Narrative research for nonprofit communicators: three reports from FrameWorks

Oct 14, 2021

How do narratives fit into your work as a nonprofit communicator?

Lately, I’ve had narratives on my mind – primarily thinking about the fact that the term is used often, with very different meanings. While pondering (and researching) narratives late last month, I received a perfectly timed email from the FrameWorks Institute, announcing three new research reports on the topic. Here are the links, with descriptions straight from FrameWorks.

The Features of Narratives: A Model of Narrative Form for Social Change Efforts
A model of narrative form for use in social change work, defining the elements and identifying the patterns in stories that comprise the narrative form—a practical tool for those engaged in narrative change work on poverty and beyond.

How Do Other Fields Think about Narrative? Lessons for Narrative Change Practitioners
Eight lessons about narrative from luminaries in marketing and advertising, entertainment media/narrative arts, psychoanalysis, and technology. These insights can help activists, advocates, researchers, and strategists enhance their work to change harmful narratives.

Talking about Poverty: Narratives, Counter-Narratives, and Telling Effective Stories
A synthesis of the complex body of research around poverty narratives and counter-narratives, with practical advice about how to use these narratives to create better stories—and, ultimately, create social change.

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Top-level takeaways from reading these narrative research reports

FrameWorks has asked for help sharing these reports widely, and now that I’ve read all three, I’m responding to the call. I think you’ll find these papers useful if you:

  • Would like help understanding the formal features of a narrative, the relationship between narratives and stories, and how they fit together.
  • Are interested in examples of dominant narratives that nonprofit communicators need to counter in our work – and practical insights into how to do so.
  • Would like to avoid inadvertently reinforcing harmful, dominant narratives in the way that you tell your organization’s stories.

Note: While the third paper focuses on poverty narratives, I think it offers valuable lessons for any cause communicator because it sheds light on how to put the ideas from the other two papers into practice. It caused me to reflect on how many charities’ stories – particularly those used in fundraising – can play into harmful dominant narratives. And, of course, this paper provides specific guidance and advice for those working to counter damaging narratives about poverty.

In my work as a content strategist, copywriter and storyteller, I tend to think about narratives and storytelling from a marketing communications perspective, so these reports raised several questions for me. How can storytelling work, not just to highlight an organization’s work and impact but also to counter harmful narratives? Stories have the power to humanize, destigmatize and demystify issues, but what other nuances are at play – and how much further can we go? What are the ideas, themes and beliefs we need to overcome in our nonprofit’s storytelling and communications overall?

If you have the time to download and review this recent suite of research reports from FrameWorks, I suggest that you do.

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