Nonprofit FrameWorks Institute applies communication theories for progressive change 

April 2, 2024



The word “democracy” is heard a lot these days, mainly in the context of Donald Trump’s possible re-election being a threat to US democracy. Democracy as a concept and a practice are promoted, by organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, and studied by, among others, authors publishing research in NCA’s journal Communication and Democracy. It also would be helpful to know, on a grassroots level, what Americans know and think about democracy.  

One organization that has been doing that is the nonprofit progressive research organization, FrameWorks Institute, founded in 1999 and now operating in both Washington, D.C. and the United Kingdom. FrameWorks, which used social scientific theories and methodologies to conduct research on 40 social issues, headlined a recent email newsletter, “A Referendum on American Democracy.” It reported that FrameWorks’ research shows that Americans tend to, “conflate democracy with the act of voting,” “think of democracy as nothing more or less than ‘what we do in the US,’” and “have patchy understandings of authoritarianism and fascism.”  

FrameWorks’ focus on what American and British citizens know and think about social issues is the basis for advising its clients, especially other nonprofits, and everyone else (including the general public) to “reframe social problems as policy issues and drive social change,” as FrameWorks’ website puts it.  

Ways in which FrameWorks helps its clients are: “Research that helps you understand the differences between how advocates think about an issue and how policymakers, the media, and the public think about it. Research that tests different metaphors, values, narratives, messengers, and other framing strategies to uncover how best to open up new ways of thinking about issues and solutions. Trainings to help advocates understand the results of this research and use those findings in their day-to-day communications. FrameChecks® that provide suggested changes to existing communications, in real time, to increase their impact and effectiveness.”  

As should be clear by now, the organization’s name and use of words like “reframe” are no coincidence with social scientific framing theory; Susan Nall Bales founded FrameWorks precisely because she believed that scholarly literature about how people think and make decisions could be highly useful for social change. Bales also observed that nonprofit organizations often had out-of-date thinking about mass communication and used only marketing-oriented research methods. Since 2000, FrameWorks has expanded from one employee to more than 40, and in 2015, it won the MacArthur Foundation’s Award for Creative and Effective Institutions (including $1 million).  

Besides democracy, 19 other topics that FrameWorks conducts research on, and makes recommendations about, are: aging, child and adolescent development, climate change and environment, economic justice, education, equity, evidence-based policymaking, families, government, health, housing, human services, immigration, international affairs, justice reform, poverty, racial justice, science communication, and substance use/addition.  

On FrameWorks’ website, when one clicks on “Education,” FrameWorks’ makes available 78 documents--“reports,” “toolkits,” and others—that it has completed over the years. Starting with the premise that many Americans don’t see education as a “public good,” FrameWorks explicitly says that its materials are designed to: “advance educational equity,” “counter efforts to privatize education,” “build demand for personalized learning,” “expand out-of-school opportunities,” “foster STEM learning,” “boost support for community schools” “and more.”  

Individual “Education” documents among the 78 available include “Advancing Anti-Racist Education,” “Making History Matter: From Abstract True to Critical Engagement,” “Communicating About Vaccination in the United States: A FrameWorks Strategic Brief,” “Education is at a Crossroads,” “Changing the Narrative on Public Education,” “Reframing Developmental Relationships,” “Communicating about Student Motivation: Challenges, Opportunities, and Emerging Recommendations” and “The Untranslated Expert Story of Student Motivation.”  

FrameWorks has developed its own research method, the name of which is the registered trademark Strategic Frame Analysis, and Frameworks’ website says that every one of its studies uses multiple research methods (although not all of them). Those other methods are:  

  • “Field story analysis that identifies the key ideas that a field wants to communicate to be able to communicate – a set of fundamental principles and concepts that they want to advance in public thinking and understanding.  

  • “Cognitive interview analysis that applies principles from psychological anthropology and cognitive linguistics to understand the prior understandings and implicit assumptions that people use to think about an issue.  

  • “Conceptual analysis that explores the gaps between the ways that those in a field understand issues and the way the public understands those issues.  

  • “Content analysis of news media that documents the ways that television, radio, online, and print news sources frame important social issues.  

  • “Field frame analysis that provides an in-depth look at the field’s current communications and framing practices.  

  • “Frame development that identifies a set of candidate frames – such as explanatory metaphors, values, or messengers – that have the potential to shift thinking in productive directions.  

  • “On-the-street interviews, a rapid-response interview technique that explores how candidate frames affect how people reason about an issue.  

  • “Survey experiments, which determine how particular frames affect knowledge, attitudes, and policy preferences.  

  • “Peer discourse sessions and persistence trials to explore how frames are taken up and used in group conversation and which have the best chance of entering the public discourse.  

  • “Usability trials that evaluate how members of a field apply frames in order to refine recommendations and build tools for communicators.”  

FrameWorks has conducted research in Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Kenya, Peru, and South Africa, in addition to the US and the UK.  

Just as FrameWorks conducts research on a wide variety of issues, using a wide variety of methods, and in a wide variety of countries, the FrameWorks staff also has varied backgrounds and skills. For instance, Andrew Volmert, senior vice president of research, holds a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Brown University and master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Yale University; he is a former instructor at Georgetown University. Bec Sanderson, research director, holds a master’s degree in psychology and philosophy from the University of Edinburgh and formerly led research at the Public Interest Research Center. Clara Blustein Lindholm, director of research interpretation for the Institute’s Culture Change Project, holds a B.A. in East Asian languages and civilizations. Jennifer John, associate director for quantitative research, holds an MSW from Boston University and now is a doctoral candidate in experimental psychology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.  

Among staff members with some kind of communication-oriented degree are Beth Fisher, administration director (BA, communication, Towson); Cameron Lopez, senior communications strategist (BA, telecommunications, Indiana); Carinne Wheedan, communications director (BA, communication studies, Texas-Austin); Ishita Srivastava, vice president of cultural strategy (BA, media and communications, Goldsmiths; MA, cinema studies, culture, and media, NYU); and Luis Hestres, research fellow (BA, communication, Sagrado Corazon; M.A., communication, culture and technology, Georgetown; MFA, film production and PhD, communication, American).  

If this spectra article is the first time that you have ever heard of FrameWorks, that probably is highly dependent on which media (and which parts of which media) you consume. FrameWorks Institute has a YouTube channel, but with less than 400 subscribers. The organization is active on X (formerly Twitter) and its Cultural Change Project is on Instagram, but it is not on TikTok and has no official page on Facebook. FrameWorks also has received very minimal news coverage by mainstream news media.  For example, it has been mentioned only four times in The New York Times and not since it won its MacArthur Foundation award in 2015.