I’m doing a new edition of How Change Happens – any suggestions for what needs to change?

July 3, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Hi everyone

I’m planning to update How Change Happens over the summer, and wanted to ask for advice on what to cover. I guess this is particularly relevant to those of you who use the book, whether for teaching, training or getting to sleep at night.

Quick reminder: The book is about the plumbing – the ‘how’ of change and the institutions involved (states, multilateral system, civil society etc), not ‘what needs to change’, which is the terrain more commonly covered by Oxfam and other INGOs/activists. Issues like climate change, or gender justice, are dealt with, but largely as ways to illustrate the different ways change happens and the tools and mindsets activists use to bring it about.

The book also explores the nature of social, economic and political change beyond the role of specific activists, in order to better inform their efforts at intentional change.

The book was published in 2016 – month or so after the Brexit vote, and just before Trump’s election. The world looks very different these days, and that has implications for activism.

My current thinking is that the major updates needed are:

  1. A new chapter on digital influencing (to be written by Tom Kirk of the LSE)
  2. More on the various downsides that have emerged since 2016 – closing civic space/backlash, rise of populism and what that means for activism. I loved Moises Naim’s book on this, but would welcome any other suggestions
  3. More on normative shifts within advocacy, especially decolonization, localization and intersectionality
  4. Inclusion of more recent case studies (where written up), where they are as good or better than the ones in the first edition. Suggestions and links please!
  5. The impact of Covid on civic activism, based on our emergent agency project

It’s a light update, not a full new edition, so I’ll be keeping a lot of stuff unchanged, but suggestions for improvements very welcome.

Oh, and the new edition will be Open Access, just like the last one. Thanks OUP!

July 3, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Duncan,

    I recognise that HCH is about how change happens in front of us, as it were, but it might be worth reflecting that a lot of the money we all spend supporting it comes from donors – and often governmental ones too. So a small discussion about applying the HCH lens to the donor and considering (1) why they want what change; and (2) how their involvement colours the landscape might be helpful. (I persist in the belief that govt donors do not have to be bad, but they are essentially self-interested and – as is the case for most implementors too – not as politically neutral as they sometimes like to insist.

    So if we are to understand how change happens, we need to understand how we and at least perceptions of our donors affect the environment in which we seek that change.

    All the best.


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      These are good points Jeremy, and I always stress that we can apply the same tools that we use externally to internal change within our organizations and sector. But the book is at least attempting to go beyond the aid biz, to change more generally, so I’ll have to be careful on the degree to which I reference aid.

  2. Dear Duncan,

    Climate change is so different (as a what) that is leading to a new kind of change dynamic (a how).

    This challenge is universal and tangible; it has a yearly outstandig advocacy opportunity (the COP); it is the most systemic challenge as it encompasses resilience of humankind and nature together; the urgency both now and for 2100 generates unseen intergenerational activism; etc.

    If I’m totally wrong on the new dimension of this how, you could use sorts of climate protest as recent cases.

    I’m looking forward to the updated book. Thanks for your newsletter and podcast.


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  3. Hi Duncan,

    In the chapter dedicated to “How states evolve” would be nice to delve into the new trends related with the “Entrepreneurial State” (Mazzucato), specially regarding the “energy transition” policies and its relationship with supply chains of minerals (and the rise of “mining nationalism” in mining producing countries). That could be a case study. Also in the section “What activists can and (can´t) do”, related with the decolonisation/localisation debate, I feel there is an increasing pressure for INGOs to be less focused in international/global forums and start doing more social/public action “at home”. Another case study related with the rise of the Alt-right and the anti-elites could focused in the increasing hostility against the OSD and the Agenda 2030.

    All the best,


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  4. I think it would be helpful to crystalize a bit more the systems stuff, which you rightly open with.

    And include a more practical aspect (I’m thinking diagrams, one or two lists, Meadows 12 leaverage points maybe too: ).

    After all, if you can’t visualize the system you are dealing with, or at least attempt it with colleagues, how do you know you are on the same circuit diagram?

    It’s an excellent book,but it needs enlivening for some of us who like some visuals, to stop our eyes slipping off the page. My guess is that people read (some) of the book then file it – how nice it would be if they kept coming back to cut & paste a diag/table/check-list or two?

    Even a Venn diag? They can be helpful…

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  5. Hi Duncan.
    How about exploring shifting narratives, which obviously also have a big role to play in relation to civic space? Oxfam’s Knowledge Hub on Civic Space & Governance has collated/curated some really interesting thinking & experience from experts internally & externally since you wrote How Change Happens, on the role of narratives for good & ill in how change happens. I admit it’s been a while since I commented on drafts of How Change Happens (wow time flies!), but if memory serves me correctly it’s potentially a bit of a gap. Good luck with the update!

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  6. Is it possible to look at what managers/organisations need to do to equip staff with the soft and hard skills toowrk this way? Apart from reading the book, how can this become part of the work culture from JD/PSs, to ongoing supervsion, trng etc

  7. HI Duncan

    Delighted you are doing this. I’m conscious that the focus of HCH has typically been on civil society and activism. However, I wondered whether you wanted to delve more into how (and whether) change can happen through the action of large private sector actors. I’m prompted to say this because of two things. First, there is a huge amount of coalition building among big corporates on climate issues these days. Is it all greenwash? Perhaps. And certainly it can’t substitute for the state – but it may be an important part of how change happens. Second, on the energy transition, I’m fascinated that many of the big new (and some old) industry players are doubling down on trying to capture the new green energy agenda because they see it as potentially hugely profitable. Whether you love it or hate it, it means that the owners of serious capital are having a big influence on the investments that get made i.e. on how change happens.

    A final, separate, thought is about law and corporate governance. We are seeing some impressive court cases by activists change policy now. (And some activist investors shifting board decisions) – definitely a route through which change happens.

    Hope that helps. Will have to dust off my copy and have another read!


  8. Great ,Duncan.
    I would love to see an illustrated version.
    Also wonder if you have a straw poll.
    Who has used it? What was the outcome.
    In the last decade I have completely bye passed aid/ NGO route and have approached other paths for sustainable and non Violent economy movement.
    It has been a very exciting and awesome journey.
    Also the last decade has seen an enormous raise in identity issues.How us this connected to the political economy.
    Urban based, social media led, short period uprising has been on the raise.
    Srilanka to France.
    The conventional ideas if movement is being challenged.

    Some quick ideas for your over filled

    How states have changed and are changing to be in power and delivering too.

  9. It d be interesting to read about successful advocacy/external engagement between unusual partners and how cross-sectoral movements have made a difference. I think this is something we need more and more – from silos to collaboration. I am thinking here – for instance – FBOs/faith based actors and women’s rights activists/gender equality actors!

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  10. I agree with Maria’s comment and would include also Diaspora Organizations in the list.

    More in general I would find very interesting a section on the importance of local actions and how they could learn from and support each other (maybe a reference to covid and if it had an influence on how change happens. I guess it could stay in the introduction).

    On the other hand I would also find very useful a reflection on how a renewed global governance could and should take into account all the variety of actors that promote change (maybe in the conclusions?)

  11. While your book has lots on climate change and its challenges, Duncan, there seems to be little on changing the climate to make the earth more habitable in ways that entail reducing poverty, such as low cost, highly effective nature-based solutions.

  12. Dear Duncan,

    I am working in Central Asia. A state President in the region has tried to improve governance but facing the ‘business as usual’ of his staff, himself on the top is feeling powerless. How do you make changes happen when you have no direct control in government to change the mentality of staff and ways of conducting business?

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      Thanks Joy, If you have the authorizing environment from the top, then might well be worth looking at PDIA, a methodology developed by the Building State Capability team at Harvard for exactly this kind of challenge

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