Moving Mindsets


I often counsel collective impact teams that our ability to create narrative is one of our most powerful tools. Weaving a story that captures the challenges and the promise of community change can help us make sense of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go. Yet, constructing a narrative that is informative and inspiring, and can move our work forward in a good way, can be a challenge.

Few organizations are as helpful in equipping us as storytellers and communicators as FrameWorks Institute. FrameWorks studies how people understand issues and develops techniques that lead to more productive conversations on issues such as racial and economic justice, health equity, climate change, and immigration. As FrameWorks’ Julie Sweetland said during her presentation, Moving Mindsets: How to Shape a Strategy, during the 2022 Collective Impact Action Summit: “You name it, we frame it.”

I’ve relied on FrameWorks’ research for many years, from leading consumer healthcare campaigns in New England to expanding childcare access in the Rocky Mountains, and so I was delighted to learn about the recent research FrameWorks conducted in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on how mindset shift relates to policy change.

Mindsets are our deep, assumed patterns of thinking. They are often implicit, and shape the way we see the world. As I recently wrote in Illuminating Collaborative Leadership, being aware of our mindsets, and “mindful” of others’ is critical to guiding collective impact initiatives.

Frameworks’ research shows that mindsets can change, and with it, policies and practices. Examples from history include the Great Depression, which shifted the way the public viewed the role of government, and same sex marriage, which reflects a shift in attitudes about gender and sex. This is a moment in time, Sweetland said, as our communities emerge from the worst of the pandemic, that shifts in mindsets can lead to transformative change.

Sweetland offered four considerations when considering a strategy to shift mindsets.

Know WHOSE mindsets you need to change

If we hope to shift public policy, we need to focus on the public, not just the policymakers. The way in which the public views an issue affects the context that policymakers navigate. Further, a shift in the public’s perspective tends to be durable, which insulates against changes in leadership.

Know IF your issue calls for moving mindsets

Moving mindsets requires intensive resources, patience, and coordination over a long period. If our goal is to advance a specific issue, such as a piece of legislation, striving to shift public mindsets isn’t necessary. Sweetland cited the modern environmental movement as an example of moving mindsets. Multi-year, multifaceted strategies led by many partners in many sectors, the environmental movement seeks to shift the fundamental relationship between humans, nature, and industry.

Mindsets are NOT just attitudes, conclusions, social norms, and worldviews

Mindsets are our way of organizing our experiences. They are our sense-making muscles. That means that our attempts to shift mindsets must consider the many ways in which we connect issues to experience. I’ve always appreciated FrameWorks’ metaphor of a swamp. When we talk with someone about why they should care about a particular issue, we assume their mind is a blank piece of paper, and our data and stories will be received at face value. Instead, our minds are swamps of experience, bias and meaning making. Understanding that helps us think about how we talk about our work in ways that connects to (or disconnects from) existing mindsets.

Know IF the mindsets CAN be moved

Sweetland counsels us to consider how our issue is currently positioned in society. Is the issue already in the public sphere? Are there windows of opportunity – such as the pandemic – that are opening new ways of engaging an issue? An example given is how the pandemic raised awareness around child care and caregiving. If there is an opportunity, it’s important to have an alternative narrative available to give people an expanded sense of what’s possible.

While moving mindsets may require working at a scale that many of our initiatives do not have resources to pursue, it’s helpful to know the strategies of moving mindsets. According to FrameWorks’ research, a key strategy of moving mindsets is to undertake short-term policy campaigns that advance long-term goals. These campaigns can help to build the story and experience of different ways of thinking and doing in our society. Our work in collective impact, be it at the local, county, state, or regional level, can help reinforce the narratives and mindsets needed for long-term, fundamental change.


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