Reframing newsletter

Media Attention Needed, Smart Framing Required

August 6, 2020

As a recent article, “Providing a Pandemic Safety Net, Nonprofits Need Their Own,” in The New York Times illustrates, the media are beginning to recognize and highlight the negative economic impact COVID-19 and the recession are having on the revenues of nonprofit organizations across the country. The July 24, 2020 article by Nicholas Kulish describes the financial peril nonprofits face at the same time they are called on to address communities’ increased needs resulting from the pandemic. As the article notes, “for nonprofits as a whole, both revenue-generating activities and fund-raising have been hit hard, threatening their short-term operations — and ability to keep people on payroll — and their long-term viability.” Compounding these losses are state and local government budget gaps affecting their ability to fulfill their obligations to pay for services according to their contracts with nonprofits.

As the sector engages the media to convey the urgent need for the public and policymakers to support human service organizations, we thought it would be useful to provide the below guidance on communicating with the media about the need to fully fund human services during the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

  • Use the Building Well-Being Narrative to convey human services’ importance to communities – Leading with the shared value of human potential to explain why human services matter to society, compare human services to construction to illustrate their goal of building well-building, and use life cycle examples to normalize the need for human services for all members of our communities.
  • Avoid charity model framing – Painting human service organizations as “charities” leads people to think that they’re dependent on private donations alone, which can obscure the need for critical public investments. Charity framing can also cause people to focus on a narrow slice of direct services, rather than the full menu of human services that includes planning, prevention, research, advocacy, and a range of supports for people at every stage of life.
  • Refer to human services’ employees as professionals – Our partners at the FrameWorks Institute found that the public often thinks of staff in the human service sector as benevolent, kind-hearted people who don’t need to be paid as professionals. In order to fill out this image, use the construction metaphor to compare the specialists who build homes to human service professionals who have expertise and knowledge about how to best address the causes and effects of social problems in order to build well-being.
  • Propose solutions – Explain the challenge and the urgency for action, but be sure to hone in quickly on specific solutions to the challenge. Prominently and consistently articulate your organization’s recommendations as to how policymakers should address the issue, including funding programs that are currently working in your community, supporting COVID-19 related responses and adaptations, and paying contracts in a timely manner.
  • Use an explanatory tone – FrameWorks recommends using an explanatory tone in communications to prime the audience to see the solutions being offered as sensible and actionable. By contrast, taking a rhetorical or argumentative tone can lead the audience to believe you have an agenda, which cues skepticism about solutions. Avoid adversarial, debate-style and crisis language.
  • And, of course, don’t call human services a “safety net” – “Safety net” has partisan associations, and can conjure up “politics as usual” and government is inept and corrupt mindsets that can activate fatalism — or a misperception that challenges are too big, complex and entrenched to address or solve. Use the construction metaphor to describe human services as building blocks of the foundation of your community’s well-being.

National Reframing Initiative partners have implemented these recommendations with success. Reframing Network Newsletter readers will recall the Human Services Council’s Strong Nonprofits for a Better New York campaign that used these reframing techniques for messaging targeting media and policy influencers, resulting in significant policy wins. Similarly, the Seattle Human Services Coalition recently led a winning policy advocacy initiative incorporating this reframing guidance to increase the value of city human service contracts.