Projects work better when they start with the people who implement them

Written by Karen Spehr & Rob Curnow, Community Change, 2011


Being part of a mission to fuel change can be full of purpose and meaning and trying to get people to change their behaviour feels good. The environment field is full of people who are passionate about making a difference and it is this unbridled enthusiasm that can sometimes make us feel intoxicatingly right about what we are trying to do.


In our passion and enthusiasm for change, sometimes our projects attempt to try and get 'them, out there' to change rather than focusing on changing the behaviour itself. Just because I think everyone should exercise regularly for instance doesn’t mean everyone else will agree with me. My passion for exercise may be admirable but quite unhelpful if it drives people away. In my zeal to convert others, I may start to see people as adversaries, as ignorant or unmotivated and as standing in the way of my behaviour change program. What started out as a great initiative can degenerate into me the educated trying to convince you the uneducated that what you are doing is wrong. Even polite and respectful program messages can carry other indirect messages that are condescending at best, and critical and judgemental at worst. Sometimes the lack of focus on the experiences of people we are targeting means that our programs become more about what our own organisation needs and wants. Consider your own organisation’s program and whether it is trying to ‘sell’ what it thinks is a good idea or whether it is truly focused on those it is trying to change.


Changes in people’s behaviour are very unlikely when we are trying to convert others. This may be unfortunate reality to view from the lofty heights of Behaviour Change Land but it’s an unavoidable fact. We need to strive for genuine empathy and insight into those we target with our messages and programs (and yes, the irony of referring to people as targets has not escaped us). Sam Graham-Felsen, Barack Obama’s chief blogger during the 2008 presidential election campaign attributes much of the campaign’s success to engaging the community in genuine, real time online communication and blogs. “The audience is not something you do things to” he says, “but people you do things with” (1).


To help avoid this ‘doing to’ mindset, we try and start behaviour change with the people from the organisation we are working with. If they want every household to install low flow shower heads and taps, have all the behaviour change staff done this in their own homes? Has the organisation done this in their offices? As a start, it’s worth asking your co-workers why they have not made or sustained the changes you want others to make. Common examples from our work with household water saving teams are “I’m too busy” or “I work in the industry and already do my bit”. These are not excuses but genuinely held beliefs which can be difficult to address.


Facilitating the internal change first does wonders for engendering respect for those ‘out there’ who are the intended target audience. By learning to change their own and other’s behaviour at work and at home, program staff get to practise invaluable behaviour change skills in a familiar setting. Those of you who work for large organisations or government may be silently dismissing this strategy as almost impossible to achieve. While it’s true that the process may be slower and have to operate in parallel to your regular programs, your organisation and its management, like any other, will have its own motivation for change even if it’s avoiding bad publicity. If nothing else it’s not a good look for say, an organisation committed to reducing energy use not to be minimising its own. We also include ourselves in this process because we all need to be part of the us we are trying to change. 



1) Sam Graham Felsen, Chief Campaign Blogger, New Media Team, Obama Presidential Campaign. Creating the Change You Can Believe In, podcast from the Behaviour Change for Sustainability National Conference, 3 Pillars Network, Sydney, 2010.