History of the FrameWorks Institute

The FrameWorks Institute was founded in 1999 to advance the nonprofit sector’s communications capacity by identifying, translating and modeling relevant scholarly research for framing the public discourse about social problems.

Its work grew from the observation of founder Susan Nall Bales that the nonprofit sector lacked access to the latest approaches from the social and cognitive sciences, and that this impaired its effectiveness in using communications as a tool for science translation and social change.

During her career in the nonprofit sector, Bales had experimented with public opinion research, publishing a number of studies of 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 informed by her long-standing relationship with Pitzer College, and its strength in the social and behavioral sciences.

Beginning in 1994, when Bales served as Director of Strategic Communications at the Benton Foundation, she had begun to bring prominent social scientists together in discussions with leading advocates. Piggybacking on the American Political Science Association conventions in Washington, D.C., or other local convenings of noted researchers, Bales used the Foundation’s resources to create forums where scholars working on framing, public opinion and citizen engagement could share their insights with policy advocates working on children’s issues, civil rights and other issues. As one advocate remarked at the time, Bales became the advocates’ “designated reader,” curating the latest research that had implications for practice. In 1995, Bales created and managed “Media Matters: The Institute on News and Social Problems” held at Brandeis University with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, co-sponsored by the Advocacy Institute, Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Heller School of Brandeis University. Over 140 funders, advocates and journalists came together to discuss the need for a better theoretical foundation for addressing social problems. Scholars George Gerbner and Shanto Iyengar keynoted the conference.  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. Among its conclusions: “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.”

By the summer of 1998, Bales had started experimenting with various approaches to communications research, resulting in a number of publications, such as Effective Language for Discussing Early Childhood Education and Policy (Benton Foundation, 1998). As she 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 — she brought in scholars and public-opinion experts to test and evaluate the effects of public service advertising.

In 1999, a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation allowed Bales to found the FrameWorks Institute 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 work with a group of experts who wished to communicate findings from a major scholarly report on the state of adolescence. “This project will develop and apply a new paradigm — Strategic Frame Analysis[ii] — to describe and explain how communications in general, and media in particular — influences public support for youth programs and policies. A significant part of the study will be devoted to identifying potential ‘reframes’ that hold the potential to help the American public value youth as an asset,” wrote Bales and co-Principal  Investigator Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr.[iii] Bales presented the research 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, and with oceanographers affiliated with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Second, the close relationship with the funder created synergies of impact, as the William T. Grant Foundation adopted a formal position on communications as an empirical endeavor essential to the understanding of social problems, a prototype for FrameWorks’ later impacts on its partnering institutions. And, finally, the work resulted in a peer-reviewed paper that shared findings with the world of scholarship,[iv] a practice that was to yield 23 peer-reviewed papers by 2015. 

Bales and Gilliam continued to experiment with methods as the Institute took off. Using a laboratory at UCLA, they adapted media effects research pioneered by Gilliam and his colleague, political psychologist Shanto Iyengar, to test the effects of various narratives on public understanding and policy support. Novel experimental surveys were designed to further test frame effects. In 2002, and again in 2005, FrameWorks published handbooks for the field of practice — Framing Public Issues.[v] These research and applied documents began to introduce advocates to a new language of communications, with concepts like the “swamp” of public thinking, frame elements including values and explanatory metaphors, and the value-metaphor-solution equation, among others. Early adapters included the Kids Count Network, which, with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, began to incorporate Strategic Frame Analysis™ into its leaders’ core competencies.

The theoretical orientation of the Institute was considered at an important meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel in March 2000. Scholars Frank Gilliam, Jr. (UCLA), Bob Lichter (Center for Media and Public Affairs), Larry Wallack and Pam Morgan (University of California, Berkeley) joined journalists Richard Louv and Renee Poussaint, and consultants to the Institute. The group reviewed FrameWorks’ then-ongoing projects on adolescence, global issues and violence prevention as a way to critique evolving methods and evaluate the suitability of products for the field of practice. Bales established an informal advisory board to confer with the nascent Institute on work-in-progress while a formal Board of Directors was formed. This group included Frank Gilliam, Jr. (UCLA), Larry Aber (Columbia University), Michael Pertschuk (Advocacy Institute) and George Lakoff (University of California, Berkeley). The founding Board of Directors was soon established with Robert L. Munroe (Anthropologist, Pitzer College) as chair and members as follows: Michael Pertschuk, John Shelton Scott (artist and educator) and Page Wilson (activist). Frank Gilliam, Jr. was named a Senior Fellow with the Institute, establishing another enduring tradition at FrameWorks, as working scholars contribute to applied methods and experiments supported by the FrameWorks Institute.

By 2004, FrameWorks had codified its early thinking about Strategic Frame Analysis™ into a coherent taxonomy of communications approaches, published by the Foundation Center as Communications for Social Good.[vi]   At the same time, FrameWorks was experimenting with fully developed campaigns, beginning with the “Watch Your Mouth  ” campaign on children’s oral health, piloted in Washington State in 2000 and fully implemented in Massachusetts and several other New England states between 2005 and 2010. A new kind of campaign practice evolved, in which framing research drove the creative which, in turn, inspired new coalitions of partners to champion an issue. FrameWorks created and managed campaign collateral from posters and brochures to outdoor advertising and public service announcements. Sounding another theme that endures, both internal and external evaluations showed substantial impact from the campaign on both public opinion and policymaking.

Over the years, numerous consultants have contributed to the work of the Institute. FrameWorks takes pride in its practice of naming them as authors of FrameWorks reports, even as it recognizes that all FrameWorks products are collective in nature, with every report vetted by numerous co-contributors who remain unnamed. The practice of using external consultants, however, soon ran its course, as FrameWorks struggled to innovate methods and to integrate perspectives across disciplines in ways that were truly interdisciplinary. In an effort to ground its work in a more coherent theoretical base, FrameWorks began, in 2007, to produce Working Papers that document the scholarship that informs Strategic Frame Analysis™. Beginning with its study of cultural models and continuing to include explanatory metaphors, values, emotion, etc., FrameWorks staff routinely document the state of scholarly thinking and research on a topic related to public thinking, and present these papers to colleagues.

In 2008, FrameWorks brought all research functions in-house, adding full-time researchers in anthropology, political science and sociology. A vibrant conferral system was established to allow for extensive cross-disciplinary collaboration through biannual meetings, with 10 conferrals hosted by 2014. Scholars whose work intersects with FrameWorks’ theory and methods are invited to share their work, their observations on FrameWorks’ practice, and to engage in speculative innovations to improve approaches to social problems. By 2009, FrameWorks’ partnerships numbered over one hundred, with many of the nation’s leading funders and NGOs engaged in this empirical approach to communications.

In 2010, FrameWorks reorganized its functions into four units: research, learning, public presentation and interpretation. While research had long been at the heart of its practice, the Institute remained committed to its original vision of delivering useful, practical advice for front-line communicators. In 2012, it brought an adult-learning pedagogical orientation to its learning unit, and reorganized staff to reflect this goal. That year, FrameWorks conducted more than 44 workshops and presentations for funders and advocates. By 2014, that number had more than doubled to 95.  Its data base now includes roughly 150,000 informants.

FrameWorks’ in-depth research on early child development and education reform have led most recently 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, explanatory metaphors, causal series — in a coherent narrative that is tested for its ability to reorient and restructure how Americans think about the major issues of our time — from education to criminal justice, and early childhood development to immigration. It has the salutary effect of building coalitions that can use the flexibility of the explanatory story to unite a wide range of policies.

As FrameWorks’ research was shared in science circles, international interest soon grew in bringing its Strategic Frame Analysis™ method to bear on many of the same social issues in other countries. Projects in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany and the U.K. have now created cross-cultural comparisons of public thinking and frame effects. FrameWorks’ work in Alberta, Canada, with the Alberta Family Wellness Institute   has been particularly robust in its research depth and application.

In 2014, in response to a growing number of requests for training in Strategic Frame Analysis™ and the topical research results it produces, the Institute created FrameWorks Academy, a digital platform for master framing courses, allowing it to spread its influence beyond geographic constraints. An introductory course and a course on framing aspects of K-12 reform were soon made available to the public, and courses on early childhood development, public health and the environment were also in use by networks of advocates, researchers and government agencies. As it entered 2015, FrameWorks was poised to unveil public courses on the communications aspects of human services, immigration and more.

By 2015, having outgrown its space with 17 full-time staff, FrameWorks renovated a floor of a building in downtown D.C.

The announcement of FrameWorks as one of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s effective and innovative institutions (MACEI Award) will allow FrameWorks to ensure its financial security, innovate research and learning practices, experiment with new governance structures, and enhance its curricular offerings to the now-numerous academic institutions that see Strategic Frame Analysis™ as a useful tool for students who will become public scientists, policy directors, human service workers and community influentials. In these anticipated developments, as in its recent history, FrameWorks remains true to its dual mission: to experiment and innovate in research that supports public problem-solving, and to help those who must explain social problems do so with confidence in the research base that informs their public outreach.

[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 the Coalition for America’s Children.

[ii] Subsequently trademarked by the FrameWorks Institute.

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

[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..

[vi] Bales, S.N., & Gilliam, F.D. (2004). Communications for social good. Washington, DC: The Foundation Center.