This initiative is a project of the National Human Services Assembly and is generously funded by The Kresge Foundation and Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Rethinking Personal Stories
The National Reframing Initiative seeks to build Americans’ understanding of the human service sector and build public will for policy and systems solutions to the challenges it addresses. The FrameWorks Institute’s communications research shows us that using the Building Well-Being Narrative is quite effective in building a more expansive, more accurate view of the human service sector. It’s fair to say that this narrative isn’t the type of story we’re most familiar with, from entertainment, the news, or fiction. But, FrameWorks advises, it’s the type of story that our field has to get better at telling.

FrameWorks’ approach to narrative draws on the groundbreaking research of Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University. Professor Iyengar distinguishes between “episodic” and “thematic” stories. Episodic stories focus on a single event, or episode. Thematic stories, on the other hand:
"...apply a wide-angle lens to the coverage of the issue – focusing on trends over time, and highlighting contexts and environments.”
Source: Episodic Vs. Thematic Stories, A FrameWorks Institute FrameByte, 2007
Like most in the nonprofit sector, human services relies heavily on episodic stories in its communications. It doesn’t take long for a visitor to any of our websites to find one. These stories highlight individuals whose participation in a program helps them overcome significant personal challenges. They might feature an individual struggling to get by, or an individual who has tremendous success despite significant challenges or barriers.

We use these stories for a variety of reasons, assuming that they engage the public, make the issue at hand easier to understand, and help us to demonstrate the efficacy of our programs and services. And they might do some of these things – but FrameWorks points to social science research that suggests they have hidden, undesirable effects as well. Focusing on individual successes or challenges actually undercuts our efforts to engage the public in broader systemic solutions.
Telling episodic personal stories walks us right into one of the human service sector’s key communication challenges, the “Individualism Trap.” As uncovered by FrameWorks in the first phase of the National Reframing Initiative, the public has a narrow view of the sector as primarily providing temporary, direct service to individuals who are in crisis. When asked why people need these services, the public points to individual failings, such as a lack of drive or will power. Personal stories, even success stories, trigger common public misconceptions about our sector by: 

  • Emphasizing the role that individual actions play in causing or solving problems, while obscuring the role of systems and institutions; 
  • Leaving out large segments of the sector’s work, such as prevention, research, and advocacy; and 
  • Focusing on direct service recipients as the sector’s sole beneficiaries, rather than illuminating the broader societal benefits of the sector’s work. 

In an upcoming newsletter, we will provide more guidance on how to tell thematic stories. In the meantime, we point you towards two fabulous FrameWorks resources on the topic:

  1. Wide Angle Lens, a free, multimedia learning module that explores the difference between episodic and thematic storytelling.
  2. Checklist for Advocates, a quick reference tool to help you determine if your communications materials are telling an episodic story or a thematic story.
We encourage you to check out a new study from FrameWorks Institute that has a lot of relevance for the sector. “A House, a Tent, a Box”: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Healthy Housing compares the public’s understanding of housing and how housing affects well-being with the expert’s understanding. FrameWorks is collaborating with Enterprise Community Partners, the National Center for Healthy Housing, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on the project. You can download the report and find out more about the project.
Over the last two weeks, the National Assembly Reframing team had the opportunity to conduct a number of workshops, presentations, and webinars in communities across the country, including:

  • A workshop and a panel discussion at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities’ National Conference in Los Angeles, CA; 
  • The keynote presentation at the Advancing Economic Security Forum hosted in Renton, WA by the Washington Economic Services Administration;
  • A webinar for Feeding America’s Collective Impact pilot communities; and
  • A webinar for Social Solutionswatch the webinar recording online

If you’re interested in bringing a reframing presentation, workshop, or webinar to your network, contact Ilsa Flanagan, Director of the National Reframing Initiative, for details.
We have a robust set of free tools to better equip you integrating this new narrative into your communications strategies.
Contact Us
For more information on how your organization can join the reframing mobilization, please contact Ilsa Flanagan at
For any questions about this newsletter or the online tools or website information, please contact Bridget Gavaghan at

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