When I first started my branding and marketing consulting company, my vision was to work with nonprofits and philanthropy. I’ve always had a passion for supporting organizations that are endeavoring to make a positive impact on the world. As I started assisting these clients, I noticed that many used language to describe their beneficiaries in a way that reinforced misperceptions or negative associations about the people and communities they intended to serve. Additionally, the language simply did not represent the way people would describe themselves.
The language we use to define people triggers automatic associations in our minds and influences the way we think and feel about them. If we are framing groups based on their deficits, our minds will only associate them with their deficits. At its core, to define a person by their challenges is the definition of stigmatizing them and can alienate the community or individuals the organization intends to help. It also does not fully represent the truth about these communities. On the other hand, asset-framing language requires you to first talk about the individual or community’s value, allowing your nonprofit to lift people up rather than put them down. This framing has also been shown to have a more significant impact in gaining support and improving programs.
What is Asset-Framing and Deficit-Framing Language?
Deficit-framing language first defines people by their challenges — “low-income,” “at-risk,” “disadvantaged,” “underserved” — and ignores their contributions. It is used to highlight a problem that the nonprofit promises to fix. This has been the go-to language to activate supporters and stakeholders to donate, volunteer and take action. In reality, the narrative creates and reinforces stigmas about these groups, and our unconscious minds see them as a threat.
Example: Our program helps at-risk youth in low-income neighborhoods stay on track to graduate and avoid becoming a negative statistic.
Asset-framing language, instead, defines people by their aspirations and contributions to society before noting their challenges and then investing in them for their continued benefit to society. If you want to make greater investments in people, talk about their worth, their goals, their dreams. Don’t ignore the problems, but don’t define people by them. Instead, recognize the larger systemic barriers that stand in the way. Nonprofits who choose to utilize this narrative style will be throwing out stereotypes and telling a more authentic and truthful story.
Example: Our program helps young people striving for an education to overcome extraordinary obstacles to achieve their dreams.
Trabian Shorters, CEO and founder of BMe Community, is the international authority on asset-framing language and believes that nonprofits, and other leading organizations, need to stop defining the communities they serve by their challenges. Shorters believes that if you haven’t tried to understand the community’s true ambitions and dreams, you have made them an object in the sentence, to be dealt with, removed or manipulated, taking away their humanity.
Once you define the community based on their deficits, you make them an obstacle and reinforce their “otherness.” This “otherness” — setting them apart from society — is degrading.
Why Narrative Matters As Much As Facts
According to Israeli psychologist, economist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, our subconscious mind does 95% of our mental processing before conscious thought kicks in, priming our conscious mind on what to consider and what to ignore. So if we hear a fact that doesn’t fit the narrative we’ve been conditioned to believe as accurate, we ignore the fact. This conditioning is why deficit-framing language is so harmful to the communities that nonprofits intend to help — the narrative is repeated, again and again, becoming ingrained in society as “facts” because we’ve been primed to believe those narratives already.
Shorters draws from Kahneman’s research and further states that “narrative is the key to how we frame our lives.” It tells us where to go, who or what to avoid, what is true and what is false. Alternatively, identity is just a piece of narrative: “Identity is the role that you play in the story that you believe is your life.”
Thus, deficit-framing language creates cynicism within the community, but asset framing language creates hope through a more accurate story of the community.
Humans are hardwired to create narratives and then make decisions based on those narratives. This narrative conditioning comes from the media we consume, government policies (e.g. war on drugs, war on poverty) and the stories we hear. If nonprofits and philanthropists want to build a more equitable and inclusive society, then we all need to recognize the role we play in the narratives we promote and begin to first highlight aspirations and contributions before noting systemic challenges. In turn, the communities you intend to serve will no longer be viewed as an object to be fixed but instead as a group with true worth.
Leeann Alameda has more than 20 years of experience in directing and implementing best practices in marketing, branding, communications and advertising in both the private and nonprofit sectors. She is the founder and principal consultant of Alameda Marketing Solutions, which provides marketing strategy and branding services for nonprofits, foundations and mission-driven businesses.