Social Organization and Change Management

Connecting the Dots between Business Practices and Successful Social Change

Annemarie Schwendler

Many businesses see success daily in creating change initiatives that take hold throughout the company. Through the study of change management—specifically the practices of positive psychology, backcasting and appreciative inquiry—insight can be gained into how to harness the efficiency of change initiatives within for-profit companies and apply it to socially-driven initiatives and movements. Examples are drawn specifically from success stories from the campus of the University of Notre Dame in which these practices are demonstrated, and applied practically to a blossoming movement with a mission vested in environmental sustainability. Based on learning from the theoretical understanding of change management and the examples demonstrated in successful cases, recommendations are laid forth for how to develop the sustainability movement efficiently and effectively.

Change Management

The academic study of change management emerged in the 1980s, and by the late 1990s, it had been adopted and implemented by such successful companies as GE and Ford. While change management is often considered to be a discipline applicable exclusively to business, a deeper dive into three themes reveals more universally applicable truths.

Positive Psychology

A recent development in the academic field of psychology, positive psychology is the study of the employment of positive speech, traits and actions to improve the quality of life within a given environment. High-performing teams used positive statements six times as often as negative statements, on average, while low-performing teams used negative statements three times as often as positive statements. Similarly, members of high-performing teams used language focused on the self (I, me, etc.) equally often as language focused the others or the group, while members of low-performing teams used language focused on the self nearly 30 times as often as language focused on the other or group.


Backcasting is a process by which an ideal state is determined for a given circumstance, as well as a timeframe by which analysts would like to have achieved the ideal state. Once setting a goal and time frame, researchers then take “steps back” from the ideal state to determine things that must change in order for current circumstances to eventually evolve into ideal circumstances.

Appreciative Inquiry

Somewhat of a build upon both previous practices, appreciative inquiry is a method by which stakeholders work together to identify key core competencies of a business, extrapolate them to a “dream state,” work backwards to develop a practical solution and then develop key steps that need to be taken to achieve that goal. This process is done after identifying an end goal for the organization, and implements positive psychology to engage all parties.

Notre Dame Campus Success Stories

The following are three examples that are similar in that they are all currently associated with the University of Notre Dame and have missions intrinsically tied to social justice, but they differ in how the connection with the university began. Through examining these stories, connections can be made about how to utilize principles of change management in gaining the support of a major university administration, regardless of the manner in which an initiative begins.

The 4-to-5 Movement

In fall 2011, Brian Sims—the only former NCAA football captain to come out as openly gay, and current member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives—spoke to a small but dedicated group of students in the Progressive Student Alliance on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Among other things, Sims informed the students that it has been shown that four out of every five college students are in favor of furthering an agenda for equal rights for LGBT people, but those people only believe that 33% of all others in this same category agree with them.

The PSA team determined that they would have to reframe the issue in order to gain the attention of the administration, given the trend of rejection. They came up with a list of specific but ambitious goals behind which they could rally more support. Based on Sims’ speech, they decided to call attention to the number of students on campus who identified as allies of the LGBT community. From here, information was the most important resource. The students dove into historical contexts for the fight for LGBT rights on catholic campuses and familiarized themselves with common arguments against their proposals. They identified people within the administration who were likely to support their cause, as well as people who they would necessarily have to convert to their frame of thought.

In essence, the 4-to-5 Movement successfully implemented practices of positive psychology and backcasting. Through developing a clear ideal state, then figuring out what steps they needed to take to get there, they were able to keep students involved year after year even though undergraduate students typically only stay on campus for four years. The positive attitude and phrasing of their goals helped prevent ostracizing the administration to such an extent that they would not be willing to listen.

While a full appreciative inquiry process was not laid out, they successfully walked through each individual step: they identified what their strengths were as a group; they brainstormed all the ways they hoped to improve the campus; they settled on a set of goals that would achieve their desired results, and; they laid out the steps that needed to be accomplished to get there.


The Alliance for Catholic Education was started by Holy Cross priests, Rev. Timothy R. Scully, C.S.C, and Rev. Sean McGraw, C.S.C., in 1993. Having been associated with the University of Notre Dame and the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross, the pair were already deeply invested in Catholic education. They recognized a need for educational support in under-funded Catholic schools and built the program with that end goal in mind. They started by launching the Service through Teaching program, which functions similarly to Teach for America—college graduates are first trained, then placed in a school for two years and earn their master’s degree in education while they teach.

This is a perfect example of the use of appreciative inquiry. The Notre Dame Task Force on Catholic Education is a compilation of key stakeholders in the Catholic community, Catholic school system and relevant academics, and together, they were able to identify their core competencies as an organization and progress through dream, design and destiny phases—all documented clearly in a single report.

The team also demonstrates the use of backcasting to maintain alignment; first they generated a vision of an end, “ideal” state for the Catholic school system, then they developed a clear view of the steps necessary to reach that state. They also note their dedication to the use of positive psychology in encouraging forward motion.

Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN)

The Global Adaptation Index (GAIN) was started independently of the University of Notre Dame in Washington, D.C. in 2010. Ken Hersch—current CEO of NGP Energy Capital Management—noticed that in many business decisions, not enough attention was paid to climate change adaptability and resiliency, especially in terms of potential office locations. Hersch had a background working with congressional parties dealing with climate issues, and was thus aware of the obstacles businesses faced due to climate change. Hersch soon reached out to Juan José Daboub, current managing director of World Bank, who had already expressed interested in working on a non-profit generating awareness in this field.

The organization soon noted that in order to gain credibility and maintain sustainable growth, they needed to partner with a research institution. Through examining their own core strengths, they built a picture of an institution that would be ideal.

Hersch and Daboub looked into the University of Notre Dame, as their Catholic roots made the university an interesting possibility. Contact was initiated through George Keegan, the senior director of academic advancement with the Office of Foundation Relations, a part of the University of Notre Dame Development Office. The relationship between the university and GAIN was then managed entirely through the Development Office, and GAIN became ND-GAIN officially in April 2013.

The key change management strategies utilized by ND-GAIN is appreciative inquiry and backcasting, but they did not use the processes to define the entire organization. Rather, they encountered an issue—that they needed a partnership with a university in order to maintain credibility—and they used the process to build a vision of an ideal match. From there, they narrowed their focus to ensure that their core competencies as an organization matched with the institutions into which they were looking, in order to ensure that alignment was achieved.

This process was successful not only in helping the group determine which institution was their ideal match, but also in identifying what to communicate to representatives from the institution and identify potential allies in power positions in the administration.

Application to We Are 9

In fall 2013, a group of students came together to discuss their ideas for how to promote a culture of change involving sustainability on Notre Dame’s campus. The students were passionate, and felt strongly about taking on varying initiatives. From green fashion shows to a demand endowment divestiture from fossil fuels, ideas were not an issue. Eventually somewhat narrowing focus, a smaller subset of the environmentally passionate students decide to move forward and attempt the founding of a grassroots sustainability movement on campus.

Starting at their first smaller group meeting, the students began discussing what they wanted. In general, it was determined that they wanted a more sustainable campus, and hoped in the end for Notre Dame to be both carbon neutral and to divest endowment funds from fossil fuels. They also generally determined that they wanted the movement to be fueled by student support, drawing inspiration from the 4-to-5 movement. The students determined that they did not want to encourage any actions by university administration that would set a precedent of striving for temporary fixes to environmental issues. They decided that in order to gain traction, they would have to tie their mission and goals to Notre Dame’s core competencies and missions. They decided on three main “pillars” of their argument:

They crafted a mission statement and an informational video similar to that launched early on by the 4-to-5 movement. They called into question the practices of the university, while showing that they had from both students and faculty by having members of both parties speak lines of a single, cohesive script.

They wrote an open letter to university president Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., addressing the need for change at the university, and created a form for students to submit their personal information to sign it. They decided that the following initiative would have the goal of achieving administrative commitment to divest funds from companies profiting from fossil fuel refinement and sales. They launched the video like the 4-to-5 movement, in a screening room during an event designed to generate awareness and support.


Significant additional planning should have taken place before rolling out the initiative to the public. Due to the lack of alignment behind a core goal and the lack of vision for the path by which to reach that goal, the initiative has fallen flat within the student body. Simple identification of key decision makers within the university administration would have proved helpful when tailoring campaign messages and attempting to demonstrate forward motion. Similarly, while all issues addressed by the group are related under the general umbrella of “environmental issues,” narrowing focus sooner would have helped the group expand to include more supporters.

Positive Psychology

The group of students has placed an emphasis on addressing university with positivity and hope, and has done so very well: their mission statement, the open letter to Fr. Jenkins and the script for the video all stay on message addressing environmental concerns without hurtful tone. They have worked hard to phrase their mission not as a shaming of all things wrong with environmental sustainability at Notre Dame, but rather as a unified goal for the future.

Where the group falters, however, is in meetings and interviews. The members often utilize exclusive language, addressing the movement as their personal work as opposed to the collective effort of the student body, and they are highly critical of each other. The environment created by these minutiae of negativity could be unwelcoming to new members, which hurts the sustainability of the movement itself. Should the group not be able to bring in new members easily, they are at risk for their mission being lost when key members Garret Blad and Katherine Otterbeck graduate.

This is simple to fix, though. Since the group already developed a deep understanding of the importance of positivity in messaging and outreach, members must simply me more contentious of their phrasing when working with other students and each other. They must remember that even when addressing an individual who has had no part in participation thus far, they are organizing a social movement which inherently belongs to the entirety of the campus, and thus they should address the individual as if they are already involved in the effort.

Backcasting is the most important process that should be utilized as soon as possible by the students involved in We Are 9. The students currently have a strong vision for the ideal state of the campus 9although it would have been useful to have it solidified before any information went public), but they have not yet laid out a clear path for how they intend to get from the current state to the ideal state. This creates a problem generating alignment, both with other students and with key members of the administration, because external individuals cannot easily recognize the connection between the current objectives of the social movement and the end goal.

This lack of a plan also inhibits future involvement of younger students. If there is no evidence that a plan has been laid out beyond the graduation of Blad and Otterbeck, there is no reason for younger students to get involved and excited about the movement. Due to the movement’s leaders being all undergraduate students, a process for regular turnover is necessary in order to keep the movement alive. 

Appreciative inquiry would be difficult to undertake currently, given the fact that the movement has already started, but in the future it would be wise to look into the practice as a means of generating focused solutions to problems in line with their overall goal. As such, next year the leadership team should regroup for a planning retreat to tackle a plan for the year.

Then, with this vision in mind, the group should begin a full brainstorming session on possible next steps. These should all be related in some way to the end vision, but there is no need for each individual idea to have a full implementation plan attached to it. That comes later. After generating 20-25 ideas, the group should begin to narrow: first to 15, then to 10, then finally to their top 5 ideas, ranking them in order of importance. For the number one ranked idea (and this idea only), the group should then spend 2-3 hours in the “Destiny” phase, laying out step by step how they will make this single idea happen. They should bear in mind how they will communicate their ideas to other stakeholders and members, and ensure that they do not forget to remain positive in their communication with each other.