Skip to main content

Funding Narrative Change

The first-ever report focused exclusively on the funding of narrative change, supported by CMF members, shares the findings of a field scan of narrative change work in racial justice and health equity philanthropy. 

Mass media.

The first-ever report focused exclusively on the funding of narrative change, supported by CMF members, shares the findings of a field scan of narrative change work in racial justice and health equity philanthropy, with a focus on leading foundations, funder tables and narrative change practitioners.

Convergence Partnership’s report, Funding Narrative Change, An Assessment and Framework, supported by The Kresge Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation, outlines a framework and recommendations for funders to shift narratives via mass culture, mass media and mass movement.

According to the report, the term “narrative” is the themes and ideas that permeate collections of stories.

The report’s methodology included interviews with more than 20 foundations, including CMF members Ford Foundation and Kresge Foundation, and funder collaborative staff. The foundations selected for the report were identified as actively pursuing health equity and racial justice or related “social determinants of health” issues, including affordable housing or immigration.

The interview process was designed to uncover the issues worked on, the definitions in use, what drove foundations to incorporate or drop narrative change as a strategy and what the foundations found rewarding or challenging.

Some findings from the report include:

  • Expert practitioners are influential: While different foundations and funder tables often have different narrative change strategies, almost all are investing in experts.
  • Funders are eager to learn: Most interviewees identified as still learning and were eager to better understand best practices and prevailing norms. Some funders are feeling pressure to learn from those they have been funding.
  • Narrative change is a long-term proposition: Funders were asked how long they expected it to take to shift a narrative, and most responded between 10 and 20 years.
  • A desire for greater alignment within and across foundations: Many foundations did not have a program officer responsible for the narrative change portfolio for the entire foundation. Many program officers that were interviewed did not know who else was funding narrative work within the foundation. According to the report, there are almost no funder tables focused solely on narrative change, although there are several tables organized around a particular issue.
  • Audience is emerging as a greater focus: Funders and practitioners are being intentional about who the stories are reaching. They are finding ways to maximize the size of the audience and the reach of these stories.

The report provides a framework of recommendations that organizes investments in narrative change. The framework is divided into three narrative approaches that foundations have invested heavily in mass media, mass culture and mass movement.

Mass Media: shift narratives through journalism and nonfiction media like books and documentary films. Indications of impact include:

  • Increase in community voices and stories.
  • Reduction in racial code words. Coded language describes phrases that are targeted so often at a specific group of people or ideas that eventually the circumstances of a phrase's use are blended into the phrase's meaning.
  • Greater focus on systems, less on individuals, as a root cause of challenges.

Mass Culture: Shift narratives through storytelling in entertainment venues such as TV, film and music. Indications of impact include:

  • Increase in stories by and about groups and their experiences.
  • Compelling, empathetic dramatization of controversial issues.
  • Reduction in the number of character stereotypes.

Mass Movements: Shift narratives through new stories by organizing and inspiring collective action, art. and culture. Indications of impact include:

  • Visibility of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC)-led grassroots organizations.
  • Stories from everyday people.
  • New concepts/language go mainstream.

The report also outlines three challenging debates in the current landscape, and according to the report, if funders and practitioners concerned with racial justice and health equity could resolve these challenges, the path to greater investment and more investors would be easier.

  1. There is a lack of clarity in the relationship between strategic communications and long-term narrative change to enable greater alignment among practitioners, researchers and funders.
  2. Narrative landscapes and models need to be made available in accessible formats for faster replication, with a focus on moving, neutralizing or challenging particular audiences.
  3. There are mass culture and mass media spaces where narrative interventions are less well studied. The field would benefit from research that seeks to answer the question, “How do we know it’s working?”

Want more?

Download the full report.

Join your communications colleagues at CMF’s 50th Annual Conference to discuss what you’re seeing in your work around narrative change and more with your Michigan peers.

Explore the Communication Network's Storytelling For Good which connects you to a suite of tools and a growing community that can help you leverage the power of narrative to increase reach, resources and impact for your social impact organization.

Learn more about Asset Framing by Trabian Shorters, CEO and founder of BMe Community, which uses cognitive science to multiply the reach, appeal and outcomes of social impact and equity initiatives.