History of the FrameWorks Institute

The FrameWorks Institute is an interdisciplinary team of social scientists and communications practitioners who work with advocates, policymakers, educators, and funders from around the country and abroad to reframe social and scientific issues. It was founded in 1999 to expand the nonprofit sector’s capacity to use social science research to drive social change.

Its work grew from the observation of founder Susan Nall Bales that nonprofit organizations and foundations lacked access to the latest approaches in the social and cognitive sciences. At the time, most nonprofit organizations either relied on outdated thinking about mass communications or used research methods that were developed for purposes other than social change. The nonprofit sector was, in large part, applying the communications practices of the for-profit sector and, as a result, undermining its own effectiveness.

Bales set about resolving this problem. Early in her career in the nonprofit sector, she experimented with public opinion research and published several studies on how Americans view children’s issues[i]. Finding traditional polling informative but insufficient to inform communications practice, she turned to the scholarly literature on opinion formation and meaning-making. Her pursuit was guided by her long-standing relationship with Pitzer College and its strength in the social and behavioral sciences.

In 1994, Bales became director of strategic communications at the Benton Foundation, where she began to bring together prominent social scientists and leading advocates to share their work on framing, public opinion, and citizen engagement. These forums created opportunities for scholars to share their insights with advocates working on behalf of children and families, civil rights, and other issues. She became the advocates’ “designated reader,” scouring the latest research and curating it to find and highlight its implications for public interest communicators.

In 1995, Bales created and managed a conference at Brandeis University to discuss the need for a better theoretical foundation for addressing social problems. More than 140 funders, advocates and journalists attended the conference, and scholars George Gerbner and Shanto Iyengar delivered keynote addresses about the role of media and mass communication in public opinion, social change, and contemporary politics. The conference—called “Media Matters: The Institute on News and Social Problems”—was funded by the WK Kellogg Foundation and co-sponsored by the Advocacy Institute, the Berkeley Media Studies Group, and the Heller School of Brandeis University.

The outcome was An Open Letter to the Foundation Community About the Importance of Strategic Communications for the Resolution of Social Problems, published in April 1996. It concluded that “a more sophisticated and profound understanding of communications is in the direct interest of those who fund research related to the causes and consequences of social problems, human services designed to address these social problems, and public education campaigns to direct attention to solutions […] The field needs a consistent and trusted mechanism and regular forums for identifying, translating, discussing, and testing new and promising research.”

These gatherings laid the groundwork for FrameWorks. In 1998, Bales began experimenting with various approaches to communications research and brought together scholars and public-opinion experts to test and evaluate public service campaigns. That year, she published Effective Language for Discussing Early Childhood Education and Policy and managed two national campaigns on children’s issues: Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding for the Coalition for America’s Children and Whose Side Are You On with the Advertising Council. 

In 1999, a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation allowed Bales to found FrameWorks as an independent nonprofit organization. Its first challenge was to develop an integrated and fully theorized approach to study how Americans think about adolescence and to use this approach to help experts communicate findings from a major scholarly report on the state of adolescence. “This project will develop and apply a new paradigm—Strategic Frame Analysis®—to describe and explain how communications in general, and media in particular—influences public support for youth programs and policies,” Bales wrote in a widely read report with co-author Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr.[ii] “A significant part of the study will be devoted to identifying ‘reframes’ that hold the potential to help the American public value youth as an asset.”

Bales presented the report’s findings at the White House Conference on Teenagers in 2000. The work proved seminal in three ways. First, it set the precedent for FrameWorks’ emphasis on translating science and its close working relationships with experts, a theme that is mirrored in its long-standing work with the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University, with oceanographers affiliated with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and with other panels of scientists.

Second, Bales’ close relationship with the William T. Grant Foundation created synergies of impact: The foundation adopted a formal position on communications as an empirical endeavor essential to the understanding of social problems, which served as a prototype for FrameWorks’ later impacts on its partnering institutions. And, finally, the research led to a peer-reviewed paper that shared findings with the world of scholarship,[iii] a practice that yielded more than 25 peer-reviewed papers over the next 15 years. 

Bales and Gilliam continued to experiment with methods as FrameWorks grew. At the University of California at Los Angeles, they tested the effects of various narratives on public understanding and policy support. They also developed novel study designs, such as national survey experiments, to further test the effects of frames and frame elements on public understanding.

In 2000, Gilliam, Bob Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, Larry Wallack and Pam Morgan of the University of California at Berkeley, and journalists Richard Louv and Renee Poussaint signed on as consultants to consider FrameWorks’ theoretical orientation, its methodology, and its products. Bales also established an informal advisory board that included Gilliam, Larry Aber of Columbia University, Michael Pertschuk of the Advocacy Institute, and George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkeley. Soon after, Bales created the founding Board of Directors, with Robert L. Munroe, an anthropologist at Pitzer College serving as chair and members including Michael Pertschuk (advocate), John Shelton Scott (artist and educator) and Page Wilson (activist). Gilliam was named a senior fellow, kicking off another enduring tradition in which scholarly fellows contribute to FrameWorks’ applied methods and experiments.

In 2002 and again in 2005, FrameWorks published handbooks for the field of practice on framing for social change.[iv] These documents introduced advocates to new terms such as the “swamp” of public thinking, explanatory metaphors and explanatory chains, and the “value-metaphor-solution equation.” Early adopters included the Annie E. Casey Foundation's KIDS COUNT Network, which incorporated Strategic Frame Analysis into its leaders’ core competencies.

By 2004, FrameWorks had refined its early thinking about Strategic Frame Analysis into a coherent philosophy. Bales summarized her theory—and explained how it differed from existing communications approaches—in Communications for Social Good.[v] At the same time, FrameWorks was experimenting with fully developed communications campaigns. In 2000, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Washington Dental Service Foundation piloted the “Watch Your Mouth” campaign on children’s oral health in Washington State. Between 2005 and 2010, the campaign was implemented in Massachusetts and in other New England states. During this time, FrameWorks created and managed campaign collateral, including posters, brochures, advertising materials, and public service announcements on radio and television.

This work sparked a new kind of campaign practice—one in which framing research drives the development of creative communications campaigns and collateral. This process invited new and broader coalitions of partners to champion issues. Both internal and external evaluations showed substantial impact from the campaign on both public opinion and policymaking.

During this period, FrameWorks identified and convened social scientists, commissioning and directing their work on particular projects. In 2008, FrameWorks brought all research functions in-house, adding full-time researchers in anthropology, political science, and sociology. Bales then began a tradition of biannual multi-disciplinary meetings, or “conferrals,” to foster innovation and cross-pollinate ideas among scholarly disciplines, communications practitioners, and advocates. Scholars whose work intersects with FrameWorks’ theory and methods are invited to share their work and their observations on FrameWorks’ practice, and to engage in speculative innovations to improve approaches to social problems.

As the utility and sophistication of FrameWorks research became better known across the mission-driven sector, the number of organizations seeking to learn about Strategic Frame Analysis increased. By 2009, Frameworks’ partnerships numbered more than 100, with many of the nation’s leading funders and nonprofit organizations engaged in its empirical approach to communications. In 2010, FrameWorks restructured to meet the growing demand for training and technical assistance and to allow for a more intentional focus on research application.

 

During the reorganization, FrameWorks deepened its approach to adult learning and added staff to reflect this orientation. In 2012, FrameWorks conducted more than 44 workshops and presentations for funders and advocates around the country. Four years later, that number more than tripled to over 130 pear year worldwide.

FrameWorks’ research on early child development and education reform have led to innovations in narrative, with the concept of a “core story” emerging as a research and application product. A core story embeds frame elements—values, metaphors, and explanatory chains—in a coherent narrative that reorients and restructures how Americans think about the issue. FrameWorks has developed core stories for many of the major social issues of our time—from criminal justice and early childhood development to immigration and climate change.

As FrameWorks’ research circulated among scientists, interest grew in in other countries. Projects in Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom have now created cross-cultural comparisons of public thinking and frame effects. FrameWorks’ work in Alberta, Canada, with the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative has been particularly robust in its research depth and application. In 2014, in response to a growing number of training requests, FrameWorks created FrameWorks Academy, a digital platform for framing courses.

In 2015, FrameWorks was recognized with the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The award established an experimentation fund to develop new communications research methods, conduct strategic planning, and create new partnerships with universities that see Strategic Frame Analysis as a useful tool for students who will become scientists, policy directors, human service workers, and community leaders. This same year, FrameWorks appointed Nat Kendall-Taylor to the role of chief executive officer, as Bales moved to chair FrameWorks’ Board of Directors and serve as a senior advisor. Under Kendall-Taylor’s leadership, the organization is strengthening its focus on addressing overarching issues such as equity and prevention that run across social issues; innovating research methods; widening and documenting impact; and developing new learning and training tools.

FrameWorks and its staff continues to bring provocative, practical, and proven framing recommendations to advocates and policymakers working to create change. In 2016, the organization released 18 original studies on reframing social issues. Its team of researchers and social scientists conducted more than 130 presentations and trainings on four continents and in 50 US cities; and brought framing to the White House, the World Health Organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The frames that emerged from FrameWorks research shaped media coverage of social issues locally, nationally, and internationally—in stories from the Lethbridge Herald in Alberta, Canada to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the New York Times.

FrameWorks’ widening circle of partners drew on its advice to press for change on adolescent substance use, child adversity, climate change, the criminalization of poverty, human services, and more. 2017 has brought FrameWorks some of its most impactful work to date. The organization not only expanded its work to six continents, presented at TedX MidAtlantic, appeared in The Guardian, the Irish Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other mainstream publications, but it also released a significant body of research on reframing aging and ageism. This work was done in partnership with eight leading national organizations focused on our aging population. FrameWorks also worked to reframe oral health as a social justice issue. Soon, oral health advocates from around the country will be trained to apply those framing recommendations to their work.

Looking ahead, FrameWorks is more committed than ever to its mission to conduct research and innovate new research methods that support more effective non-profit communications and that have the empirical power to change the public discourse on social issues.

 


[i] National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions. (1990). Kids’ clout: Americans’ attitudes on children’s issues. Alexandria, VA: National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions. (1993). Mandate for children: Results of the first national survey documenting the attitudes of American voters to children’s issues in the Clinton era. Alexandria, VA: National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions for

[ii] Gilliam, F.D., & Bales, S.N. (1999). Valuing America’s youth: Utilizing strategic frame analysis. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.

[iii] Gilliam, F.D., & Bales, S.N. (2001). Strategic frame analysis: Reframing America’s youth. Ann Arbor, MI: Social Policy Report, Society for Research in Child Development.

[iv] Gilliam, F.D., & Bales, S.N. (2001). Strategic frame analysis: Reframing America’s youth. Ann Arbor, MI: Social Policy Report, Society for Research in Child Development.

[v] FrameWorks Institute. (2002). Framing public issues. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute. (2005). Framing public issues (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.