Thursday, April 30, 2015

What NGOs Can Learn From the Success of the Gay Marriage Movement

Note: The June 26 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in favour of gay marriage makes this post from April all the more germane.

An important goal for many non-profit groups is not just raising money, but changing attitudes about important issues.  

This is especially true about issues such as climate change, racism, the environment, or poverty.

Now and then, there are victories—opinions are changed. But much of the time, much discouragement of NGOs, progress is slow, or non-existent.

Why is that?

One reason is that most groups frame the issue in terms of arguments or abstract principles. They speak about rights, or throw out numbers and percentages.

Inside NGO offices, those things often make sense. But for average people, eyes glaze over.

Why? Because these things appeal to the head, not to the heart. And research shows that when it comes to changing behaviour, emotion—the heart—is more important.

One group that learned this are campaigners for gay marriage in the U.S.

In the early days of their fight, they focused on discrimination and about the rights of same-sex couples. They spoke about legal issues, health benefits, pensions.

And, for a long time, they were losing the battle.

They examined their strategy. Focus groups showed voters weren’t moved by arguments about rights and equality. They didn’t pay attention to complex legal arguments or health care policies.

So gay-marriage campaigners changed their approach. They began sharing human stories about everyday couples who want to show the world their love and commitment—people going to work, having picnics, playing sports, raising families.

As the group Freedom to Marry put it: “Over the past five years, Freedom to Marry and our partners have reshaped the national conversation on marriage around winning messages focused on love, commitment, and freedom, while highlighting the journey stories of people  in the ‘moveable middle.’

“This shift away from a focus on abstract rights and benefits has been crucial to the exponential growth in support for marriage.”

It’s working. Fifteen years ago about 25% of Americans supported gay marriage. Today, it is the majority, at 63%, 37 states permit gay marriage, and it is before the Supreme Court..

The success, on such a divisive and controversial issue, is nothing short of amazing.

Groups involved in other causes have noticed.

On the immigration issue, campaigners decided not to talk about policy, but about the pain that results when harsh immigration rules divide loving families. 

They have also promoted stories about “dreamers,” young migrants brought illegally to America as children, through no fault of their own, who now want a shot at the American dream.

For groups involved in changing public attitudes, having a good grasp of facts, figures and policies is important and a key to credibility.

But when it comes to changing minds, the best place to start is the heart.

And as the experience of the gay marriage movement shows, the best way to change hearts is to tell stories.

For more on this topic, see my post More on What Non-Profit Communicators can Learn from the Success of the Gay Marriage Movement.

No comments: