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Don’t Mess Around With Mr. In Between: How to Accentuate the Positive for Narrative Change

Thursday, April 26, 2018 -
2:00pm to 4:00pm PDT
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
1661 Page Mill Road | Palo Alto, CA
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Well-constructed narratives have power, and the power of such narratives shape culture, and drive policies. And the policy environment shapes how systems and practices touch the lives of real people in real communities.Robert K Ross

Words are powerful, they can build and uplift, but also deflate and tear down. Some believe philanthropy can do more to help shape narratives into positive, affirming stories about our communities.

Often, however, we default to deficit-based framework when describing the people whose barriers we hope to reduce, using words such as “marginalized,” and “vulnerable,” instead of illustrating their assets and creating inclusive, asset-based narratives that build upon the strengths of the people contending with the problems we hope to help solve. It’s also not enough to solely think about the type of language we use, but also to challenge ourselves of what the source is for using certain language and why certain language is used by default.

At this program, panelists will talk about what it took to shift to an asset-based framework in their organization, the type of language they used to use and how and why they changed it, and the larger systems-change that can result. We will also look at the current message testing trends that foundations are using and analyze when this works best and the importance of aligning an organization's values with its external messaging.

Panelists will Discuss:  

  • How and why they chose an asset-based framework in their organization
  • The challenges in implementing this type of narrative change internally
  • How the revised framework has transformed their relationship with grantees and their work as funders
  • The trend of message testing and aligning messaging with your organization’s values

Participants will walk away with tools to evaluate the framework currently in play at their organization and ways to move towards an asset-based framework in their grantmaking. 


Ellen Schneider is the Director of Active Voice Lab and Founder of Active Voice. She has been a leader in social justice media strategies for over 20 years. In 2001, with support from MacArthur and Ford Foundations, she founded Active Voice, one of the first teams to leverage story-based media to put human faces on complex social and policy issues. Ellen was formerly the executive producer of P.O.V., PBS’ original series of independent non-fiction film, where she expanded P.O.V.’s parent company American Documentary into production, (Right Here, Right Now, a pilot for one of PBS’ first reality series) and strategic community engagement (High Impact Television® and the Television Race Initiative). She speaks widely about the role of media in public life, from Harvard’s Neiman Foundation to Cambridge University; from the Council on Foundations to Netroots Nation; from Sundance Film Festival to the National Endowment for the Arts. She has worked closely with media-savvy pioneers like Atlantic Philanthropies, MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Participant Media.

Negar Tayyar is a Philanthropic Advisor, who is currently managing The Global Whole Being Fund, a donor-advised fund in the Bay Area. She is in charge of the Fund’s grant-making strategy, liaising with other funders, and building the capacity of grant partners. The GWBF is a global grant-making body funding work across different migration routes in 14 countries. The GWBF is assisting refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people (‘people on the move’) to find meaning and belonging in transit and destination countries. The aim is to introduce an asset-based framework in this field and also expand the concept of ‘basic needs’ and include psychosocial and communal wellbeing as critical needs. Both are critical for our wellbeing and particularly important for forcibly displaced people who live in limbo for multiple years or decades. The GWBF’s work thus also involves supporting receiving communities to engage with new members of their societies. Negar’s passion for supporting ‘people on the move' is rooted in her refugee background and work in international development. 

Vanessa Whang is a thought partner with civic actors, funders, and organizations engaged with culture and social change. Her inquiries increasingly grapple with how to achieve social justice in a diverse nation built on the legacies of codified inequality and how a deeper understanding of culture can be key to finding more sustainable paths to well-being for people and the planet. Previously, she served as Director of Programs for California Humanities, responsible for the strategic design, development, and evaluation of programs. In New York, Vanessa consulted on cultural equity and changing demographics, and program design and evaluation for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, Leveraging Investments in Creativity, and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, among others. In Washington, DC, she served as Director of Multidisciplinary Arts and Presenting at the National Endowment for the Arts. Vanessa started in the field as a community cultural activist, performing arts presenter, and recording/touring musician. She proudly serves on the boards of The Whitman Institute, a trust-based funder for social good, and the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, a cross-cultural, arts-driven youth development center.