It has become a bit of a trend of late – a positive one, in my view – for advocates and funders alike to acknowledge the significance of public dialogue surrounding a given issue, and understand what the nature of that dialogue can do to our ability to address that issue. As advocates, we all want to shape the way people think and talk about our mission. We have been taught to take a traditional PR approach to this task. Brochures have evolved into websites, Public Service Announcements into digital marketing campaigns. These tactics have their value, but the social sector is finally waking up to a more strategic approach. It starts with identifying the dominant mindset surrounding social issues, or the way the public broadly sees a problem and what it will take to solve it. Then we can incorporate consistent themes, values, beliefs, and language into our tactical messaging to navigate that dominant mindset and help shape the way the public thinks about a problem. In this way, we can make it more likely for the public to accept new ways of solving it. Welcome to the new era of issue advocacy. Enter philanthropy.
Increasingly, public and private foundations want in on this approach. Foundations can play a unique role in shaping public narrative. When considering how to fund in this space, here are six options philanthropy can consider:
Philanthropy as data-gatherers It takes a tremendous amount of research and planning to identify a dominant narrative, key messengers and influencers around an issue, and key channels through which to reshape it. This takes investment in cutting edge research like what is created by organizations like the FrameWorks Institute or Protagonist. It can go a long way in advancing this work for the many advocates around a given issue.
Philanthropy as coordinators Some social issues may have dozens, even hundreds of advocacy organizations attached to it. Often, these organizations operate in silos, especially with regard to public messaging, convinced their narrative is the one most likely to raise attention and resources around an issue. Foundations can use the research mentioned above to introduce a new frame, integrate narrative training into their grants, and create tools for the field to filter their own messaging, helping to help coalesce the advocacy field around a new, consistent narrative.
Philanthropy as organizers Often, Foundations are reticent to develop something without the input and engagement of the broader field. In this way, philanthropy can lead a process to co-construct a new narrative with key influencers in the field, building buy-in along the way and recruiting the most prominent voices in the field to be a part of the narrative development and deployment process.
Philanthropy as capacity builders There are many ways public mindset is built, and it often takes a large, coordinated investment to attempt to change it at any scale. Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to provide such an investment, and can partner with major players in the field to do so. Some examples include direct investment in journalism initiatives, film/documentary production, a robust social media strategy, a Hollywood strategy to place new frames in entertainment media, or establishing a new think tank to fill a void in research or practice.
Philanthropy as conveners Bringing together many different factions surrounding a social issue can be expensive, which is why it doesn’t happen as much as it should. Foundations can host multi-sector convenings centered around a new narrative on a given issue. Doing so can promote the intersectionality of many social issues, and perhaps even seed new advocacy networks in the process. When done well, these convenings can become a rallying point for advocates, and when shaped around a consistent, well-framed narrative, foundations can advance a new mindset while bringing the field together.
Philanthropy as evaluators What works and why? It is often difficult and expensive to find out. Foundations can fund a cluster evaluation on the many efforts already underway to sway public understanding of a given issue and can promote evaluation findings to their own networks. This could help identify where the gaps are and eliminate duplicative research reports or evaluations.
Ultimately, Foundations need to decide where their leverage lies with regard to the public narrative. It may not necessarily include acting as a public messenger, or increasing their own prominence in the field. Instead, Foundations can help shift a narrative by doing what they do best: talk with their money.
Shaun Adamec is a communications professional, crisis planning expert, and recovering political operative. He is President and Founder of Adamec Communications, which helps those who seek to change the world find their voice.