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Apr 8, 2024

The Action Lab Model: 5 Keys to Success

As part of our commitment to practicing Trust-Based Philanthropy, we support our partners beyond grantmaking by providing tailored opportunities for them to build skills and bolster their personal and organizational health. 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.

In response, we got to work planning a convening called ‘Action Lab: Messaging for Impact,’ which came to fruition last summer. 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. This was an experiment, and we knew that asking nonprofit workers and community leaders to step away from their busy lives and jobs to join us for a full day was a big ask.

Fortunately, the experiment was a resounding success! Attendees provided positive feedback; all agreed that the training increased their understanding of narrative change and that the skills they acquired would strengthen their organization’s communications. The positive outcomes have rippled beyond the event, with attendees continuing to coordinate with each other and refine their messaging in consultation with the facilitator.

In this blog, we outline 5 key elements that contributed to the success of the Action Lab, presenting it as a potential model for other funders seeking to support their partners beyond grantmaking.


1. Co-Creation with Grantees

“To us, narrative change is about changing how people think and feel about a topic, and what they do as a result.” -Participant, initial interview

The convening was shaped by feedback and input from our partners. We engaged partners in the planning process through short interviews to ensure the training met their specific needs and expectations. This included learning how they currently think about narrative change in relation to their work, and what they most hoped to learn and share at the convening.

2. Strategic Partner Involvement

“We want to learn what others are doing, including how they are connecting with their communities and telling their stories.” -Participant, initial interview

We invited our grantees from the housing, food security, and addiction recovery fields and encouraged them to extend invitations to at least one of their partner organizations for coordinated messaging. North Missoula Community Development Corporation brought volunteers from Missoula Tenants Union, and Montana Food Bank Network brought a staff member from Teton County Food Pantry. This expanded the impact beyond our circle of grantees, contributing to a broader network and collaborative effort.

3. Engaging Facilitation

“The facilitator was so great! I appreciated his way of presenting, the content/storytelling and his political background.” – Participant, post-survey

We collaborated with Jonathan Lipman, a facilitator with extensive experience in journalism, policy and narrative change to build the training, incorporating input from partners. Jonathan shared powerful examples of narrative change from across the country, including his own story of working with Jewish activists to protect Dreamers. This combined with engaging individual and group activities and his great sense of humor, made for a lively experience for attendees. (Check out this interview with Jonathan!)

4. Addressing Practical Barriers

“Thank you for making it so NICE. I felt very taken care of.” -Participant, post-survey

Recognizing the challenges of attendance, we mitigated barriers and ensured inclusivity and accessibility by covering travel expenses, offering stipends for volunteers who had taken the day off work to attend, and of course providing meals and refreshments.

5. Ongoing Support

“I got something productive from each part of the day. I want more 1:1 time with Jonathan and my staff!” –Participant, post-survey

To further the impact of the Action Lab post-event, we sought to support attendees in implementing their learnings by offering funding for continued work with the facilitator. One organization will replicate the training this year for a housing coalition; another has continued to work with Jonathan and their partners to hone their messaging on childhood hunger.


The Action Lab approach was a successful experiment in meeting partner needs and sparking impactful collaboration. We plan to build on this success and offer the training again in the future to continue to strengthen the narrative change muscle of Western Montana nonprofits.

What’s next?

If you’re a current partner interested in participating in a convening like this, or a funder intrigued by this model and wanting to learn more, reach out to our Communications Manager, Robyn Windham at [email protected].