A step-by-step guide to changing things for the better in your town, your country, or the world.
How to Affect a Community Issue
Formulate a plan: First, develop a realistic solution for the problem. For background information and ideas, consult local journalists and public records at city hall. Majora Carter, founder of the nonprofit group Sustainable South Bronx, successfully fought a waste-transfer station planned for her area and then designed a "greenway" project to replace it. "It isn't enough to advocate against something. You have to do something," Carter says.
Create partnerships: Meet with others who are on your side, as well as those who might be won over. Don't rule out people whose motives might differ from yours. The owner of an existing big business, for example, may have as much of a stake in opposing a new superstore as an environmentalist who wants to save the trees it will flatten.
Talk: Determine whom you need to convince of your goal—both decision makers and the people who influence them. Want to reach a city-council member? First win the support of the people who elected him (say, by speaking up at town meetings).
Build awareness: Local newspapers and TV news shows are always looking for personal-interest stories, so call a local channel's news director or the community news reporter at a local paper and describe in detail how the issue affects the community.
Act: Stage a demonstration. Set up an information booth at the local farmers' market. Hand out flyers at bus stops. The more they see and hear you, the more likely local decision makers are to listen.
How to Battle a Major Company
Formulate a plan: Want to get a company to provide health insurance, stop polluting, or pay foreign workers a living wage? First, see if other groups are already working on your issue, and how other corporations have responded to similar complaints. CorpWatch.org has a searchable database of corporate-affairs news articles and instructions on how to research a company you want to challenge.
Create partnerships: Think beyond consumer-watchdog groups. Political organizations, labor unions, minority-rights groups, and environmental organizations are some options for potential allies.
Talk: Bring your concerns to the chief executive officer. (You can usually find his or her name on the company's website.) Prepare an argument that shows how the company can benefit from the change and answers the questions "How much would implementing this policy cost?" and "What is the cost of doing nothing?" suggests Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Human Rights Campaign Workplace Project.
Build awareness: Compose a statement of your views, and when a related issue is in the news—for example, the president gives a speech about employers' rights—send the statement out quickly to capitalize on the surge of interest.
Act: If appealing to the CEO doesn't work, hit him where it hurts—the brand's image. Boycotts, spread via telephone or e-mail, can sway consumer and investor opinion, even if there is no direct financial damage done.
How to Make a Change That Has an Impact on the Country
Formulate a plan: Ask experts near you (specialists at nonprofits, college professors, researchers) to help develop or critique your proposal.
Create partnerships: Whatever your issue is, a special-interest group that you can work with probably already exists. Search idealist.org to find it.
Talk: Call your senator's office and describe your concerns. You'll be directed to the staffer who knows the issue best, says Stephen Hourahan, press secretary to U.S. senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Rather than a petition, send a sincere e-mail or letter. "For every personal letter, politicians assume 25 or 50 other people feel the same way," says Craig Williams, whose Chemical Weapons Working Group persuaded the federal government to reconsider a plan to incinerate chemical weapons in locations all over the country.
Build awareness: If you want to win attention for your cause at a larger event, make yourself as useful as possible to the journalists on the scene. Create vibrant visuals for unique photo ops, name a spokesperson to deliver memorable sound bites, and follow up with any reporters who quote you.
Act: If you still don't see results and your issue is a constitutional one, you can try to take it to the Supreme Court. This isn't an easy process. In most cases, you have to file in a federal district court first, then file a series of appeals. But any citizen has the right to bring a suit against the government. (Check supremecourtus.gov for instructions.)
How to Create Worldwide Change
Formulate a plan: When a problem seems too big to tackle on your own, the best course often is to donate money to help the cause and inspire others, including the government, to do the same. (Check guidestar.org to evaluate the fiscal practices of any organization to which you plan to give.)
Create partnerships: Contact a nonprofit with a presence in the country where the problem is based. It will have more sway over local leaders and a better understanding of potential solutions.
Talk: Go to the U.S. Government Printing Office website (gpoaccess.gov) to see if any of your congressmen are on the Budget or Foreign Relations Committee—both of which play large international roles. Then write or call your congressman. (You'll have more impact by writing to someone you have the power to vote for.) Another tack: Write letters to the leaders of other countries, a strategy used successfully by Amnesty International for 40 years. (See sample letters and addresses for world leaders at amnestyusa.org.)
Build awareness: Write a letter to the editor of an influential newspaper. Explain your personal connection to the issue, be brief (200 words or less), and write in a compelling way without ranting.
Act: By all means, stage a protest, but always be diplomatic. Storming a conference room where the issue is being debated will only alienate the players, but unfurling banners that can be read from every window of that room—and by any TV cameras in sight—will have a lasting effect.