Models of Change

Accountability requires using our time and resources effectively. As allies, it’s important we understand the different models of change, because most popular change models are structurally incapable of the change required to dismantle systemic racism. 

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Reformist Change Models

Most mainstream change efforts fall into the reformist category. These methods only address the symptoms of the problem, but do not address the actual root causes. Because these methods never address the actual sources of the problems, their work is a perpetual cycle, rarely advancing lasting, effective change. Understanding the differences between systemic models of change versus reformist models is essential to dismantle racism. 

Most models of change fall into the reformist models of change catagory; these models only address the symptoms of problems, but never address the roots causes.
Systemic change models of social change adress the root causes of problems, not just the symptoms.

Systemic Solutions address the root causes. Without accurately identifying and developing strategies to address what is causing the problem in the first place, solutions will be ineffective, leaving the pain unchanged or perpetuated. The best model of change strategies combine strategies to address the roots of the problem in the long term while addressing the symptoms of the problem in the short term.

Social Change Models

Many dominant social change strategies are top-down change models, where people from outside of the most impacted communities prescribe solutions, often without any input or feedback from the communities. Though well-intended, implicit in their work is the presumption that outsiders know what is better for the communities than themselves, despite the outsiders having neither lived experience or personal vested interest in solving the problem. As a result, philanthropy, advocacy, and service change models often do not achieve the outcomes they intend and claim. This is referred to as the non-profit industrial complex – a never-ending need to fund social change strategies that don’t lead to any improved conditions.

Most unfortunate is that these models of change have the most significant access to funding and power. As a result, most of the resources dedicated to social change are in the hands of entities structurally incapable of achieving effective and lasting solutions.




Philanthropy uses individual, family, or corporate accumulated wealth to give back to charitable causes. Like many services and advocacy work, philanthropy rarely addresses the root causes of problems and usually makes decisions with little or no engagement with the communities most impacted.

Philanthropy is a problematic model of change because it often involves decision-makers with the furthest proximity from lived experience but most access to power and resources, dictating solutions to communities with access to less power and resources.

Imagine going to the doctor and the doctor giving you some medicine without ever asking if anything is wrong.  This dynamic results in largely ineffectual solutions and poor use of vast resources.

The other primary social justice critique of philanthropy is that the extreme excess wealth that philanthropy relies upon is achieved through economic and social systems that create the problems philanthropy seeks to address, including systemic racism. Hence, excessive wealth is a symptom of, not a solution to, a harmful system. This perspective is that most problems philanthropy seeks to address could be far more efficiently eliminated by correcting power and resource imbalance in  economic and social systems.

This is not to say that wealth should not be used for good causes, but to be effective, philanthropy must both address the root causes of problems and fund solutions prescribed and led by the communities most impacted.



The act of advocacy, influencing decision-makers and public opinion, is something all successful models of change utilize. In this instance, we refer to non-profits and NGO s (Non-Governmental Organizations): which include organizations like the ACLU, The Sierra Club, Doctors without Borders, and thousands of other smaller and local organizations.

The two primary problems with this model are that these organizations often do not consult with the communities most impacted by the issues they claim to address, rendering their solutions ineffective. Second, these groups would be out of business if they solved the problems they claim to be addressing, so there is no incentive – an actual disincentive – not to solve their core issues. This is not to say that there isn’t good intent and thousands of dedicated people working for these groups genuinely want to see positive change. However, the immense resources this sector has at its’ disposal, combined with the model of change having very little chance of ever achieving solutions to the problems they seek to address, are barriers to real change.

A fraction of this sector’s disproportionate resources could be infinitely better utilized by grassroots organizations to create transformative, authentic, accountable change. Still, this sector’s monopolization of both resources and their model of change prevents that. As allies, we must work to use our resources where they will have the most impact: grassroots community organizing.



Direct service or charity work is when the model of change is organized entirely around providing the immediate basic needs- food, clothing, housing, hurricane relief, etc. There are certainly times when this model is appropriate, such as after a hurricane, a pandemic, or other unforeseen disasters, but it is vastly overrepresented as  model of change. One primary problem is that the massive amount of resources that go into service, or charity work, never actually address the questions, ‘why are people hungry, poor, without clothing, homeless, etc.?’ Not addressing the root causes of these problems makes this model unlikely to reduce the number of hungry, poor, and unhoused people. This results in extremely inefficient use of resources for change. 

However, proving direct service can and has been successfully used as part of grassroots organizing for systemic change. The most famous example is the Black Panther Party, whose services to communities were used as part strategy to build grassroots power to challenge systemic racism. The Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program for kids, community medical clinics, ambulence services, food banks and elder care programs were so sucessful they were adopted by goverment in various forms, in part to undermine the succesful grassroots power the party was building. 


Against Charity by Matthew Snow


Grassroots or bottom-up change is the only effective method for authentic social justice. Those who have the lived experience are inherently the most qualified to identify problems and prescribe effective solutions accurately. This also means that community-led change is a vastly more efficient use of resources. This is not to say that philanthropy, advocacy, and service serve no purpose. If these models took leadership from or worked in genuine cooperation with the communities, these models could become part of effective change. But as it is, the organizations best poised to deliver solutions and use resources efficiently have the least access to funding, while organizations least positioned and most inefficient with resources have a vast majority of the financing. This is why it is vital that, as allies, we support grassroots organizations that address the root causes of problems and are led by the communities most impacted.

How do we help?


Support grassroots organizations that are led by and accountable to the communities most impacted.


Support organizations that have a systemic approach and include addressing the root causes of problems in their work.


Listen to and learn from the solutions and methods these organizations use. Often outsiders are skeptical of grassroots community strategies, and as a result they second guess, dismiss, and disengage from the very strategies that lead to real change.

This is one of the many sophisticated ways our unconscious programming helps maintain racism. We outsmart our programming when we instead learn from the experience and expertise of the communities most impacted.

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