Re-framing the Way We Talk about Poverty: Three Insights from the FrameWorks Institute

Posted Friday, November 15, 2019 at 7:59 pm

For organizations and individuals engaged in collective impact work, it is important to remain inclusive in the way you and your organization frame the issues and partners you work with. The recent FrameWorks Institute’s article Framing Two-Generation Approaches to Supporting Families offers valuable insights for framing, messaging, and shifting mental models in collective impact work.

Created in partnership with Ascend at the Aspen Institute, this resource outlines 10 framing shifts focused on advancing two-generation approaches to changing systems that support family wellbeing. The article offers a number of examples to support their recommendations through a number of communications formats and context.

While the article focuses on approaches to reframing the way we talk about family-wellbeing, it offers several insights on framing communications that challenge the language typically used in the social sector. As organizations continue to become more inclusive to push for systems change, they will need to adapt their lexicon and framing on the issues they are trying to solve and the people they work with.

While I encourage you all to read the article, below are three actionable insights to take away from “Framing Two-Generation Approaches to Supporting Families":

1.      Place 'Human Development' at the forefront of the work: explain why people matter, how they develop, and how environments influence their potential.

The article encourages readers to shift the narrative so that people think of “'the problem' as one that originates in society – not in the failures or flaws of the individuals experiencing it." One interesting way the article suggests doing so, is by shifting people's perspectives around social services from a simple transfer of tangible resources to efforts that build people's skills and social capital.

Another way the article suggests shifting the narrative is to avoid using “othering" language. Many of us combating social issues are guilty of using language like “vulnerable", “disenfranchised", and “poor" to describe the communities we hope to include into society and our solution generating processes. This language can be fatalistic, paternalistic, and create unintended consequences. The article suggests using positive, inviting, and asset-based framing around “human potential" and focusing on the approaches to achieving it, rather than the challenges that impede it.

One thing to note: terms like “human potential” can also be problematic at times because it can reinforce an image that people are only valuable if they are working to reach some prescribed level of “full potential.” Other words that can help provide that “asset frame” could be “dignity” or “respect”—words that celebrate value at whatever current state a person is in.

2.      Consider using the simplest examples and metaphors to describe holistic/system-level approaches.

Systems are complex and large; making people skeptical of changes that can be made to address their challenges. It is important to elevate the simplest of examples to avoid communications traps. If you are able to provide a simple example of how systems can be better coordinated towards a desired effect, you will be less likely to lose people to the fears of complexity and change before they buy into the idea of systems-level work.

Similarly, the article claims that metaphors should be used to foster buy-in, but challenges readers to rethink the metaphors they choose. It argues that metaphors like the “cycle of poverty" and “social safety net" are outdated, individualistic, and politicized. The authors tested a new metaphor for childhood wellbeing that equates the positive components of a child's environment to parts of a house, showing that social services help “construct well-being." When testing this metaphor with the public, people drew on the comparison to understand that well-being includes financial, social, mental, and spiritual aspects—a holistic approach to addressing childhood development.

3.      Anticipate and navigate misconceptions by looking at scientific evidence and root causes.

Most social issues have a long history that has been politicized through misconceptions and false representations, often at the expense of those outside of power. The article recommends using scientific evidence where possible to depoliticize social struggles. For early childhood wellbeing, this means discussing the science behind brain development in children and their parents in the face of adversity.

Similarly, the article suggests deconstructing the complicated web of factors that create and perpetuate inequality. This means unpacking specific ways in which inequalities “are created, reproduced, and maintained" by helping the public understand the societal causes and consequences of poverty. Instead of naming harmful policies, programs, and historical events, we must do the legwork to explain how they work and specifically affect people in the present day.

In all, the article provides those working on social issues with much to consider about the ways we communicate within our own organizations, with our partners, and to the public. As practitioners engaged in collective impact work develop solutions to influence the systems impacting wellbeing, and work towards being more inclusive, this article offers guidance on ways to change communications styles to avoid unintentional, harmful consequences.


Aligning Partners in Collective Impact (Virtual Coffee)

The success of a collective impact initiative is often tied to the success of the partnerships that make up its foundation. What can we learn from other initiatives about their practices related to building and sustaining long-term partnerships with their stakeholders?

We're talking with Marjorie Mayfield Jackson and Joe Rieger from the Elizabeth River Project, a long-running initiative that works collaboratively to restore the Elizabeth River to the highest practical level of environmental quality through government, business and community partnerships.

This virtual coffee was held on December 6, 2018.

Virtual Coffee Resources:

Presentation: Download a copy of the presentation used for this virtual coffee at the link on the right of this page. (Logging in to your Collective Impact Forum account will be necessary to download materials.)

The Elizabeth River Project was one of the 25 sites that participated in the research study When Collective Impact has an Impact. This new study, more than a year in the making, looks at the question of “To what extent and under what conditions does the collective impact approach contribute to systems and population changes?”

Listen to past Collective Impact Virtual Coffee Chats

Virtual Coffee archive

Building a Culture of Collaboration - Collective Impact Summit 2017

Posted 4 years ago at 6:56 pm

More than ever, we need spaces where diverse perspectives can unite, engage in productive dialogue, and collectively act to solve the complex social issues we face. It is time to offer a more compelling story. A story that challenges the conventional approaches, pushes beyond deep divisions, and doesn't accept fractured communities as the cultural norm. It is time for a story that brings people together on common ground, unifying our diverse identities in terms of race, class, gender and sexuality, religion, geography, political viewpoint, and so much more. A story which, most importantly, leads toward real progress in the quality of life for all of us, especially for those whose well-being is most threatened.

This is why partners from across the U.S. and North America are coming together in Denver for the Collective Impact Summit on November 29 & 30. Join together with The Civic Canopy to bring together nonprofit, business, government, philanthropic partners and community members from across Colorado and beyond to build skills and knowledge around what it takes to ensure healthy, thriving communities. Learn more and register:

Curious or want to know more? Email Follow us on Facebook for updates on speakers, announcing more this week!

Topics will include:

Framing and Communicating Social Issues in a Way that Drives Collective Action

Skills for Leading Collaborative Efforts

Deliberative and Collaborative Decision Making

Applying Equity to Collaborative Work

Creating the Space for Community to Drive Change

The Art of Listening in a Divided World

Technology-Based Tools that Faciltate Collaboration

Factoring in Human Centered Design Principles

Collaborative Process/Collective Impact 101


Mark Cabaj of Tamarack Institute, Nita Mosby Tyler of The Equity Project, and Bill Fulton of the Civic Canopy will all be speaking.

January/February Book Club PIck - Measuring The Networked Nonprofit

Posted 5 years ago at 6:56 pm

Hello, Forum members! This is our January/February discussion thread for the Forum's Social Change Book Club.

This period’s pick is Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World by Beth Kanter and Katie Delahaye Paine (Purchase links at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)

In this thread, we welcome you to share:

  • your thoughts, reflections, and questions about Measuring the Networked Nonprofit and/or
  • about your thoughts relating to communicating about your work with your stakeholders. What methods have you found the powerful?

For each person who shares their thoughts and reflections related to Measuring the Networked Nonprofit or about what you've learned related to communicating about your work, you will be automatically entered into a random drawing to win a free ebook of the March/April selection The Heart of Social Change: How to Make a Difference in Your World. The drawing for the next book will be done on February 29.

Please join us over this month and next to discuss Measuring the Networked Nonprofit. We'd love to hear what you think

At the Speed of Trust – Part 1

Posted Tuesday, December 9, 2014 at 10:46 pm

We hear a lot about the five conditions of collective impact (CI); however, the more I’m exposed to CI work the more I realize CI is as much about the intangible elements as it is about process, rigor, and outcomes. The beauty of collective impact is watching a diverse set of stakeholders, who may be previously unknown to one another, break bread at the same table – they share successes, failures, hopes and dreams for their community (however they define it). The way people work together and the relationships they build with one another are critical to success. Lack of trust can derail the best intentioned CI efforts and stop forward progress in its tracks. The recent SSIR article, Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact, reminds us that “real change only happens at the speed of trust.”

The Importance of Trust in Collective Impact

This certainly reflects my own work in South Dallas to facilitate a community revitalization collective impact effort. This initiative marries a grassroots approach with formalized systems players to encourage social change in five focus areas – economic development, education and schools, health, housing, and safety and security. Working at a grassroots level gives a whole new meaning to trust building with different types of stakeholders – from residents to community partners to the funder and the Backbone organization. I’ve learned it’s easy to underestimate its importance, but building trust is an essential (not optional) activity in small and under-resourced communities, like South Dallas, that often have a history of misgivings – and it doesn’t happen overnight.

In small communities, relationships have deep roots – community leaders and residents have worked and lived together for decades and have intimate knowledge of one another. At its best, those relationships promote a “we’re all in this together” mentality which supports change and propels the work forward. At its worst, toxic relationships and mistrust spread like a cancer and prevent partners from working together, stalling forward momentum. And sometimes egos and self-preservation overshadow the purpose of the work, particularly in resource constrained environments. In the temptation to take credit versus build credibility, the common vision and greater good are easily lost.

Building Trust in South Dallas

These were valid concerns when I initially started working in South Dallas. It didn’t take long to discover that many stakeholders had a history of complicated interactions that contributed, in part, to halt forward momentum in previous community revitalization attempts. However, nine months later, the spirit of cooperation among major players has increased so significantly that territoriality has diminished to the point that it no longer hinders working together for the common good of the entire community.

With this in mind, many in South Dallas believe bringing people to the same table should be considered a win, especially if we think of it as a building block toward the CI tenets of continuous communication and mutually reinforcing activities. The interaction I’m witnessing in South Dallas is unusual and perhaps even unprecedented. The constructive dialogue among community stakeholders to more intentionally partner and align efforts – through serving on the leadership teams of each other’s initiatives and working towards common goals – simply wasn’t happening a year ago. Partners have established a level of cooperation that so far seems genuine and productive.

Next week, I’ll discuss a few approaches we used to build that trust in South Dallas – approaches that you can use in your own communities and collective impact initiatives.

Read At the Speed of Trust Part 2

Relearning the Two-Step of Conversation and Meeting

Posted Thursday, November 6, 2014 at 6:07 pm

An earlier version of this essay was first posted to Philanthropy Northwest.

Paul Schmitz’s recent essay makes a strong case that “collective impact efforts must be as rigorous about culture as they are about data and strategy.” His five recommended practices—collaboration; inclusion; community engagement, continuous learning; integrity—all seem related to my observation that conversation is the missing secret sauce in forging community-based sustainable change.

Collective impact efforts risk being saddled with the unexamined baggage of much of our current institutional giving. Philanthropy can be so hidebound, risk-averse and endless meeting-oriented because it has largely forgotten the step of conversation that is essential to the dance of informed forward motion.

Before I sing the praises of conversation, I want to recognize how the professionalization of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors over recent decades has brought a welcome shift towards evidence-based accountability. Thanks to our more rigorous use of data, we know better what to stop doing, when to switch strategy and when to double-down. But somewhere along the way, we have lost our ability to listen and align because our emphasis on what's measurable has caused us to slight the dialogue and shared sense-making that are essential to sustainable community. Building and maintaining trusted relationships and networks across difference are not “nice things to do” – they are common sense and glue, the user testing and iterative calibration essential but too often missing from the shiny new initiatives philanthropy engineers without enough front-line input and then too often implements without  reality-checks from the target communities.

I have been exploring a concept that caused a wide swath of “creative disruption” in my world view. While I was copacetic with philanthropy moving from “doing to” → “doing with,” I was shaken by my resistance to the notion that the next evolution in giving might be “doing with” → “doing as.” How might this shift in mindset to shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration change the longstanding power dynamic inherent in “giver” and “grantee”? If we were to view ourselves as community members all working towards a common goal, what would become of the reductionist  “othering” we often use to railroad a way forward in complex systems? I began asking groups I was working with -- especially funder collaboratives -- what “doing as” could mean to them and why it might be a useful distinction.

“Doing as” reflects both the increased intimacy and ownership collective action promises. Parker Palmer, the noted educator, speaks of how groups that have fluency with their own identity—the “who” and “why” of their shared cause—can iterate and prototype more deftly than groups that are only comfortable functioning at the level of action — the “how” and the “what.” We have all been in too many meetings that degenerate into pissing matches of opinion because we haven’t taken the time to clearly articulate a common ground of shared beliefs, tone and approach. In a recent retreat discussion with a group that had been meeting for six months in a county-wide collaboration to reduce poverty, five of the eleven leaders present spoke for the first time of how they had grown up in or experienced poverty as an adult, acknowledging that this experiential expertise meant they were “doing as” and well as “doing with.” This is the kind of foundational information that meetings rarely elicit, but conversation can reveal, building authentic trust and leveraging difference in pursuit of the common good.

I hope that building our muscle and facility for conversation will help us correct our inclination in philanthropy to privilege experts and forecasted results over on-the-ground community knowledge and the real-time course-correction any project unearths with implementation. We can’t build stronger communities without finding new ways to include and unleash innovation and ownership from the entire system—bottom up, fringe in, center out— especially as the increasing stratification of our society exacerbates this tendency to create needy “others” to be done to instead of “neighbors” to be done with and as. Innovation and game-changers often spring from co-sensing and co-creating — the loose connections and unlikely bedfellows of conversation.

One next step would be to risk starting your next meeting with an aligning soupcon of conversation, perhaps a go-round of participants with an open-ended question like the following:

  • What season are we in? Does everyone agree whether we’re planting or harvesting?
  • What would ensure our failure? Think of this as a pre-mortem inquiry, a way to playfully tease out the biggest threats to a shared enterprise
  • Heresy hoe down Invite in a little creative disruption by asking those around the table to skewer one piece of conventional wisdom or orthodoxy they no longer believe in
  • Blind faith bets Invite in risk pursuit by encouraging participants to champion those things in which they have beyond-rational belief or would double-down on investing in based on trusting their gut sense.


Aligning Collective Impact Initiatives

Communities can suffer from too many initiatives, creating overlap, inefficiency, and frustration. This piece explores how to align multiple coalitions into a system collective impact initiative.


This is part of a compilation of nine new articles about collective impact. Sponsored and curated by the Collective Impact Forum, Collective Insights on Collective Impact, which appears in Stanford Social Innovation Review's fall issue, shares cutting-edge thinking from 22 practitioners, funders, community organizers, and thought-leaders.


November 5, 2014 - Too Much Collective, Too Little Impact


  • Merita Irby, co-founder and chief operating officer, the Forum for Youth Investment
  • Polly Lusk Page, executive director, Northern Kentucky Education Council
  • Karen Pittman, president and CEO, the Forum for Youth Investment

Learn more and register.

Online Project Management Software/Communications Dashboard

Posted 7 years ago at 6:56 pm

Hello all, I'm looking for two things:

1. Is anyone using 'project management' software of any kind to share messages, calendars/timelines, documents that multiple partners might be working on, and as a place to have a home for the many documents and agreements created in Collective Impact work. If so, can you share what it is, whether or not your partners are actually utilizing it, and how you secured buy-in? I've used Basecamp before for a non-CI effort, but I'd like to find a real-life example for a CI effort.

2. Have you developed a 'communications dashboard' (might also be referred to as a 'communications plan') that gets really, really into the weeds about how you're managing the continuous communication piece as a backbone?

Thanks so much!