Embedded activists show promise in creating new climate change solutions

Corporations often are expected to have robust sustainability and climate change mitigation plans in place, and activists push for action. But corporations often struggle to make significant progress.

Research by Todd Schifeling and Erb Institute faculty member Sara Soderstrom offers insight into the dynamics that can help organizations make such progress. In “Advancing Reform: Embedded Activism to Develop Climate Solutions,” published in the Academy of Management Journal, the researchers explain how “embedded activists” can enable and advance climate change reforms.

For a corporation, both internal activists (such as employees) and external activists (such as social movement organizations) may push for change. But Schifeling and Soderstrom look at embedded activists who are not completely insiders or outsiders—they cross organizational boundaries.

In this research, the embedded activists are the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Climate Corps fellows. The Climate Corps program sends graduate student fellows to work on energy projects for host organizations—in business, nonprofit, government and education sectors—to advance climate change reforms. Between 2008 and 2016, this program included more than 750 projects in nearly 400 organizations, which range in size and level of climate change commitment—some had aggressive climate goals, and others were launching their first initiatives.

In this collaborative approach, Climate Corps fellows span the boundaries between EDF and the partner organization. They match external resources with internal opportunities for change in an organization.

The researchers studied the 2016 cohort of Climate Corps and found that the average fellow created 2.6 new solutions that the organization could implement to address climate change—beyond what the Climate Corps project proposal specified.

The researchers studied “how embedded activists integrate external resources from EDF to create new solutions for their host organizations, revealing how external practices and internal organizational contexts combine to generate outcomes,” they wrote.

According to an EDF survey, 93 percent of the host respondents said they used or implemented some or all the recommendations their fellow made. By creating these solutions, the fellows helped their host organizations become more ambitious in their climate change reforms.

Support and ambiguity

Organizational support offers resources for action, so it is often considered important in enabling change. But greater existing support for sustainability or climate change mitigation in an organization may also mean that the organization has already established the ways it will address these issues. This leaves less room to develop creative approaches—and less ambiguity.

In such situations with low ambiguity, the corporation’s stance may be “This is how we do this work.” On the other end of the spectrum, a corporation with high ambiguity may take the approach of “What should we do about this issue?” the researchers explain. 

Organizational support provides resources to act, but issue ambiguity provides opportunities to act. Schifeling and Soderstrom looked at the tension between this support and ambiguity.

“Organizations with extensive prior issue development offer many resources for activists to engage with but little space to deviate from established routines and issue understandings; alternatively, organizations that are new to an issue present activists with a clean slate but without a foundation of established issue understandings and legitimacy,” they wrote.

Schifeling and Soderstrom offered an example: “[P]ushing reforms to reduce a company’s scope 3 carbon emissions, which stem from distant causes like the actions of end users, will only be intelligible to managers that are already well versed on the climate issue. Alternatively, organizations that have built up these understandings may restrict innovative approaches, such as when they direct actions to conform to established protocols.”

Embedded activists are well positioned to navigate this tension and to balance resources to act with opportunities to act. They can bring in external resources to inform and add to internal efforts.

Schifeling and Soderstrom noted that in situations with moderate ambiguity, external resources may not be as necessary. But when the level of ambiguity is low or high, crossing organizational boundaries to use external resources is more important in creating solutions. “In conditions featuring low ambiguity, the main challenge is how to work with the previously built-up issue understandings in the organization. External resources help move the issue from ‘it’s already set’ to ‘here are new possibilities,’” they wrote.

In organizations with high ambiguity, “excessive uncertainty threatens to prevent issue development. In this context, external resources help to ‘unfreeze’ and narrow the cognitive load by tightening the issue space and building legitimacy and capacity for change,” Schifeling and Soderstrom wrote.

Mitigating climate change

This research adds to existing research on corporate sustainability and climate change, highlighting how external expertise, knowledge and tools can help corporations make changes. It points to ways organizations can introduce this type of collaboration.

“For practitioners, this highlights the importance of collaboration with [social movement organizations], professional associations, and alumni networks to empower change agents within organizations to act on climate change,” Schifeling and Soderstrom wrote.

Because embedded activists can combine knowledge of organizational opportunity structures with access to broad external resources, they can champion the cause of climate change mitigation—and create new solutions. And they can be helpful both in organizations with well-established programs and in those that have not yet developed them.

“Overall, this research illuminates how collaborative social movement organizations can propel changes inside of partner organizations by embedding activists who work to catalyze internal reforms,” the researchers wrote.