Windows of Opportunity: Finding the right frame

How framing can influence the success of charity campaigns with policy makers. 
Debbie Hazelton

Any charity that aims to influence policy will know they are competing for political attention. Decisions made by policy makers are influenced by many different factors: their values, judgements, and the complex realm of evidence and campaigns[1]. This melting pot of ideas could be seen as a place that distracts from charities’ campaigns, but instead can be an opportunity for charities to influence policy.

When it comes to influencing policy, it is not always what you say, but when and how you say it. By accepting that charities are not the only voice in the world of policy making, campaigning can move from trying to simply be the loudest voice, to changing pitch to form a more salient tune for politicians to hear and use.

This was shown by a long-running RSPB campaign aiming to ban the wild bird trade. Initially, this was deemed irrelevant by MPs as the issue was framed by a narrative of animal welfare. This framing had limited traction in the political atmosphere despite the RSPB’s investment and development of the campaign. However, when an imported bird from South America died, seemingly from bird flu, the RSPB realised the issue could be reframed, identifying a policy window. Using the framing of a public health issue, as trading in wild birds could lead to the further spread of bird flu, the story took hold and quickly led to an EU ban. As Mark Avery, former conservation director of the RSPB said, “It’s the economic and social aspects [of policy making] that are most important [to policy makers] —not the environmental ones”[2].

Campaign teams who keep their finger on the political pulse can present their ideas using hooks outside of their normal spheres, telling stories that fit into the context politicians are working within. Brexit is unsurprisingly the top issue for MPs as found through our Charity Parliamentary Monitor (CPM). 83% of MPs consider this as in the top 4 items on the political agenda over the next year[3]. Despite the monotony of its presence in the media and the fears of the impact Brexit will have on charity funding[4], this is a huge opportunity for cross-party impact.

The need to transfer more than 12,000 EU regulations into the UK on topics ranging from asylum seekers to the environment will open the political space as policy makers look for solutions and evidence from a wide range of sources, including charities. With backing from the public, and especially young people (see our previous blog ‘Young people want politicians to listen to charities’) who think that charities should be consulted about the future policies surrounding Brexit, there are a wealth of opportunities.

However, our parliamentary data does show that 20% of all MPs and conspicuously higher 31% of conservative MPs, want to hear ‘nothing’ from charities in regards to Brexit. For conservative MPs who do want to hear from charities, most want to hear sensible, realistic proposals and facts/unbiased information. This compares to the over half of Labour MPs who want to hear about the impact Brexit will have on charities causes and beneficiaries.

The successful framing of charity campaigns for policy change is dependent on the politicians in power, not the normal donors or stakeholders that support a charity. Although some MPs may support a charity within its normal framing, others will be more receptive to a campaign that runs with their political aims. In the current political situation this means framing campaigns towards Conservative views, and using evidence and statistics within a political frame that aligns with the government’s policy priorities.

A looming example is the recent media storm surrounding the US trade deal and chlorinated chicken. The immediate response from some charities will be to paint a picture surrounding animal welfare practices in the US and the importance of limiting their influence on the UK – a view that many animal welfare charity supporters will have. However, a more savvy campaign can instead aim to appeal to the decision makers, focusing on the impact on farmer’s livelihoods, human health, or the decline in levels of food regulation this may cause. When new issues such as this rise to the political and media surface charities should be ready to frame their views to appeal to decision makers, not just their donors.

Consistently producing more information, snappier tag lines and emotionally engaging campaigns can draw in supporters, including those in the political realm. However, framing these issues and policy suggestions to keep them in tune with the ever-developing political context, can transform this awareness into policy change.


[1] Rose, D. C. (2015). The case for policy‐relevant conservation science. Conservation Biology, 29(3), 748-754.

[2] Avery, M. (2012). Fighting for birds: 25 years in nature conservation. Pelagic Publishing. P243

[3] Charity Parliamentary Monitor, Jan-Feb 2017, nfpSynergy


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