It’s time for philanthropy to demand more evidence-informed communications

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Do you feel like your organisation’s communications efforts are too often about “sending stuff out into the ether”?

If so, you’re not alone. I recently heard this sentiment expressed during a meeting of social sector leaders, and it wasn’t for the first time. Their perception— that much of their organisations’ communications work does not have a clear logic model or purpose behind it— reflects an unfortunate reality. While there are excellent exceptions, the development and execution of communications strategies in the social sector are largely disconnected from the programming that an organisation engages in to achieve its mission. Communications professionals (often outside consultants) too often do not— and are not expected to— bring the same level of rigor to their work as the programme staff do in the delivery of services.

This is a tremendous missed opportunity.

Research from diverse fields, like social psychology, behavioural economics, and political science, has greatly expanded our understanding of how the process of influence works, why we find one person or idea persuasive while another goes unnoticed, and what motivates us to action. Applying these findings to their communications could help social sector leaders achieve their goals faster by helping them understand how to frame issues in a way that brings the right kind of attention, identify the right audiences to target, and determine how they can build alliances across sectors.

Philanthropic leaders are increasingly recognising the potential of bringing the best of behavioral and influence science to bear in their communications through the support of capacity building initiatives like WithoutViolence. Although a grave problem worldwide, violence against girls and boys has typically not received enough investment from international organisations, government, business, and philanthropy to bring about real change. In 2012, research by the Bernard van Leer Foundation and Fenton Communications sought to understand how global opinion leaders from the Global North and South perceived the issue of violence against girls and boys and how those perceptions might influence their actions. The research found that while global opinion leaders agreed on the urgent nature of the problem, few could name solutions to prevent violence. Unsurprisingly, the issue also often evoked difficult emotions like sadness and guilt.

These findings presented a challenge for the field: the communications by leaders working to prevent violence against girls and boys—most commonly in child protection— relied heavily on presenting data about the severity of the problem. They focused to a much lesser extent on demonstrating through stories and data how decision makers could support concrete strategies to keep children safe—an approach that the research indicated would be more effective in inspiring investment.

In response to the research, a funder collaborative came together in 2013 to support WithoutViolence. This pilot initiative implemented a Fellowship programme to help violence prevention leaders develop more solutions-oriented communications strategies through training, capacity support, and partnership building. It also continues to contribute to broad efforts to strengthen the positioning of preventing violence against girls and boys at the global level, often through the development of “unbranded communications materials” like infographics.

WithoutViolence has drawn not only on the issue-specific foundational research, but also sought to incorporate best practices from across behavioural and influence science. For example, research shows that some emotions like joy motivate action, while others like sadness depress it. Because the foundational research revealed that violence against girls and boys evoked deactivating emotions, the team countered them by using play, positive stories and bright colours in events and engagement materials. A “behavioural science checklist” was developed to make it easier for leaders to quickly apply the best practices in their communications. For example, it highlighted that showing an individual what she will lose by not doing something is more effective in inspiring action than demonstrating how she will benefit.

A forthcoming independent evaluation of WithoutViolence finds that the Fellowship programme and other field-building activities fostered a shift toward more solutions-focused communications and, through the support for the leaders in the field, contributed to key advocacy wins like the inclusion of violence against children in the Sustainable Development Goals. It also built momentum for a common agenda, now being taken forward by End Violence, a new global partnership to end violence against children.

Evidence-informed communications are instrumental in changing the narratives around complex societal issues and influencing attitudes and behaviour. Philanthropic organisations play an important role in supporting research into attitudes and perceptions around social issues and in supporting leaders in developing more tailored and impactful strategies. As the global community seeks to make good on big promises made in 2015— namely, the Paris Agreement to combat climate change and the new Sustainable Development Goals— it’s more important than ever before.

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Joanna Mikulski is the CEO of Assemblyfor, a strategy and design firm dedicating to creating social change.

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