Everyone should thrive. Our vision for human services is that everyone has the opportunity to thrive and live meaningful lives. Yet we are experiencing deep funding cuts and flat charitable giving that leaves human services organizations ill-equipped to address the complex issues facing their communities. This threatens the very infrastructure of our communities leaving millions in desperate conditions. The value and rich potential of human services is simply not resonating with the public.

There’s an understanding gap between what the experts know to be true about human services and what the public be true about human services. For example, experts know that there can be a host of structural issues that may cause a young child to do poorly in school (including nutrition deficits, the neighborhood in which they live, and family income) and that improving those circumstances must be part of the solution. The public, however, often has a limited view of the problem and believes that individual choices are solely responsible for how she fares in life and is fully capable of changing those circumstances. Unfortunately there are many more such gaps between practitioners and those we serve, the broader community and policy makers.


To bridge these gaps, the human services sector needs to start leading the conversation, instead of being forced to react to the bad news du jour. As a sector there is agreement that we have been left on the sidelines in the national conversation about how to attain and sustain a satisfactory quality of life for all. Now is a pivotal moment to spark a new conversation that moves us toward big-picture and collaborative solutions, employing language that appeals to a wide audience.

So, what can we do? The field of human services is seeking to build broader and deeper public support to improve lives in the diverse communities we serve. Instead of throwing darts and hoping we hit a bullseye, we are using a research-based model for public engagement developed by FrameWorks Institute. Our goal is ambitious yet realistic: we’re creating a new narrative that will do nothing less than change the policy climate for human services and ensure that everyone has the opportunities to succeed and live meaningful lives.

How can we redirect the public conversation toward more productive territory? FrameWorks’ approach – Strategic Frame AnalysisTM – offers concrete, actionable tools for rethinking our communications. We can look to this evidence base to make decisions about the strategies we all use and the stories we all tell. Frame elements – such as values that orient the public toward the common good, metaphors that help the public understand how systems and structures lead to outcomes, and narratives that establish a collective action frame  —are among the tools this approach offers.  The most powerful themes, analogies, and positioning for our field are being identified through large-scale surveys, in-depth interviews and other research with the public – sampling thousands of Americans – and will yield a framing strategy that will resonate with diverse audiences across the country.  Rather than just continuing with an intuitive approach to messaging-rolling the dice as to whether it is a message the audience is willing to or wants to hear – we will have empirical evidence about the most reliable frames to advance, and which to avoid.

This matters because these days ideology often trumps legitimate problem-solving and unsubstantiated perceptions trump facts. People are polarized, emotional, and stubborn about what they believe to be true. We’ve all experienced this! Messaging will bump up against this dynamic making it impossible to convince someone (a voter, a resident, a legislator) that your work has value, but framing will allow you to find connections and new avenues instead of roadblocks.

How can I reframe my work? We are currently conducting the final stages of research on how we can reframe the human services sector.  Look for the recommendations in Summer 2015.  In the meantime, there are insights from the early phases of research that we can all start putting into practice now.

One very practical and powerful strategy from Strategic Frame Analysis is to “lead with a value, not the issue.” It’s a truism in American politics that most people don’t think about most issues most of the time. Yet, think about how many of our communications begin as if the public is already deeply engaged with our way of thinking. Policy briefs often start with the findings of a literature review – often communicating a crisis frame in the process. Announcements of a new policy tend to begin with the name of the program and perhaps the problem it solves – missing an opportunity to establish a collective stake in the issue by tapping into a deeply held value.

The FrameWorks Institute has shared with us a number of tried and true values for communicating that are relevant to human needs and services, that resonate with the public and that can help bridge the divide. You can apply these now in your communications with your members, policy makers, and the public.  Whether you and your partners are working to help fragile families or to ensure that more children succeed or to enable more older adults and people with disabilities to live long and thrive, starting and ending a case with these frames elements will help you promote your work in a way that makes sense to people who are not caught up in the day-to-day of service delivery.

I get it.  Now how can I get more involved?
Sign up to:

Contact Ilsa Flanagan, Director, Reframing Initiative to learn more about how to be a partner in this work.

Share your work.  Let us know how you are using these frames and we may highlight you in an upcoming publication.

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