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Framing: the art and science

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors |

In 2012, a staggering 46.5 million people were living in poverty in the United States — the largest number in the 54 years the U.S. Census has measured poverty. This figure has increased or held steady for 11 of the past 12 years.

The reasons are varied, but one contributing factor resonates: Over the same period of time, incomes have stagnated or declined. And with more people earning less, the need for human services has increased, while funding for these services has not.

So what’s a hard-working social service agency or nonprofit to do?

Irv Katz, the former president of United Way of Central Indiana, has spent his career in the human service field. He is now interim president of the National Human Service Assembly (NHSA), a Washington, D.C.-based association of more than 80 of the largest national nonprofit human service organizations.

Katz believes nonprofits have to somehow change the narrative, and change the mindset of funders — both government and private — that social services are a “need” instead of simply a “want.”

In recent years, Katz has witnessed the increase in need, but he also realized that the arguments for services were ineffective and falling on deaf ears. As Congress moved to support one program, nonprofits were asked to recommend another to be cut.

“It started happening about five years ago, where the public policy council of the National Assembly recognized that nobody had any positive legislation going forward. We were just fighting to keep funding levels at best, but it was really being cut, time and time again,” said Katz.

“We’re dying a death by a thousand cuts, and we need to do something different. We need to get people’s attention in a way that citizens can go, ‘Wait a second, I believe in this,’” he said.

Katz believes current communication practices were achieving diminishing returns. So the choice was either to change course or become irrelevant. His group chose the former and is now dipping its toes into the waters of science and psychology with a concept called framing.

Katz’s group became aware of framing and the work of neuroscientists’ work to understand the brain’s architecture. What neuroscientists had learned was that new concepts as initially understood are fixed in an individual’s brain and information pertaining to the concept is viewed through that frame. Scientists also have learned that changing that initial frame is difficult.

For example, a widely held view is that funding for human services is charity. Namely, if there is enough money to go around, that’s fine. But if not, such programs are expendable. Katz is working to change that perception.

“We quite frankly thought that reframing might be a pathway out of the issues that human services were facing — the lack of recognition, the lack of attention, the lack of understanding,” said Katz. “We’re not building a frame by consensus, we’re building it based on research. So we actually went out looking for framing experts.”

Enter the Kresge Foundation and a planning grant. The idea resonated with the foundation because it had actually started a similar dialogue with grantees. In 2013, the National Human Services Assembly contracted with The FrameWorks Institute and began by researching the public’s perception.

“The research that the FrameWorks Institute really identified is that there is a huge gap between public perception and the understanding of people in the human services field. The public tended to think the individual was the cause of the problem, and the individual is responsible for addressing the problem. The experts tended to see that there was more of a societal context. These also included the very significant structural aspect, that it was literally not the individual in terms of causes and solutions and responsibility. And that’s just huge,” said Katz.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation joined in supporting this effort and together the foundations have not only supported the NHSA’s work, but helped fund a re-framing tool kit. In November, Building a New Narrative on Human Services was released. It includes a collection of framing research, recommendations, and sample communications designed to help explain the importance of human services.

While the tool kit is new, Katz is hopeful it will change the conversation.

“Hopefully people will realize this is a new and better way to talk about this whole enterprise of humans helping one another thrive,” said Katz. “I’ve been really pleased and amazed that the wonderful and positive reception that we’ve gotten almost everywhere we’ve gone,” said Katz.

NHSA is beginning to share the narrative and tool kit in workshops with state and local human services coalitions and national entities. Marketing and public policy leaders Assembly members will be introduced to the tool kit at scheduled workshops at sessions with their peers.

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