Don’t Say “When Did You Stop Caring About Children?” and Other Guidance for Child Advocates

Thursday, September 23, 2010

By Douglas Gould
President, Douglas Gould and Company

As state budget deficits and competition for resources mount, child advocacy groups and their funders across the country face immense challenges in mobilizing support to preserve funding for basic services and structures designed to improve the lives of disadvantaged children and youth. But even as they fight the good fight, recent research suggests that many of the messages they use and the litany of data reporting on seemingly intractable problems are hurting rather than helping their efforts.

For example, a message such as “Parents need to test their homes for lead paint” places responsibility solely on parents and makes the role of the community invisible. Our recent research shows this does not inspire support for public, systemic solutions. However, a message of “Because our community lacks adequate structures to detect and rid buildings of lead that can poison children, too many develop learning problems that hold them back” is an approach that builds individual awareness and collective responsibility.

My New York-based strategic communications firm with 20 years’ experience helping nonprofits and foundations achieve communications for change recently completed an innovative and rigorous opinion research project that boils down the Do’s and Don’ts of messages that should be used and avoided when advocating for children. Our partners were the pioneers at Topos Research and our generous supporter Child Advocacy 360 Foundation.

The recommendations we’ve created are based on a deep dive into the subject, including six focus groups and TalkBack testing among 240 engaged citizens, plus a national online survey to measure the effects of various messages on people’s support for various policies and interventions to help children. The survey was comprised of a representative 2,006 American voters.

Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Tell solutions stories that are crafted to make a strong connection to the role of the community, while keeping people focused on the big picture, emphasizing the necessity of programs, how they work, their effectiveness, and how citizens can become engaged in change.
  • If there is a “master frame,” it is the idea of community. Keep community in the forefront as both a beneficiary of and a responsible actor in addressing the needs of children. The idea of collective action is highly appealing and taps a core value of shared responsibility.

We suggest that most child advocates need to create new narratives or stories that will increase support for their programs and, therefore, are likely to increase people’s disposition to act. But remember:

  • Don’t assault people with a litany of problems or talk of a crisis.
  • When you need to talk about problems, focus on root causes, particularly weak public structures and systems.
  • Avoid focusing solely on “government’s” role. Instead, talk about the high-quality services and the public structures needed to help children and families.
  • Avoid communications “traps” that drive down support. Don’t cue up the ideas of “bad parents,” partisan politics, and other seemingly intractable problems, such as poverty as a root cause of all that ails children.
  • Keep the focus on systems, not individuals. Dramatic stories about individual children or charismatic leaders tend to distract people from learning about systems and public structures.

And lastly,

  • Make sure you talk about “effective solutions” and provide some proof that they work. This proof does not need to be heavy on statistics. Merely asserting that a program or approach has been proven effective is good enough for most people.

Our message to funders is that change is hard, but research helps us ensure that your messages move those you intend to reach. I hope to find out what you think about these suggestions. More information is available at, and I’m looking forward to your input.

Since starting his nonprofit communications firm in 1990, Douglas Gould and Company has served over 120 public interest organizations and foundations that are engaged in social change and public policy reform. Mr. Gould is the firm’s senior strategist and his practice concentrates on opinion and media research, message development, training, and the timely application of problem-solving and crisis management strategies. Mr. Gould can be reached at dgould at douglasgould dot com.

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