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Define common terms and communicate core messages

– to improve communications among joint efforts and to the general public.
August 5, 2011

Ambitious leaders with big plans sometimes give people TMI: Too Much Information. Hand out a list of indicators about child and youth outcomes, or a list of goals to develop community supports for youth, and you risk creating communications overload. Everyone stalls because they’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to focus.



But see what happens when you give them a story or a framework for action. People see an outline for success and can envision their roles. You’ve exchanged your “to do” list for a powerful tool that can unite community efforts and drive community decisions.

To get there, you need to:

  • Create a communications framework for both your internal plans and your public reports. This framework should help you clearly show how your outcome and performance goals link to the program and policy changes that need to be enacted.
  • Adopt simple, consistent language to communicate with the public about the work that leaders are doing to improve outcomes for children and youth.

Here are some resources that address common questions:

How do I get our organizations and leaders to use a common language?

You’ll have a hard time bringing together stakeholders around common goals when everyone’s language is specific to their work. One person’s “prevention” is another person’s “engagement” and someone else’s “afterschool.” Then there’s “early childhood,” “pre-K,” “adolescence,” “young adulthood,” …

Try this overview as a tool for working toward common language. It should help everyone understand each other’s language and move toward some common terms. The tool provides sample language to spark conversations about what words and phrases reflect the work that everyone does, and where they can find common ground. You won’t necessarily get everyone using the same words all the time, but you’ll get them fluent in each other’s terms.

Everyone is using different frameworks for their work with youth. How do we bring them together?

Anyone looking for frameworks that outline the factors that prepare youth for healthy, productive futures will have no trouble finding several produced by esteemed national organizations: America’s Promise Alliance’s Five Promises, the National Research Council’s Features of Positive Developmental Settings, Search Institute’s Developmental Assets and the Forum for Youth Investment’s Outcome Areas. This abundance sometimes presents a dilemma: Various organizations in a community using different frameworks (these or their own), which impedes communications and creates silos of different approaches.

Use this parallel frameworks comparison chart: It demonstrates, on one page, how popular frameworks in the youth development field actually align.

With the chart, you can:

  • Show the stakeholders in your community that the same principles undergird each of these frameworks and that there is lots of common ground among them.
  • Discuss such issues as: Can we find a common language that reflects the broad set of readiness factors that we are all working toward? Can we make our efforts in each of these frameworks add up?

How can we improve our communications messaging about collective action?

The National Human Services Assembly produced a brief, Putting Human Needs on the National Radar Screen, on messaging and collaborative action for nonprofit human service and community development organizations. The brief suggests language and new narratives about the collective contributions of nonprofits. Use this as a resource to infuse new ideas and language into your community's collective actions.

Here are three places that used frameworks and stories to communicate core messages:

Columbus, Ind.: This Council for Youth Development brochure is an example of how one community used Ready by 21 language to define common terms and communicate its vision to the public.

New Mexico: To see how to communicate about outcomes, see this Children’s Cabinet Report Card and Budget Report. Especially helpful are the Report Card sections about youth who are Healthy (p.11), Educated (p. 16), Safe (p.24), Supported (p.29) and Involved (p.33).

Massachusetts: The Success for Life Statewide Action Plan shows how one state linked its outcomes and indicators to a broader call for collaborative action.


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