have with us. When it comes to decision-makers, perhaps we need to judge campaigners’ performance on how they build long-term relationships, as well as those they develop project to project. When it comes to the communities we work with, perhaps it’s about including relationship-building and collaboration at the very heart of ‘how we work’.

We are now witnessing daily what happens when politicians fail to keep up with people’s expectations of what their relationship with decision-makers should look like. Civil society can’t claim to have missed the writing on the wall. It’s time to make space for authentic relationship building in what we do, what we value and what we measure.

Previous blog in the series: Habit #5, in whose name?

Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash

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