Sep 5, 2023
Demystifying ‘Narrative Change’ with Jonathan Lipman
We achieve narrative change when we change our community’s understanding of how our community works and why it works that way, in a way that benefits our strategic goals.Jonathan Lipman, narrative/change
Narrative Change has rapidly gained prominence within the nonprofit and philanthropic spheres, shaping the landscape of advocacy and social change. But what exactly is it? This concept recognizes the immense power of narratives – the deep patterns of stories we tell ourselves and others about how the world works – to influence attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. The narratives that frame our world have the potential to either perpetuate existing inequities or become a driving force for change, equity, justice, and inclusion.
Headwaters Foundation’s community-developed theory of change highlights narrative shift as a key outcome for success. Through surveys and conversations, we heard from grantee partners that training in communications, advocacy and collaboration to ‘change hearts and minds’ was a capacity-building need. This feedback prompted us to convene partners working in housing access and affordability, food security and addiction recovery for an ‘Action Lab.’ The purpose of the lab was to demystify the topic of narrative change and cultivate a strategic and intentional approach to the stories we tell about the issues we care about.
The Action Lab was facilitated by Jonathan Lipman, a narrative change expert who brought a deep understanding of how individual stories, and the narratives formed by the stories we tell, can reshape perceptions, inspire action, and ultimately catalyze meaningful shifts in society. We got a chance to sit down with Jonathan after the convening to ask him a few questions about this topic.
Jonathan, what is narrative change and why does it matter?
You can’t make serious changes to policies or programs without changing narratives. Most people are the heroes of their own stories; they are doing the thing that they think is right. We won’t win policy debates by convincing people in power that they are the bad guys. The way to move people to our side is to change their understanding of who the forces are that are operating in the world and why things are happening the way they are. That’s what narrative change is all about. We accomplish this through engaging people outside of our circles through organizing and advocacy, traditional, paid and social media, and/or direct action – otherwise we’re just talking to ourselves.
What’s the difference between storytelling and narrative change?
Storytelling is telling the individual story of an individual person at an individual time, how this person came into conflict or suffered a problem. Narrative is our understanding of how these stories fit together, how the world works. Telling stories is not enough to affect narrative change because they may just reinforce people’s existing views of how the world works. We must deploy storytelling in a way that changes people’s understanding of the forces at play in the world, and why things are happening the way they are.
Can you give an example of successful narrative change work?
An example of successful, big-picture narrative change work is the fight around marriage equality, which shifted public opinion and I think ultimately was a big part of what led to the supreme court ruling. This was a decades-long campaign involving organizing at all levels, plus lawsuits, popular culture, and more. But narrative change doesn’t have to be that big. I have seen it accomplished by a single op-ed or action. It also doesn’t mean flipping the narrative overnight. The question is can you change people’s perceptions a little bit? Doing that again and again over a long period of time is what will get us to big change.
How can narrative change drive policy change?
If we are trying to move a policymaker on an issue, we must understand what drives them, how they understand the world and how they make decisions. Narrative change work can shift the terms of a debate in a way that benefits us and our causes. If a lawmaker thinks that acting on our issue is ultimately going to cost money and be detrimental to their community, they are not going to support us. If we can reframe the narrative so that they understand that, for instance, supporting affordable housing ultimately leads to their community doing better, then they are more likely to support affordable housing.
This idea can be overwhelming at first – advice on getting started?
If you’re doing organizing or advocacy, you are already participating in narrative change. This doesn’t mean taking on more work, it means doing your existing work in a slightly more thoughtful way – pausing to think strategically about what narrative you are reinforcing with your messaging, and whether that’s the narrative you want to reinforce. The most important thing is to have the confidence to not speak in the language of existing power structures. We don’t have to! Use the language you think is right.
What do you think is the benefit of funders getting involved in this work and supporting their partners who are undertaking it?
There is so much incredible passion and expertise among the nonprofit community, and they are working so hard that they don’t always have a second to take a breath. A funder can say “I will pay for you to take a pause, give you the space, and support you as you take a moment to focus on your big picture.” Getting that permission from a funder is a huge advantage for an organization. They already know the answers, but getting the time and structured space and some guidance to help them access that wisdom can be powerful.
As we witness an ever-growing urgency to address complex societal challenges, it’s no surprise that narrative change has taken center stage in the strategies of nonprofits and philanthropic organizations. These groups understand that the most compelling stories can bridge divides, amplify voices, and galvanize collective action.
Learn more about narrative change from some of these resources:
- Bolder Advocacy is a great resource for nonprofits as they navigate advocacy and lobbying; they are available for questions and support via email or phone!
- Narrative Initiative has an excellent resource library to help social justice leaders ‘harness narrative power and create durable social change.’
- FrameWorks Institute offers research and resources on ‘how the science of framing can help us be heard and understood.’
The ‘Action Lab’ on narrative change was an experiment for Headwaters Foundation and its partners; we will continue to offer convenings on various communications and other capacity-building topics. Stay tuned or reach out to your Program Officer if you have any ideas!
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.