Change the Story, Change the System: Tips for Narrative Change Funders and Practitioners

15 dec 2022

Can I Live? Film by Fehinti Balogun, 2022, exploring the links between the environmental crisis and the global struggle for social justice.


Authors: Jessica Bridges, Head of Advocacy & Communications and Ed McGovern, Programme Lead, Climate, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation; Eva Beresford, Deputy Trust Executive, The JJ Charitable Trust / Climate Change Collaboration.


Our deep, interconnected challenges of climate change, injustice and inequality require new and strong narratives to create the conditions for people’s mindsets to change on a large scale. Increasingly this is being recognised. For the first time, in 2022 the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasised the role of public communication, stories and narratives as critical to climate change mitigation: beyond the demands and policies we’re advocating for, how do we communicate in the most effective way to bring them about? But narrative framing, strategic storytelling, and large-scale cultural engagement are areas that remain relatively underfunded.

At the Association of Charitable Foundations 2022 Annual Conference, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) worked with JJ Charitable Trusts/Climate Change Collaboration, On Road Media and partners to demystify ‘narrative change’ and why it needs investment.

Together with a room of funders and communications experts, we unpicked what narrative change is and where it has worked, and shared advice on how to overcome common challenges experienced by funders. In this article we summarise key themes and recommendations that emerged through the discussions, and provide a library of useful resources for funders.


What is narrative change?

A common hurdle experienced by funders and practitioners alike is defining narrative or cultural change work. Terminology is often academic or abstract, and hard to distinguish from communications/PR, media, public affairs and campaigns. Articulating exactly what it is – and isn’t – is important so that funders can identify where and how they can contribute for greatest impact on complex cultural issues like inequity.

On Road Media describes narrative change as “work designed to influence how large numbers of people think, feel and act over time”. Three hallmarks of narrative change work are:

  1. Insight and analysis: We need to understand dominant narratives – and the ways they are maintained. We need to test the potential of new narratives.
  2. Strategy and implementation: We need coordinated, persistent activity to spread counternarratives at scale and over time. We need authentic and diverse new stories to be repeated and reinforced within the public conversation.
  3. Measurement: We need to continually monitor and evaluate to understand what’s working and why – and what we need to do more of.


Overcoming challenges

We explored where narrative change projects have made an impact and helped shift cultural norms.

We heard that evaluating narrative change is a common challenge. This work often has multiple, intangible outcomes that can be hard to predict from the outset or quantify at the end of a project, especially when the end itself is hard to identify.

By definition, influencing opinions, policy and behaviour over time is a long-term effort, and progress may not be linear. Funders shared that showcasing more evidence of incremental progress from narrative change projects – as well as simply more examples of what ‘good’ narrative change work looks like – could help new funders to get involved.

We heard another challenge is enabling communities to create new narratives that are meaningful to them and help them shape the future they want to see. This requires a broad range of interventions in individual communities, such as community organising and local storytelling projects. And again, this takes long-term, widespread effort and creativity.

Linked to this, we acknowledged that a major challenge in narrative change work is the lack of diversity, not just in terms of spokespeople, but at the strategic phase of any intervention. Many organisations are actively addressing this, such as the Climate Reframe Project, and funders can play a key role in encouraging a wide range of lived experience and cultural backgrounds to participate in narrative project development.

We also discussed the importance of funders looking beyond single-issue campaigns to support narratives that speak more clearly to the intersectional nature of the climate, injustice and inequality. There are several networks already helping funders to step outside of their focus areas and collaborate in this way, such as the Environmental Funders Network’s Reset Narratives community. Funders could participate in further collaboration and sharing of ideas and resources.


Progress on narrative change

There are a growing number of examples of narrative change work making an impact in areas like climate action. Framing is one area where a robust body of research on audience needs and values is helping communicators and campaigners reach different people with climate messaging. Film is another area proving the power of art – with documentaries challenging social norms and global attitudes on mass, often at pace, and offering platforms to underrepresented viewpoints in the climate dialogue. We have included a selection of case studies below in ‘Resources’.


Advice for funders

We asked narrative change practitioners to share their top tips for funders:

  • Think long-term and understand that collaboration and persistence is key. Changing systems and widespread beliefs or behaviours won’t happen quickly and can be frustrating. People need to hear new stories repeated over and over to dislodge ways of thinking.
  • Embrace narrative change and champion it – there is strong evidence for narrative change. We know there is in effect a ‘science of storytelling’, and the time to act is now. Since the early 2000s, academic research and social science have worked to prove how cultural change happens and the approaches we can employ. Philanthropy is well-placed to experiment with cultural change projects and support NGOs to shift dominant social narratives.
  • Work together on big picture initiatives. Collaborating with others already active in this space could be a good entry point for newer funders.
  • Begin with understanding audience values and build messages from there – and help grantees to work in this way too. This approach can be counterintuitive for campaigners and communicators who might typically start with a message or call to action for people. But change in people’s thoughts, feelings and actions is most likely to occur when audiences can see narratives aligning with their values and ‘see themselves’ in the story of the transition towards sustainability.
  • Support all three hallmarks of narrative change work from insight and analysis, to strategy, implementation and measurement.

Special thanks to Nicky Hawkins, Director of Communications, On Road Media; Adam Corner, Interim Director, Local Storytelling Exchange; Beadie Finzi, Foundation Director, Doc Society and Hannah Smith, Learning & Participation Lead, Public Interest Research Centre for contributing to the Association of Charitable Foundations event and this blog post.



Guidance, Overviews & Toolkits

Report: What would it take for narrative change work to have more real-world impact in the UK? Report defining narrative change work, outlining its potential in the UK, and providing recommendations for funders, practitioners, civil society and others. On Road Media

Impact Outcomes & Measures toolkit: Evaluation framework for understanding potential outcomes of changing cultural narratives over the short-, medium-, and long-term, and identifying preconditions and values needed. Public Interest Research Centre

Impact Field Guide: Open-source guidance and case studies used by over 60,000 filmmakers and change makers to help documentary films have more impact. Doc Society

Britain Talks Climate: Evidence-based toolkit for engaging across the breadth of society on climate change through narrative frames, based on the Britain’s Choice audience segmentation by More in Common,  climate issues through narrative frames. Climate Outreach, More in Common, European Climate Foundation

How To Talk About the Ocean so That People will Listen: Toolkit and guidance on communicating the ocean, climate change and nature to different audiences, based on comprehensive framing research. FrameWorks Institute

Climate Justice Messaging Guide: Toolkit combining lessons from a project between narrative experts, campaigners and activists aiming to centre justice in climate change communications. Public Interest Research Centre, NEON and

Making Waves – A Guide to Cultural Strategy: Guidebook about the potential of arts and culture in helping shift public sentiment toward a more just and equitable world. The Culture Group

Shifting the Narrative: Lessons Learned: Article evaluating efforts to shift cultural thinking and policy for social justice wins and greater economic justice. The Opportunity Agenda

Blog: You’re Reading This and You Don’t Have a Cultural Strategy?: Article written for non-profit and foundation leaders, making the case for investing in a cultural strategy to effect social and systemic change at scale. Writ Large

Spotlight on Impact Storytelling: Report and recommendations for the narrative and cultural strategies ecosystem. Liz Manne Strategy and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Transforming the stories we tell about climate change: from ‘issue’ to ‘action’: Academic paper on moving climate stories from ‘issue’ to ‘action’ based frames. Environmental Research Letters


Case Studies

A sample of issue-specific case studies and activities (mixture of independent academic or research papers and examples of work).



#SeaOurFuture: Digital, social media and print campaign with Attitude magazine, using ocean framing research to create video and written content with LGBTQ+ influencer Bimini sharing their views on ocean health. On Road Media

Local Storytelling Exchange: An initiative linking stories of people and communities taking climate action with local journalists – addressing a gap in relatable, local stories that show what the ‘green transition’ looks like for diverse audiences. Local Storytelling Exchange

Climate Story Unit: Providing grants and support to films that centre the needs of communities most affected by climate change and show how they are taking action. The website includes a library of supported films. Doc Society

“No Fracking Way!”: Research paper on how the documentary Gasland reshaped public discourse on fracking in America. American Sociological Review

Changing Appetites & Changing Minds: Measuring the Impact of Food, Inc: Research paper on viewers’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviour after watching the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. Media Impact Project, USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center


Justice and Equity

Framing Equality: Toolkit and case studies summarising learnings from a multi-year project understanding how to interact with narratives around LGBTQI equality across Europe. Public Interest Research Centre

Breaking the Silence: How documentaries can shape the conversation on racial violence in America: Participatory research study on the role of films in providing trustworthy sources of information and building community consciousness. Center for Media & Social Impact, Washington University

Who Is Dayani Cristal? Impact Assessment: Report on the successes, challenges, failures and methods of documentary “Who Is Dayani Cristal?”, a film and social impact campaign premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Linda Raftree, Karen Ross, Marc Silver, Lina Srivastava

Transgender Portrayals in Entertainment: Research on greater visibility of transgender people in entertainment stories and the correlation with more positive social attitudes. USC University of Southern California

Preaching to the Choir? Measuring the Impact of Waiting For “Superman”: Research paper on the impact of the film Waiting for “Superman” and its influence on viewers’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour. Media Impact Project, USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center


For more resources & tools on narrative change and effective communications in the ocean-climate space, visit:

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