Arts & Culture
Environmental Justice
Leslie Crutchfield
Peter Marra
Spring 2021

From Grassroots to Gold: How to Organize Successful Movements

Why do some social movements succeed while other’s don’t? Author and Georgetown professor Leslie Crutchfield chats with Pete Marra on what history can teach us—for the environment.

Author: Leslie Crutchfield & Pete Marra

Director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative, Pete Marra, interviews Leslie Crutchfield, Georgetown’s director of Business for Impact within Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Leslie Crutchfield is also a professor of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) within the MBA program with a focus on creating social and environmental benefits alongside profits. Crutchfield is the author of How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t.

Marra: I’d like to learn about your recent book and hope to challenge you a bit to view your findings with a more environmental angle. But let’s start with getting to know more about you. When did you figure out what you wanted to do? When did you find your passion?

Crutchfield: My career has been at the intersection of social impact, writing, and new knowledge development.

If I had to go back to a point in time, it probably would be in 1998 in the Gambia with a summer Peace Corps volunteer opportunity with an agricultural development project. To fundraise for the trip, I wrote a series called ‘Out of Africa’ in my local newspaper. I fell in love with writing, especially about change and how it happens. 

After graduating college, my first job was at National Geographic Magazine. I envisioned myself writing about the environment while trekking in Nepal or hiking around Patagonia. Instead, I was an administrative assistant, getting visas for the actual writers on assignment. So that was a short-lived experience, but I had the good fortune of launching a startup out of National Geographic. 

So, for the first decade of my work-life, I ran a social enterprise with two co-founders. We started a magazine about social impact and wrote about innovative NGOs at a time when national service was just taking off. In the United States, service learning was just getting instituted in all the K through 12 schools. Teach for America was also launching, City Year had just begun. 

The idea to write my first book hit when I was training social entrepreneurs at Ashoka in DC. I was consistently buying business management books because only about three business school cases then (in the 1990s) had been written about social enterprise growth. As social entrepreneurs, we need our own resources, our own books, our own studies of what drives impact and greatness. My first book, Forces for Good, which came out in 2008, studied high impact nonprofits. And then I did a second book on philanthropy and donor support. 

But the ‘big aha’ that came out of Forces for Good was that high impact nonprofits, whether you’re looking at Habitat for Humanity or Environmental Defense Fund or Teach for America, build movements. So then I got interested in this question of what it takes to build successful movements, and that’s what brought me to Georgetown. I had a research fellowship to write what eventually became How Change Happens

Marra: How would you define a movement? Why are some more successful than others?

Crutchfield: I found six core strategies that all movements employ to be successful. The first and most important is that they “turn grassroots gold.” Movements that mobilize people at the grassroots level in local and state contexts tend to be more successful. This is important in the context of the U.S. decentralized democracy, with the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which puts most power to the states and very limited power to the federal government. 

Marra: Let’s talk more about the environmental movement and parallels between how social movements happen and how the environmental movement happened. I often think of how the book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, raised awareness. Communicating to a popular audience in a way that let them access the information was powerful. It led to the creation of Earth Day, the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and so much more. Yet we are back to where we started in so many ways. So how do we start another environmental movement given the past? What are the keys to a new movement?

Crutchfield: That’s a great question. While writers and discoveries were raising awareness, you also have to look at what the NGOs were doing. In the U.S. you had the Environmental Defense Fund, NRDC, World Wildlife, Sierra Club, David Brower, and more. Sierra Club had a big reach and millions of members and chapters across the country. 

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) went in a different direction because they focused on economic and market-based approaches to solving environmental problems. They brought together scientists, economists, and political actors. That cocktail of different disciplines eventually led to their idea of a cap-and-trade solution. 

A lot of the success of EDF’s movement was luck, timing, and circumstance. George H. Bush, who  was running for office, wanted to be the “environmental president.” When they proposed amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, around the time that the U.S. faced a serious acid rain problem, the EDF was able to lobby and get a cap-and-trade mechanism inserted as the approach to reduce sulfur. It was the right idea at the right time. And, they had support in the White House. 

In the U.S. today, there has been more focus on working with policymakers and business leaders, and much of the bottom up, grassroots energy has been lost. Let me give you a specific example that we write about in How Change Happens. There were two big legislative policy areas during the Obama administration: Waxman-Markey, known as the Climate Bill, and the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. 

The healthcare for all movement was supported by a large coalition of over a thousand health related agencies with millions of members, all organizing behind a common purpose. After Trump was elected, the republican controlled Senate and House repeatedly tried to repeal and replace affordable care, but they failed each time because grassroots mobilization held the policy officials accountable. 

On the other hand, when you look at Waxman-Markey and why the cap-and-trade bill eventually failed in the Senate, it is because there just wasn’t anywhere near the grassroots mobilization of enough local constituencies holding their elected officials accountable for that outcome. 

Marra: I am challenged by the idea that grassroots support is all that’s necessary. In ecology, there is this back-and-forth theory between bottom-up and top-down regulation of ecological processes. I would argue that we have a responsibility to maintain this environment for future generations, regardless of what the overall population wants. In some cases, it might be top-down regulation that’s required. There need to be laws and regulations in place that save our glaciers and our species from going extinct. Right now, those things aren’t there, and I don’t know how we can best mobilize change at this point to make sure that those things are protected for future generations. What are your thoughts on this?

Crutchfield: I agree with you; our policies in the United States are not preserving and protecting the environment to the extent that they could. There is a role for a top-down approach, but successful grassroots movements are not just chaotic and organic, instead, there is “leaderful” leadership. At the top, there are grass tips that are coordinating and aligning but still allow the energy and momentum to build up from the grassroots. To get a law like Waxman-Markey all the way through, you have to build the political will for enough of the populace to demand that their elected officials put those policies in place. 

Unfortunately, in the United States, with science deniers and climate skeptics, the environment has been made a wedge issue. Climate action has become the carnage of this new political division that we are experiencing.

Our research looks at two other key roles in movements, besides grassroots. One is the role of business in movements. Traditional social environmental activists protest, boycott, and shame businesses that are polluting the earth. There are also companies today that realize they need to have a sustainability strategy if they want to be competitive. 

The change is happening whether the motivation is consumer backlash and the glare of NGOs or an authentic desire to do well. A major shift in the business world was with Larry Fink’s letter to shareholders saying that Blackrock would divest from thermal fossils and hold their portfolio companies accountable to ESG metrics. When investors start screening and holding portfolio companies accountable, that’s true top-down. And Bank of America, our founding partner at Business for Impact, introduced the first green bonds and a market-based approach. 

Using the billions or trillions of assets of a company to nudge behavior towards more sustainable practices can have a real impact. The private sector dwarfs both government and individual philanthropy in terms of its ability to scale solutions, so business can really be a large part of the solution.

Again, to your point about whether or not grassroots are enough for a movement, we found that a third successful strategy is a focus on changing hearts and minds. You can’t just change the rules of the game, you have to change the way people feel about an issue. With the environment there is an opportunity to focus on consumer behavior: on recycling, reducing our carbon footprint, and buying from sustainable companies. You have sentiment on your side, but there are still challenges at the systemic and public policy level.

You can’t just change the rules of the game, you have to change the way people feel about an issue.


Marra: The top-down approach seems necessary because I don’t know if we have time for the grassroots movement and heartstrings. There’s a divide now between many people and natural history. It is a fundamental divide that occurs, so it’s hard to pull across that divide and grab those heartstrings and pull them back towards the environment. How can we go back to the grassroots movement if people are disassociated with the environment? How can we be more optimistic about the future?

Crutchfield: There may be more support for the environment than it seems. Urban populations might be disconnected, but a lot of people in America live in rural areas, where they are connected with conservation, hunting, and fishing. 

The environmental movement is trying to broaden their coalition to Republicans and Evangelicals, among others. And the Millennial and Gen Z populations are also making an effort to connect with the environment again.

There is common ground around the environment, but it hasn’t been organized under a big tent. Instead, it has become a wedge issue in this political fight that we’re having in the United States. 

Marra: What advice do you have for students looking to make an impact in either social or environmental movements?

Crutchfield: There are many ways to do so.  I am excited by Greta Thunberg and Fridays for the Future, where young people are advocating, speaking out, and standing up. That’s one way where one person’s voice can join with millions of others to get the power and the force for change. 

Students can also have an impact through their careers. Whether they go work for nonprofits that put purpose at the center or companies where they can advocate for change as employees. They can also be innovators, such as with innovating products that help the planet. 

Students can also make an impact based on how they choose to live their individual lives. However, it’s not enough to just be a responsible environmental consumer. You’ve got to raise your voice and advocate for systems change. You can express this in the way you vote, volunteer, and advocate. That’s how change happens. 

Marra: A similar question, what would you like to see Georgetown do to make a difference around the environment?

Crutchfield: Georgetown already has investment strategies which align with our values and our wish to protect and preserve the environment. I was really heartened to see that big and systemic change with the fossil fuel divestment. The environmental initiatives through GEI are important, as is teaching sustainability in all of the Georgetown schools. At McDonough, we talk about wanting every business student to know that there’s more than one bottom line in life and in work. We want them to know how to manage and lead organizations across the triple bottom line. Even if they don’t go work in sustainability, it is important that they have that mindset. There is a big opportunity infusing that mindset across all the programs and departments. 

I also think it is extremely important to support students who have new and bold ideas. We want to unleash innovation and support students that want to do environmental activism. 

Marra: I totally agree with you, with respect to infusing environment and sustainability ideas into all different parts of the school. We all have different switches that get us activated in the environment. If it’s music, or a play, or book, or whatever it happens to be, we need to figure out how to flip all those switches. We need to get people connected to the environment, no matter what their entryway is. It’s about creating a movement. It’s time for a new movement around the environment, and we should be doing it in Washington D.C. with Georgetown.

environmental movement
Forces for Good
How Change Happens
Leslie Crutchfield
Pete Marra
social movements
sustainability education