The Stew BLOG

To Catalyze System Change, Become a Better Casemaker

Tiffany Manuel, President & CEO, The CaseMade and Bobby Milstein, Director, System Strategy | 03/10/2020

A More Compelling Case Could Unlock Trapped Potential

Perhaps more than ever before in our nation’s history, there is an enormous opportunity to build the groundswell of support that we need to advance equitable system change and improve our collective well-being. To live into the possibility of this moment, however, we will need to sharpen how we make the case for change that we have tried for decades to advance.

The good news is that many of us are already winning important battles to redesign systems with equitable health in mind. But how much more could we do if we had a more reliable way to build public support? How many more policies, programs, and investments could we inspire if we mobilized our stakeholders and community residents to align their perspectives, roll up their sleeves, and work together in new ways?

The challenge of building stronger support and aligning stakeholders is not lack of evidence, scarce resources, or even uncertainty about what would make a difference, but rather a vexing devotion to business as usual. Too often our calls-to-action, although well intended, fail to motivate the support we need or actually backfire (i.e., they often fire up more opposition than support). Decades of research and community practitioner experience remind us that the case we make must be strong enough to reach beyond existing allies. It must draw in new champions, encourage bystanders to get involved, and generate enough public will to break away from the status quo and begin to work differently together.

Here’s the key to doing that—focus on the pivotal difference between communicating about the need for system change versus making a case that compels people to support actions that will transform the systems that we need to reach our full potential.

Strategic Casemaking™ is a set of practical principles to help us communicate more persuasively and bring new champions forward. Casemaking draws on several complementary fields of science and practice including communications, framing, storytelling, strategy design, evaluation, and data analysis. It is a rapidly emerging area of practice that is now becoming better codified—and teachable.

Communications versus Casemaking

  • Communication raises awareness, conveys a perspective and tries to convince others to take-up that perspective
  • Casemaking builds political and public will around specific solutions by strategically addressing the issues that are impediments to action

Catalysts Are Poised to Grow Support

Last year, with support from three fellow philanthropies, The Rippel Foundation invited 15 organizations that each had a reputation for being an effective “catalyst” for system change to join in small teams for a series of two Catalyst Casemaking Workshops (see sidebar: Meet the Catalyst Casemakers).

Catalyst organizations are especially well-equipped to help others see the system that shapes our lives and also shift how we see our own roles as changemakers within it. That is what Catalysts do: they have a wide system view, a clear sense of their own values, and the capacity to inspire others to think and act like interdependent system stewards.

If these organizations could elevate the caliber of their casemaking, it could set in motion a multiplier effect that might, in turn, jumpstart a new era for equitable system change across the country.

We asked teams from each organization to concentrate on at least one clear priority that they believe is necessary to transform health and well-being across the country (see figure, below). Over the course of several months, each team reviewed the social science around casemaking and assessed how their casemaking practice aligned with that science. Each team then evaluated both their internally- and externally-facing materials centered on answering these questions:

  1. What actions are on the critical path to realize our vision of a transformed, more equitable system?
  2. Why do our current messages backfire and what strategies help us to reverse course?
  3. What do our constituents really care about and which values and incentives most shape their choices?

Five Insights About What It Takes to Become a Better Casemaker

After participating in these workshops, almost all Catalysts said they had begun to shift routine habits that are necessary to make a better case. Here are five takeaway insights.

1. Start with Why Your Case Matters to Everybody: If our goal is to build public will, then every case must open with a strong, inclusive message! Rather than starting with negatively framed data about a crisis that must be stopped (which is the typical opening in most cases), Catalysts instead sought to craft a compelling statement about why everyone has a shared stake in system change. Using those messages right from the beginning builds a shared sense of identity among even those who may not be directly affected by the issue. This warms people up to our call-to-action by connecting to the part of our audiences that is aspirational, proud, and fearless.

Application: One Catalyst shifted away from their usual opening statement about at-risk children to instead convey their vision of all children thriving. While it is true that many of our nation’s children are at-risk, it is ultimately more effective to enlist support from community stakeholders when they too see a future where all children are thriving. This approach also avoids known problems that emerge when children are portrayed negatively in public discourse.


2. Ride a Big Wave: When we asked the Catalysts to reflect on what opportunities were on the horizon and to pinpoint why system change was possible, they tagged things like innovative funding models, technological advances, new momentum from new community leaders, and new cross-sector collaborations that are emerging just as fragmented institutional arrangements are increasingly breaking down. Identifying and sharing these opportunities allows stakeholders to see a wider field of vision for the work. It also underscores the urgency to act now and take advantage of the moment.

Application: There is a growing public recognition that social isolation, loneliness, and division have deeply negative consequences on our health and well-being. Several of the Catalysts worked hard to channel that momentum into a better case for whole-scale system change—not as a negative anchor but as an opportunity to tap into the growing urgency for placemaking, belonging, and reconnection. By tapping directly into stakeholders’ growing awareness, they are better able to engage many who might not have otherwise been interested in their work, policies, programs, or investment strategies.

3. Use Metaphors to Make Cases Come Alive: Most people have no idea what we mean when we use these words “system change” and most are not patient enough to listen while we offer long, jargon-filled explanations. As a result, using a visual metaphor as a heuristic device (or a mental short-cut that provides a strong visual queue) can help people connect to our work and understand what it is that we are trying to convey.

Application: We asked Catalyst teams: how would you describe the work of your network or partnership—as a scaffold, a soccer team, a constellation of stars, or perhaps a flywheel? They thought carefully about their work and the types of the metaphors that might evoke helpful visual images. Some of the metaphors they tested felt useful (especially those related to team building and organizing), whereas it was more difficult to visualize other aspects of this work (such as its iterative, developmental quality). Nevertheless, all Catalyst teams now better understand the need to move away from well-meaning but long-winded explanations.

4. Set Expectations for Everyone to Thrive, No Exceptions: There was universal agreement that Catalysts need more effective ways to convey concerns about equity in our casemaking. Painting a realistic vision of what equity looks like, and being explicit about how we will measure our pathway to get there, is one of the things that can help bring people along. When people can see that we are focused on results and that we are evaluating our success based on equitable outcomes, they are more likely to take calls for system change seriously and lean in for the work that it takes to assure equitable progress.

Application: One Catalyst team focused on making the case for legislation to advance regional health hubs. They also made a strategic commitment to insist that the hubs be judged using clear metrics focused on better and more equitable outcomes. They decided to ditch a familiar script about soaring medical costs and unfair treatment and instead use a unifying story about the untapped potential for all people to be healthier when organizations work better together. Their messaging was rooted in advancing equity, emphasizing that regional health hubs meet the needs of those who are struggling while also delivering wide-scale benefits to everybody across the state.


5. Tell a New Story: Storytelling is powerful. People listen differently and more openly when others tell stories. We recall information more readily when our learning comes from stories. To help Catalysts find new ways of telling stories, we shared examples of social changemakers who had successfully turned traditional storytelling on its head. For example, we reviewed a sarcastic ad campaign that portrays nature and outdoor living as a prescription drug, a subversive effort to protect a local library by calling for folks to burn books, and a thought exercise asking what would happen if restaurants functioned like a health care bureaucracy. While not all catalysts will create ad campaigns or videos as part of their casemaking, they now know more about how to craft a compelling story to win the hearts and minds of the public.

Application: In a room full of expectant mothers, one Catalyst (who is also a physician) wanted to talk about maternal care and childbirth. One of the mothers stood up to challenge him by asking why he was delivering this message to them. The question stopped him in his tracks. Taken aback, he realized he needed to start his story differently. He needed to begin with a story about why he cared about them. He put his notes down and started again. “I’m here because your baby is the most important baby in the world! And I’d like to make sure that you are treated that way!” It shifted the energy in the room, changed their conversation, and after a poignant pause, he was able to have the honest conversation with them that he had intended.


Everyone a Casemaker

After doing this work together, Catalysts named three big benefits. They became more: (1) conscious of how their strategic choices affect the support they receive; (2) skillful in how they practice casemaking; and (3) supportive of fellow Catalyst organizations’ efforts to do the same. They also reported impressive improvements between the first workshop in May and the second in October in their confidence (up 61 percent) and understanding (up 50 percent) about what it takes to make a compelling case that avoids backfires and builds the public will to act.

Catalysts are now better positioned to effectively reinforce each other’s cases for equitable system change. What can you do to join the effort and become a better casemaker for system change? Chances are you can apply one or more of the five lessons above right away in your work. Rest assured, there are helpful tools and resources within easy reach, such as Strategic Casemaking: Field Guide for Building Public Will.

It takes practice to become a better casemaker. However, nothing is harder than enduring the pain of a badly designed and dysfunctional system. As you improve your own casemaking, feel free to share stories of successes and struggles in the comments section below, or by using the hashtags #ThinkWithUs  and #TheCaseMade.