The way nonprofits and foundations sometimes communicate about the people and communities they serve undermines their own goals and values.

“Asset framing” instead defines people by their aspirations and contributions before acknowledging the challenges that they face.

Defining people by shared values is one form of asset framing. The people you work with will see themselves reflected in positive, affirming ways and others can be encouraged to see them in a new light.

At the Independent Sector’s Our Common Future conference in Detroit, a standing-room-only crowd of nonprofit and foundation professionals gathered for a session titled “Aspire to Inspire?” to learn about the art and science of aspirational communication. I co-led the session with Ben Evans, managing director of BMe Community, which works to “build caring and prosperous communities inspired by black men.”

Most of the people in the room had dedicated their careers to serving people and communities. Ben walked us through a powerful exercise, which demonstrated that the way nonprofit and foundation professionals communicate about those people and communities might actually undermine our very goals and values.

He asked us to stand up if we’d ever heard that the black poverty rate is very high. Everyone stood. He asked us to raise our hands if we’d heard that the black and Hispanic high school dropout rate is high. Every hand went up. He said to look around the room if we knew that black unemployment rates are far above the national average. Everyone looked around at a room packed with people of different races and ethnicities, all standing with their hands raised.

We knew all those negatives. The statistics he was referring to support a dominant cultural narrative about men of color in America. Ben described it as a narrative of economic and educational failure that positions men of color as burdens on society.

Next he tested our knowledge about a different set of facts. He said to give a neighbor a high five if we knew the number of black millionaires in America. Nary a clap was heard. He said to dap a neighbor (aka bump fists) if we knew how many black and Hispanic men attended college. No fists bumped. He said to hug someone if we knew the number of black-owned businesses. One woman hugged a neighbor.

The lesson? “You can tell the story of black people as deficits, problems and threats in great detail. But when it comes to the story of black and brown people as assets and achievers in society you’re empty-handed.”

BMe calls this “deficit framing.” It’s not always intentional, but it has deeply negative consequences for the way people of color are perceived—and treated—in our society.

About those positive facts Ben alluded to earlier? At last report, there were 110,000 black millionaires in America. One third of black and Hispanic people ages 18 to 24 attend college. There are 2.6 million black-owned businesses (nearly 60 percent of them owned by women)—and black Americans are creating new businesses at two times the national rate.

Defining people by their achievements is one form of “asset framing,” in BMe’s terms. “Asset framing is defining people by their aspirations and contributions then acknowledging the challenges—which extend beyond them—and investing in them for continued benefit to society,” Ben explained.

“To define a person by their challenge is the definition of stigmatizing them,” Ben told the stunned crowd.

How you can tell a different story

Ben showed participants a list of words commonly used by nonprofits and foundations to describe people and communities: low-income, high-need, at-risk, underprivileged, underserved, disadvantaged, poor, failing, behind. The crowd cringed.

These words are meant to be descriptive, not pejorative. But when used to describe people and communities, terms like these activate negative associations in the minds of listeners. (We wrote about this dynamic in a previous post, “How ‘othering’ language can hurt your cause.”)

This type of language creates a narrative that positions the people as the source of the problem and suggests they need to be “fixed.” It draws attention away from the obstacles that keep them from reaching their full potential. It suggests they don’t have a role to play in solutions.

I asked the participants in our session to write down words describing people involved in their organizations. I directed them to think not only about the people who work for their organization, but everyone who benefits from their programs and contributes to the cause.

Then we looked at an American Aspirations survey of U.S. adults, who were asked to rate how important a series of personal values were to them, on a scale of 1 to 10.

Many found that the positive words they used to describe their people and communities reflected values shared by the vast majority of Americans: responsible, loyal, hard-working, family-oriented, compassionate, self-reliant, generous, strong.

Defining people by values like these is one form of asset framing. The people you work with will see themselves reflected in positive, affirming ways. They’ll know you “get” them, value them as partners, and see them as leaders and builders. What’s more, you might encourage others to see them in a new light. You can drive a new narrative about your cause—and motivate more people to support the work.

To illustrate, Ben showed a comparison between two statements describing the same organization. Here’s the first one:

“Our program helps at-risk youth in high-crime neighborhoods stay on track, graduate high school and avoid becoming a negative statistic.”

Ouch. The adjectives describing young people and their neighborhoods activate negative stereotypes. The goals (“stay on track” and “avoid becoming a negative statistic”) are not aspirational at all. The message it sends to young people? You’ve got problems. We don’t expect much of you.

Here’s the alternative:

“Our mission is to equip young people who are hungry for an education to overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams for themselves and society.”

This language focuses squarely on the aspirations of the young people—and the fact that they not only want to get ahead, but also want to make a contribution.

You might want to take BMe’s advice and look with fresh eyes at your organization’s mission statements and other language you use to define and describe people and communities. Do your words inspire or stigmatize people?


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