Andrew Skudder / Safety Net

March 27, 2018; Governing

The term “safety net” is out for the largest groups that represent the nation’s human services sector, the result of an extensive reframing initiative conducted by the National Human Services Assembly. What’s in? The “Building Well-Being Narrative,” an “overarching story” and extensive toolbox intended to “build public understanding of human services to encourage more vibrant civic participation and deepen support for effective programs.” The newly developed narrative leads with a value (“human potential”), relies on a “construction” metaphor to convey that well-being is built through social supports, and uses “Life Cycle” examples to underscore that all people need support in different ways at different points in their lives.

Framing, the belief that how we make decisions is shaped by the tone, messenger, metaphors, order, and solutions used when communicating about issues, is now a critical tool in an advocate’s arsenal and an arena where progressive thought leaders and funders believe the social sector needs to grow in sophistication and strategy. NPQ recently announced its partnership with FrameWorks, a pioneer of using social science research to reframe social justice issues, to generate a series of columns about these potent communication strategies. Other key players in this field include the Opportunity Agenda, Anat Shenker-Osario, and Topos Partnership, all of whom bring an interdisciplinary approach, prioritize partnering with key nonprofit organizations, and produce dissemination tools.

  • The Opportunity Agenda focuses on “values-based messaging”—a set of seven values (opportunity, mobility, equality, voice, redemption, community, and security)—and the power of stories, “perhaps the single most powerful asset that the social justice movement has.”
  • Anat Shenker-Osario (ASO Communications) worked with the Center for Community Change for two years to “revolutionize the way we talk about poverty” with these three dictates: “Don’t take the temperature, change it; What you fight, you feed; and Engage the base, persuade the middle.”
  • Topos Partnership emphasizes that stories must tell the “big picture” rather than supply “close-up portraits of individuals…that when treated as a main focus of communications, almost always works against building support for progressive policy change.”

FrameWorks, the Opportunity Agenda, ASO Communications, Topos Partnership, and other experts all bring a deep belief that reframing can fundamentally change public perception about social issues. But what does success look like, particularly in this political moment? How do we know if our reframing campaigns are effective and our resources are well spent? How long does it take for a narrative to transition and then be reflected in the ballot box and policy?

One documented win for rebranding is the fight for gay marriage, where a major factor in successful ballot fights in Maine, Minnesota, Washington, and Maryland was an “overhaul in the message used to win over voters” from a focus on the rights and benefits of marriage to the essential human need for love and commitment. Similarly, a Washington Post commentator attributes the success of marriage equality to proponents’ focus on changing culture through messaging and social rituals.

But we’ve yet to see similar seismic shifts with other social issues. The Reframing Initiative of the National Human Services Assembly cites the following accomplishments as examples of 2017 reframing successes: The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities used the full Building Well-Being narrative to define and justify its policy priorities; One Voice Central Texas changed how it talks about the vulnerable population it serves; and the Human Services Council of New York updated its mission statement, shifting from human services helping people in need to human services benefiting all New Yorkers.

Indeed, these are reasonable ways to measure the early efforts of a broad reframing effort. But what about moving from benchmarks to real impact? Can we make a marked dent in other critical issues—how we perceive race, poverty, immigration, climate change, disability and criminal justice, to name a few? It’s certainly good news that our sector is getting smarter about effective communications and the power of framing, but how powerful will it be?—Deborah Warren