Stuart Hickox wants to get inside your toilet to see if it’s leaking. It’s not glamourous work, but it makes a difference. Stop a leak here and there, and you’ll save some dough and some water. Get thousands to do the same, and it’s a movement with a message. Unpacking the mantra of Hickox’s non-profit eco org one change
Stuart Hickox, do you ever feel like a misfit? “All the time,” answers the founder and president of One Change, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit foundation. Since 2005, the organization has parlayed deceptively simple ideas into an engine of change. It started by handing out free compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs to Ottawa homeowners to encourage people to use the energy misers. Now Project Porchlight, as it came to be called, along with One Change’s other programs, has spread to more than 1,200 communities across North America.
As part of his job, Hickox, BA/92, says he has “to do the political thing,” but it doesn’t come naturally. “Being in a room full of politicians, shaking hands and saying, ‘Thank you for your support,’ is artificial for me. So I do something quirky. I reach inside my jacket and say, ‘Want to see my light bulb?’”
His cheekiness is part of his appeal. The 43-year-old also benefits because his zeal is free from that familiar evangelical air that can sabotage any good cause. Hickox’s personal sense of outsiderness defines the operation of One Change.
Most of what we hear about energy efficiency and environmental issues comes from mass marketing and large-scale, upper-tier information sources. Governments prompt us, sometimes with financial incentives, to increase the insulation in our homes. Power utilities encourage us to do our laundry at night, when demand is low. News organizations worry us with disquieting news about ice caps and CO² levels.
One Change, by contrast, knocks on your door and gives you a free CFL bulb, a key chain with a digital tire gauge so that you can keep your tires properly inflated and your car fuel-efficient, and a water conservation kit. The kit uses a dye tablet to detect leaks in your toilet tank, which could cost $250 a year in wasted water.
It does this with an army of local volunteers and the help of sponsors, including banks and city governments. At the same time you’re being handed your freebie, the One Change volunteer will let you know how you can get your old energy-sucking fridge hauled away for free.
The goal is empowering people to take on good social changes they might not get to on their own. The strategy is reciprocity and, on some level, kind of like bribery. The volunteer gives the householder a small gift and asks for something in return that requires a bit of effort and commitment, such as using that dye tablet or booking the electricity utility to have that old beer fridge carted off and recycled.
The approach is rooted in a concept called community-based social marketing (CBSM), a popular mode of advertising in non-profit circles.
Whereas general marketing aims to entice us to buy a product or service, social marketing wants to influence behaviour for social good by using standard techniques such as advertising or cheap giveaways. In addition, the face-to-face contact with a member of your community acts as another layer of influence to instigate change.
But skeptics might argue that having a stranger interrupt your day to talk about a tire-pressure gauge is just another version of faceless (and annoying) telemarketing.
Can handing out a key chain start the sorts of vast changes needed to drop greenhouse gas emissions even a smidge? Yes, it all starts small, according to Hickox, who works out of a second-floor office on Chamberlain Avenue, off Bank Street. “Within three or four weeks into a campaign, when we knock on doors, a quarter of the people say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard about you.’ That recognition predisposes homeowners to listen rather than just turning off.”
Hickox says most people already know change is needed. “The age of awareness is over in the environmental movement,” he declares, adding that people tend not to change when information is the only motivator. One Change puts the means for change right in people’s hands, and it has a domino effect. People getting a free CFL bulb will, for example, buy at least five more in the following weeks. “There’s a lot of behavioural science that shows catalyst action such as changing a light bulb does affect self-perception,” Hickox says. “People model other behaviours on that change if the idea came from people they respect and if they see other people doing it.”
One Change uses data mapping to identify priority areas, based on the funder’s needs. For example, a campaign in New Jersey, funded by the board of public utilities, aimed to correct a perception problem. A conservation message from the utility didn’t resonate with residents. Who wants to give up precious time to volunteer for the power company? One Change was able to rustle up volunteers to spread the conservation message. The campaign’s success was measured by the number of doors that were opened and by the decline of energy use in subsequent weeks. The foundation measures the results of projects and had its models tested by the Academy of Educational Development in Washington, D.C., a non-profit organization that focuses on health promotion and economic development.
Judith Madill, a former faculty member at Carleton who teaches marketing in the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, says a well-designed CBSM program is like most marketing efforts: to work, it has to be based on an understanding of how people behave.
Relationships like those that start when someone answers the door to a One Change volunteer are increasingly important in marketing, she says, “because your peers influence your behaviour.” Academic research shows that CBSM does work, she says, but also stresses that changing behaviour is a complicated and slow process.
CBSM may, in fact, work best when combined with education and the law—the sale of incandescent bulbs will be banned in Canada as of 2012—the other two common methods of altering social behaviour, Madill says.
Hickox stresses that the organization is about far more than just light bulbs, even though he frequently draws on Project Porchlight for illustrations of how One Change works. A visit to the richly documented site www.onechange.org underscores his contention. It has everything from news releases to a video on mercury in CFL bulbs. (Hickox says One Change has always acknowledged the mercury danger of the bulbs and encourages their safe use and disposal.)
Doug McKenzie-Mohr has no doubt about the effectiveness of CBSM, since he describes himself as its founder, but the environmental psychologist does question whether One Change is actually employing the strategy in its full sense. He’s the boss at McKenzie-Mohr & Associates, a consulting and training organization specializing in CBSM, and a former professor of psychology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.
Some of the standard steps of CBSM include pilot testing and behaviour selection. For example, in the promotion of CFL bulbs, the behaviour you actually want to change is not the purchase of the bulbs, but the installation of them. McKenzie-Mohr gives an example of a project in Queensland, Australia, where homeowners were given CFL bulbs, but only in exchange for an equal number of incandescent bulbs. Thus, they would have to install the energy-saving bulbs in order to have light.
Responding to McKenzie-Mohr’s criticism, Hickox says: “We consider ourselves to be CBSM in practice. We do everything he recommends, just maybe not at the scale he wants everyone to aspire to. There isn’t a perfect model of CBSM.”
Hickox and CBSM seem an inevitable match, considering his lineage. A native of Charlottetown, P.E.I., he’s descended from preachers, who aspire to a better world and prefer good behaviour to bad, and farmers, who know all about small things like seeds growing into big things at harvest time. After a post-university stint with the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, where he became managing editor, he joined the Ottawa marketing company gordongroup. He enjoyed the work, but as a new father in a climate-change-challenged world, he was anxious about the future.
While searching for an Energy Star refrigerator, he spotted the statistic that if every household in the United States replaced one incandescent bulb with a CFL bulb, the reduction in pollution from energy production would be like removing 800,000 cars from the road. “That’s easy. That’s something I could do,” he said to himself, followed by the marketing expert’s question, “How hard can it be to get people to change one bulb?”
Sensing that the advocacy-driven scolding approach of the environmental movement alienates many people, he and some others formed a small local group to do it a different way. Before he knew it, gordongroup, initially supportive of his idea, was suggesting it was time to choose: it or Project Porchlight. “I’m grateful that they forced me to make the choice,” he says.
Since then, One Change has grown into a 16-person operation that can swell to over 300 on the payroll during campaigns. There’s also a full-time campaign manager in New Jersey, where the organization aims to deliver over 1.5 million CFL bulbs. The foundation exists on what it charges its sponsors and occasional grants. It recently received a two-year $78,000 Trillium grant from Ontario to develop a volunteer management strategy, and there was some early money from Natural Resources Canada.
One Change is thinking of a better way to guarantee that there’s money to work with. It has been aided by a report on diversifying and developing its financial resources put together last year by a team of Carleton Public Policy graduate students under the supervision of Edward T. Jackson in the School of Public Policy and Administration. The report notwithstanding, “All my awesome team are living on six months’ notice,” says Hickox, seemingly unfazed by the prospect.
In 2007, the team accepted $1 million from the Calgary-based natural gas producer EnCana Corporation, an amount matched by the Alberta government, and rounded up 4,000 volunteers to distribute CFL bulbs to 800,000 households in the province. Hickox and his board were aware of the bad optics in taking money from big, bad oil. But, it concluded, while there were risks, there were more risks in putting up walls between industry and their not-for-profit. (Since 2008, Encana has been the target of pipeline bombings in northern British Columbia. Last year, the province’s Ministry of Environment filed charges against Encana over the leak of potentially fatal sour gas in the same area in 2009.)
This past summer, Hickox toured the Yukon to show communities, many of them isolated, how they could conserve energy. He says he was blown away by the enthusiastic response and signed up over 500 people for future energy conservation initiatives.
Now he’s immersed in water conservation and looking ahead to new ideas.
“This little idea from my kitchen has totally hijacked me. It didn’t take long after moving to Ottawa from P.E.I. that I realized I wasn’t going to be prime minister. And that’s okay. But I also didn’t expect to be the founder of a foundation that gives people the tools to change the world one simple action at a time.”