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Group Hopes To Re-Frame Human Services Using Neuroscience

By Marty Daks - November 1, 2013

Many nonprofits, especially human services, are struggling with reduced funding from government and donors. A solution to the shortfall could involve changing the way that nonprofits explain their missions. It’s a matter of choosing the right words, a process known as framing, and it can affect donors’ thinking.

The effects of the pullback in funding are evident in a national survey released earlier this year by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, headquartered in New York City, which helps organizations with growth capital campaigns, economic recovery initiatives and investing.

Among the results, nearly half (42 percent) of respondents reported that they do not have the right mix of financial resources to thrive and be effective during the next three years, while one in four reported having 30 days or less cash on hand. Further, 54 percent of respondents reported an inability to meet demand this year, up from 44 percent in 2009.

“Right now, many people see human services in a negative light,” said Irv Katz, president and chief executive officer at the National Human Services Assembly (NHSA), an association of national nonprofits based in Washington, D.C. “Some politicians lump all human services together in a negative light as ‘entitlement’ programs, or by referring to the ‘safety net’ as a ‘hammock.’ Individuals’ outlooks are influenced by those kinds of characterizations, and individuals vote, so it’s time to reframe the discussion.”

Katz and NHSA are leading an effort to re-frame the discussion on a national level.


The theory of framing

The theory of framing suggests that human decision-making can be influenced by subtle changes in presentation, instead of arguments or facts, according to Shanto Iyengar, a chaired communications professor at Stanford University who is also professor of political science and director of the university’s political communication laboratory.

Neuroscience research also indicates that when an individual repeatedly hears a certain message it can affect the “neural network” or brain pathways that house that belief. Thus, people will interpret incoming data in line with information previously stored in their long-term memory, according to the NHSA. This helps individuals decide if incoming information “fits” with their beliefs, and acts as a buffer, or gatekeeper to ensure that a rival point of view won’t gain traction.


It’s how you say it

Evidence indicates that words activate this “framing” process, according to Katz, so what a person says and the way the person says it can carry as much weight, or even outweigh, reams of facts and figures.

“The language you use when you deliver a message can make a big difference, since some words produce negative feelings in particular audiences,” he explained. “It’s better to use more positive terms that can lead to a more positive emotional response and create a better ‘frame’ in the mind of an audience member,” said Katz. “It’s better to talk about ‘solutions’ instead of ‘problems,’ or ‘opportunity’ instead of ‘poverty,’ and ‘economic security’ instead of ‘safety net.’”

While the words are important, the way they’re presented can also have an impact. One study (Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach, Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, Sept. 4, 2007) concluded that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) brochure designed to outline the facts and myths surrounding flu vaccines delivered the wrong message to readers.

Many people misremembered false statements about the flu in the CDC brochure as true, and cited the CDC as the source of their false beliefs.

“Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it,” according to the study. “Rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth.”


A formal approach to framing

Some nonprofits are polishing their communications skills by working with organizations such as the FrameWorks Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that designs, commissions, manages and publishes communications research. FrameWorks also works closely with social policy experts, communications scholars and other specialists to advance the knowledge of effective communications.

After receiving a grant from the Kresge Foundation in Detroit, Mich., NHSA engaged FrameWorks as part of a research project “to see what tools could be used to improve the way nonprofits deliver messages,” according to Katz. “We are currently comparing the way that nonprofits perceive the message and the way that the public receives it.”

The next step will involve developing words, phrases, and metaphors that nonprofits can use to better communicate, and then field-testing them to determine effectiveness.

“You can’t do this intuitively,” Katz said. “We need an evidence-based approach. This is a multi-year effort. We hope to develop language toolkits and training for human services personnel in early- to mid-2014, and then we’ll develop blueprints for specific strategies that will help the nation to achieve desired outcomes for the American people.

The issue of framing has been around for a long time. It wasn’t backed by neuroscience until roughly three years ago, said Katz.

“Until now, politics has been king,” he explained. “But now we’re finding that communication is the base upon which politics is built. So we’re trying to help nonprofit organizations to understand framing, so the organizations can better understand how to deliver the message that human services are not about fixing broken-down people, but are instead about helping people to maximize their abilities through the family and the community.”  NPT

Martin Daks is a freelance business writer based in Bethlehem Twp., Pa.


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