The Journey to Reframe Human Services – Part 2: Here’s What We Can Do Now

By: Irv Katz, Bridget McCabe, Ilsa Flanagan, Trevor Maat
National Human Services Assembly with appreciation to FrameWorks Institute 

As we move forward in the reframing effort, we’re continually asked, “What can we do now?” First, consider how we can use the initial findings talked about in the first part of this blog series. The first temptation is to play to the public’s perceptions. For example, the public perceives “well-being” in financial terms while the field considers well-being much more broadly. If we succumb to this temptation, we might frame our arguments in response to this finding in a purely financial context—presenting human services as primarily contributing to financial wellbeing, instead of projecting human services for the breadth of their contributions.

Similarly, the divide over what causes human needs changes how we present the responsibilities and solutions. The public tends to attribute all of the above to the individual–it is an individual’s fault when they land in poverty, and it is also solely due to an individual’s resilience and skills when they achieve success. However, the human service sector takes into account the broader structural context. We clearly see and understand the patchwork of services and programs that support all individuals in our communities, yet talking about individual successes alone reinforces the perception that circumstances and causes are individual. What we want to help people understand is that effective solutions are those that approach social problems with a collective or systemic lens, where human services play significant role. It is a truth all those in the human service field know, and we need for the public to understand, that most people require a range of resources to overcome challenges.

The reframing-human-services initiative will produce a Messaging Memo in summer of 2015 that will synthesize the research and offer direction for communications that the public can relate to. But in the near term, know that it is constructive to affirm the positives of human services that, in effect, counteract misperceptions.

The FrameWorks Institute has shared with us a number of tested values that are relevant to human needs/services, that resonate with the public and that can help bridge the divide. They are summarized below:

1Fairness Between Places.  We must make sure that all Americans, no matter where they live, have the tools they need to succeed. We need to be fair to all communities by building an infrastructure that will give everyone the opportunity to meet their potential. Simply put, it is only fair that every American has the opportunity to live in a healthy and successful community.

2Pragmatism. Our most important goal should be to use a common sense approach. We must identify the things that aren’t working and replace them with services that function well. If we fail to act with this goal in mind, our country will continue to use impractical approaches instead of proven techniques.

3Prevention. We can do more in our country to prevent problems before they happen. Instead of postponing our response to problems, we should use our resources today to prevent them from becoming worse. When we postpone dealing with things, they get bigger and cost more to fix later on. We would all be better off in the long run if we took steps today. 

4InterdependenceWhat affects one part of the nation affects us all. We need to give greater support to programs that get people to work together to solve social problems, which helps bond our communities together and allows us to deal effectively with the problems communities confront.

Now consider how your organization could apply these values in describing the contributions it makes to meeting human needs.  First of all, focus on the greater understanding of the human services field beyond the work of your organization.  Ford does not sell a drive shaft and a transmission, and a chassis, etc.; it sells a car.  While it is valuable to be able to describe individual programs and services, particularly those you work for or are passionate about, but it is the overall work of the organization and of the sector that we need to get across. The true value of human services is in our collective impact.  Approaching it this way, most human service organizations can demonstrate how their work addresses fairness between places (by aiding or advocating for those who live in places that lack necessary resources), prevention and pragmatism by providing upstream practical solutions, and how they enable people to connect with the community and larger context in which they can thrive (i.e., interdependence).

Starting here, starting now

Beginning to apply emerging frame aspects along the way is better for developing public understanding than waiting for a drum-roll and an unveiling of the ‘ultimate frame’ for human services.  It’s a journey, one we can take together and should bring our constituents along with us.  The adage, “people need to be a part of change to accept it,” applies here.

Share your thoughts about the concepts above, and find more of our resources here. And consider participating in the online FrameWorks Academy to increase your understanding of the concept of framing.  Here’s a link: For information about reduced membership pricing, contact Bridget McCabe (



The National Human Services Assembly (NHSA) launched a discussion in 2011 on why human services struggle for adequate funding and are little discussed or understood in the public square.  The discussion led to the notion of “reframing human services,” applying what has been learned in the social sciences about presenting the concepts and messages of an endeavor in ways that reflect reality and that resonate with the public (in an apolitical way).  Assembly members and many others in the human services field have been a part of discussions, research, and related efforts for nearly two years. 

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