April 2008

Grant Results

SUMMARY

The Communications Leadership Institute worked to identify ways nonprofit organizations can design campaigns to persuade individuals to take action on issues they care about.

The investigators:

  • Examined case studies of successful persuasion campaigns.
  • Conducted a literature review on the topic of persuasion.
  • Led traditional and nontraditional focus groups among people expressing concern for issues such as global warming, sex education and childhood obesity.

They summarized their findings in a report, Discovering the Activation Point: Smart Strategies to Make People Act. (Available online.)

Key Findings

  • To determine an "activation point" — when people will take an action that leads to measurable social change — groups need to:
    • Be very clear about who they need to persuade.
    • Understand the barriers that exist for individuals.
    • Know when the timing is right to approach audience targets.
  • Hope is the only essential ingredient in campaigns trying to inspire action. You must make people believe that the situation will get better — with their help.
  • Understanding an audience's comfort zone is essential. There are clear limits to what even the most passionate people are willing to do, especially if the "ask" is outside their comfort zone. Asking people to do things within their comfort zone allows them to feel good about helping without putting themselves at risk.

Funding
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) provided a grant of $150,000 from April 2006 to March 2007. Other support came from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation ($50,000) and the Open Society Institute ($30,000).

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THE PROBLEM

There is a gap between the people who say they care deeply about important social issues and those actually taking action to solve pressing problems, say investigators with the Communications Leadership Institute, a nonprofit San Francisco organization that assists nonprofit groups with communications training and advice.

Focus groups and polling studies find out what people care about, how they think about things and the words and phrases that have the most salience. However, they fail to identify the barriers that stop people from taking action about the issues they care about.

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THE PROJECT

The Communications Leadership Institute worked to identify ways nonprofit organizations can design campaigns to persuade individuals who support an issue to take action.

The goal was to give nonprofit organizations a better way to pinpoint:

  • The right timing to press forward with specific issues.
  • How many people need to act in order to move the issue.
  • What it takes to get someone to engage on an issue they care about.

Project Activities

The project team worked with communications professionals at Spitfire Strategies and the Curious Company and:

  • Convened a 15-member expert panel in June 2006 that included representatives from the nonprofit, academic and private sectors. Panel members examined 11 case studies to find replicable lessons to share with the nonprofit sector.

    Case studies included:
    • Arctic National Wildlife Refuge campaign to protect an area of Alaska from energy drilling.
    • Animal rights groups' campaign against fur sales.
    • Campaign to reauthorize the ban on assault weapons.
  • Conducted a literature review to gain an understanding of materials available on persuasion, including:
    • Popular books (Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point).
    • Articles from national news outlets (including the New York Times and Business Week).
    • Studies from academic journals (including the Journal of Marketing and the Harvard Business Review).
  • Held a series of interactive focus groups called PowerGames™ with 36 people in Denver in September 2006. PowerGames employs techniques of improvisational acting in order to tap the more spontaneous, emotional components of people's decision-making that can move them to act on an issue they care about.

    Each PowerGames session focused on a specific issue where polling has shown that support greatly exceeds active involvement among the public. The issues were:
    • Global warming.
    • Sex education.
    • Childhood obesity.
  • Held a series of traditional focus groups in Walnut Creek, Calif. in July 2006 with 23 people, to further explore the "persuasion triggers" identified through the PowerGames™ sessions, the literature review and the case studies.
  • Created and released in December 2006 a report, Discovering the Activation Point: Smart Strategies to Make People Act. (Available online.)

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FINDINGS

  • To determine an "activation point" — when people will take an action that leads to measurable social change — groups need to:
    • Be very clear about who they need to persuade.
    • Understand the barriers that exist for individuals.
    • Know when the timing is right to approach audience targets.
  • When people have a high level of awareness of an issue, they are not motivated by more information. In fact, it can contribute to their state of inertia.
  • Hope is the only absolutely, positively essential ingredient in campaigns trying to inspire action. You must make people believe that the situation will get better — with their help.
  • There are several stages to successful persuasion:
    • Stage 1: People need to know, believe and care enough to want to act.
    • Stage 2: People must have the will to act.
    • Stage 3: Once people act, they must be rewarded for doing so.
  • Timing is everything. Deciding when it is the right time to persuade people is a critical factor to defining an activation point — and can be very tricky.
  • Understanding an audience's comfort zone is essential. There are clear limits to what even the most passionate people are willing to do, especially if the "ask" is outside their comfort zone. Asking people to do things within their comfort zone allows them to feel good about helping without putting themselves at risk.
  • People are selfish. They need to feel an issue is directly relevant to their lives before they will act.

Findings are also available online.

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AFTER THE GRANT

The Communications Leadership Institute packaged its "Activation Point" findings into a workshop and planning tool that nonprofits can use to create their own activation point.

The investigators piloted the two- to three-hour workshop via a Web-based seminar in January 2007. They have integrated it into the communications training programs they lead for foundations and their grantee organizations, including RWJF.

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GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION

Project

Identifying New Methods That May Motivate Consumers to Take Action on Health and Health Care Issues

Grantee

Communications Leadership Institute (San Francisco,  CA)

  • Amount: $ 150,000
    Dates: April 2006 to March 2007
    ID#:  056011

Contact

Holly Minch
holly@communicationsleadership.org
(415) 227-4200 ext. 210

Web Site

http://www.activationpoint.org

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)

Reports

Grimm K., Discovering the Activation Point: Smart Strategies to Make People Act. Washington: Spitfire Communications, December 2006. (Also available online.)

World Wide Web Sites

www.activationpoint.org. The Activation Point Web site contains background information, resources and links to download the report, Discovering the Activation Point: Smart Strategies to Make People Act.

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Report prepared by: Richard Camer
Reviewed by: Janet Heroux
Reviewed by: Marian Bass
Program Officer: Susan D. Promislo

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