Measuring progress. Inspiring action.

February 2014

This article is reprinted from Philanthropy Potluck, February 17.

Don't Just Scare, Inspire

Chris OienBy Chris Oien, Minnesota Council on Foundations

Last week, I had the chance to attend the annual meeting of Minnesota Compass, the premiere source of social indicators that measure progress in our state. With a theme of Minnesota Next: Millennials, Leadership, and the Information Economy, the gathering included presentations by MCF President Trista Harris and Jennifer Ford Reedy, president of the Bush Foundation.

Where is Our Emphasis?

Reflecting a week later on what was discussed, what has really stuck with me are some of the points made by Reedy in her talk about what we choose to emphasize and what we don't.

Quick: What's the trend in serious crime over the last 20 years? Would you guess that it's gone down over 40% in that time? Most Americans wouldn't, as polls consistently show that people overwhelmingly believe that crime is on the rise.

It's no mystery why this would be the case: sensational stories of crimes inflicted on innocent people play a lot better than a story about how things are better today than yesterday. If it bleeds, it leads. The result of that mentality is a public left scared and unaware of the strides made toward a safer country.

A Challenge to the Sector

After laying this out for us, Reedy challenged us to consider the role the nonprofit and advocacy communities play in hyping negative stories. “There are a lot of us in this room who use data to make the case for policy change or to make the case for people to fund us. To do that, we need the data to look bad,” she said. Not only that, but we can get into a competition for whose data looks the worst.

When we engage in this race to the bottom and send so many negative messages about the issues we work on, Reedy cautioned, we may be collectively overwhelming and paralyzing the public into a feeling of hopelessness about what we can accomplish.

She wants us to reframe these conversations to focus on hope and to inspire people to action rather than just scaring them about how bad things are.

A conversation I had with a Wilder Research staff member after the event hammered home the point that Reedy was making. Minnesota's achievement gap between white students and students of color has been highlighted by many of us over the years, including on this blog. But did I know, she asked me, that the latest data shows Minnesota making significant progress in narrowing that gap? I did not, but it sure made me feel better about all the efforts I know are going on right now to make sure that happens!

See for Yourself

Resources from the annual meeting are available on the Compass website, including the full talks by Trista Harris and Jennifer Ford Reedy. Check them out for yourself, and see if you too find yourself nodding along and thinking about how to frame your messages positively.

- Chris Oien, MCF digital communications specialist