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Developing a habit of social action


In June 2019 the Centre facilitated our first two ‘LabStorms’ as part of the #iwill Fund Learning Hub. In this blog, we reflect on what we learnt from facilitating a discussion that explored the role that funders in creating or supporting the structures needed to make social action a habit for life, for all young people.

As you might have seen from this blog, we recently facilitated two LabStorms as part of the #iwill Fund Learning Hub. LabStorms are collaborative problem-solving sessions designed to help generate and explore actionable responses to challenges organisations identify and with which they are wrestling. LabStorms are an approach developed by Feedback Labs, a US based consortium focused on the best ways of using feedback to make programmes and institutions responsive to the needs of their constituents. In this blog, we reflect on what we learnt from facilitating a discussion that explored the role that funders could or even should have in creating or supporting the structures that are needed to make social action a habit for life, for all young people.
If you want to get better at forming habits, there’s no shortage of advice. A quick search provides seven explanations of why habits are important, five scientific ways of how to build them, or eight reasons for why you might fail to keep them. Our discussion about habits sought to go a little deeper than creating a list of top tips though, and instead focused on understanding what’s needed to encourage social action habits to be formed and maintained.
The discussion in this LabStorm was led by Viv Jackson, who – as part of the LabStorm process - brought the topic to the group.  Viv is the Programme and Learning Manager for the Act for Change Fund, which is dedicated to providing resources for young people to challenge social injustice, to find ways of overcoming inequality, and to give voice to issues they are experiencing. Habit formation is important to the Fund because social action has been found to have many benefits, but only 32% of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are currently taking part, compared to 51% of young people from more affluent backgrounds. Beyond this participation gap, young people aren’t participating in different forms of social action equally: in 2018, only 8% of young people who participated in social action identified their action as campaigning for something that they believe in. A final factor that may influence habit formation is whether young people believe their actions are benefiting others. The 2018 Youth Social Action Survey also found a gap between different groups of young people on this point: young people who are white were found to be more likely to recognise the benefit to others from participating in social action than those from black and ethnic minority groups (77%, compared with 65%).
Three themes emerged during the LabStorm related to what needs to be done to encourage habit formation across all forms of social action, and for all young people.
Firstly, we need a greater understanding of how social action habits differ. At the moment, we know very little about whether  a young person developing a habit in one form of social action means they’re more likely to participate in other forms of social action. Could a habit in one form of social action create barriers to engaging in different forms?
Secondly, we need more research into whether habits are always structure and context dependent. At the heart of this issue are questions of whether the same resources and approaches that encourage a habit to be formed in one type of social action produce the same effects in other forms, and whether habit formation requires different types of support for different groups of young people.
Finally, for some participating in the discussion, too often young people’s continued engagement in social action is understood in terms of a habit of service, where young people’s social action activities are associated with ideas of duty and being ‘in service’ of others. This in turn has led to a focus on the number of volunteering hours or funds raised, for example, as indications of habit formation. This raises the question of what non-service based habits look like.
This LabStorm helped to highlight the role that funders can play in developing narratives around and support for habit formation. While understandings of what is needed to close the participation gap are emerging, very little is known about what is needed to help create a habit of participation in social action amongst young people from different backgrounds. Consequently, funders that support grantees that work with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in social action over multiple years have the potential to contribute significantly to these issues by encouraging grantees to share stories of the factors they have found to be important in creating a social action habit amongst diverse young people. We hope this blog will inspire funders to do this!
You can read about the other LabStorm we hosted, which focused on community benefit, here. We greatly enjoyed facilitating the first set of #iwill Fund Learning Hub LabStorms and are looking forward to the second set that will take place later in the year.
LabStorms take place under Chatham House rules, the write-ups of the sessions cannot be attributed to any one person or organisation, nor should they be seen as representative of an ‘average’ or consensus view in the room. Instead, they should be understood as providing kernels of insight and reflection that exist within the #iwill Match Funder community.
A report that includes more details about the LabStorm process, a more extensive write-up of the discussions held, and ideas of actions for funders, can be found here.