Considering Context: Lifecycle of a Social Issue (Summer 2003 Trust Magazine article)

Jul 01, 2003

Few people would equate grantmaking with farming, but the comparison may be apt. Farmers adapt their crop decisions to different variables of soil and climate and develop a keen sense for when their crops are ripe and should be harvested. Like a farmer, a grantmaker must consider conditions, timing and ripeness to be effective.

For a grantmaker, timing and ripeness occur not within a crop’s growth cycle, but within the lifecycle—or development stages—of a social issue. An issue goes through stages set off by events or societal shifts and is carried forward by how groups in society decide to respond. Because issues evolve in a social context that is constantly changing, a grantmaker can more clearly determine how it might address them if it has a framework to understand the lifecycle.

Drawing from work by the sociologist Herbert Blumer and by the political scientist John W. Kingdon, a committee within the Trusts developed a five-phase lifecycle that ranges from the first notice of a social issue to the eventual course of action:

  • Recognition or Awareness
  • Definition and Analysis
  • Mobilization and Agenda-Setting
  • Response
  • Implementation

This framework helps the Trusts make decisions about whether and how to invest in a particular issue. It also provides a common point of reference for staff, enabling them to more easily discuss similar grantmaking approaches and transfer lessons across our seven programs so that we may improve our strategies and interventions. Specifically, the lifecycle can help staff to:

  • Diagnose the status of an issue. Is the public aware of the problem? Do objective, nonpartisan data exist to inform decisions?
  • Choose an approach appropriate to the issue’s stage of development. Do we know enough about this issue to address stakeholder consensus?
  • Set realistic goals based on the stage of the issue and how far (i.e., through how many stages) we intend to support advancing the issue. How much progress is reasonable for a foundation to expect on this issue, especially given limited resources?
  • Monitor the evolution of the issue to ensure that the approaches being used match its stage. Has the issue progressed to another stage that might call for a new course of action?

Over a sufficiently broad span of time, most social issues move through two or more stages of the lifecycle, although it is essential to note that these stages are not necessarily chronological and an issue may bypass, repeat or overlap phases. The Trusts may fund work at one stage of an issue or over multiple stages.

Eyes Opened

The earliest stage in the issue lifecycle, recognition or awareness, is marked when a new or neglected problem first begins to receive wide attention. Recognition may be precipitated by many means: for instance, a critical event or crisis (September 11), a demographic shift (marked increase in the Latino population), a political decision (withdrawal from the Kyoto negotiations on global warming) or a medical innovation (the invention of magnetic resonance imaging). Recognition can also result from a campaign by interested parties to raise the public’s awareness of an issue or problem (e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving). In the recent Public Health Initiative, the Trusts funded a public education campaign by Health-Track which focused on dispelling the common misperception that the United States had a chronic-disease tracking network and raising awareness about the importance of such an infrastructure.

Probing Deeper

Once attention turns to an issue, people want to address it. At the definition and analysis stage, those with a stake in the outcome of an issue strive to understand and subsequently define it, often through public deliberations or discussions within a sector or field. These ongoing conversations give the issue legitimacy, prompting decision-makers to take notice of its significance.

Analyzing the issue typically entails researching the source and dimensions of the problem. Stakeholders may collect data, review existing research, commission new research, consult experts and study existing laws or policies. Defining the issue is an attempt to frame its boundaries, a process that will occur through the lens of the stakeholders’ underlying values and beliefs.

An example of the Trusts’ work at this stage is the Pew Internet and American Life Project, an effort of the Tides Center, which performs research on the impact of the Internet on American society in order to describe the reach and ramifications of this relatively new means of communication.

Taking a Stand

Once stakeholders have clarified their understanding and their own position, they then begin to advocate for their point of view in the larger public arena. This stage is mobilization and agenda-setting. Stakeholders often vie among one another to assure that their perspective predominates (on environmental issues, for example, one side may emphasize the benefits of environmental protection while another will focus on the costs).

Public discussion and debate occur around different solutions and/or recommendations as stakeholders compete for the attention of those who can advance their position. To augment their power and authority, stakeholders build alliances with influential individuals or groups. As the mobilization/agenda-setting stage unfolds, certain perspectives gain wider appeal by public debate while others diminish, until the most powerful points of view capture the attention of the relevant decision-makers.

An example of the Trusts’ work at this stage is the effort of The Pew Center on Global Climate Change (Center), a project of Strategies for the Global Environment, to organize major U.S. corporations to speak out on the need to address global climate change through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The Center now has 38 corporations in its Business Environmental Leadership Council, which is bringing the voice of progressive business to the climate-change debate and working to build support of business and government to reduce those emissions.

Deciding on Direction

In the response stage, decisionmakers, after weighing proposals, adopt a particular approach or formal response to the issue at hand. For initiatives with a policy focus, they might create a favorable environment for legislation, an executive order or adoption of regulations. For non-policy projects, a formal response likely would entail the adoption of a plan of action by leaders in a sector (e.g., broadcast journalism or the local arts community).

One example of the Trusts’ grantmaking in playing an important role in promoting an informed response is the McDonnell-Pew Program in Cognitive Neuroscience (Program). To meet its objective of advancing this emerging field, the Program sought to establish cognitive neuroscience as a recognized discipline. One sign of success was the decision of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to fund research in this area.

Going for It

After leaders choose a response, they then want to put plans into action. Whether and how well this implementation stage proceeds will determine the effectiveness of the response. An example of the Trusts’ grantmaking that seeks an impact is the Clear the Air Campaign, a project to reduce harmful emissions from the nation’s electric power sector through stronger federal and state air-emissions standards. In this case, part of the funding has gone to citizen groups so that they may provide input on the implementation of environmental regulations.

Of course, implementing programs and policies often raises new problems, setting the issue lifecycle in motion all over again. For example, as a nation we now know that improving or expanding highways can alleviate congestion but increase suburban sprawl. Yet experience has also taught us to anticipate unintended consequences, and so we monitor new policies with the idea of minimizing the unexpected and unwanted turns of events.

As diverse and changeable as the conditions a farmer faces in producing a healthy crop, so too are the surroundings of social issues. The lifecycle framework provides one tool to understand a complex situation, place it in a larger context and, in our case, inform a funding decision.

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