case study

Training a Network for Narrative Change in East Tennessee 


Half of Tennessee families depend on a female breadwinner, yet statistics around income and employment for women in Tennessee are daunting. Nearly 1 in 6 women in the state live in poverty and working women in Tennessee are twice as likely as men to have a low-wage job. The Women’s Fund of East Tennessee (WFET) believes that part of what is fueling this problem is a narrative in the 25-county region it serves that girls and young women do not need to seek out education after high school. Without postsecondary education, women remain limited in the freedom to choose what their future looks like.    

Our Approach  

In 2018, Burness began a partnership with WFET to develop a grassroots communications campaign that will fundamentally change the narrative around postsecondary education for young women and girls in East Tennessee. WFET assembled a network of eight nonprofit organizations in the region to carry out the campaign, with the goal that more girls and young women will see education after high school as a real and viable option for themselves and ultimately enroll in it.  

To help reach that goal, Burness developed a campaign strategy centered around teaching the network how to become great communicators and pass the skills they learn on to others. Network members are the change-makers here. They’ve worked with Burness to carry out extensive message research to determine how local girls, young women and caregivers view the postsecondary education challenge and their solutions to it. Using that research, a set of messages was developed to drive the campaign. With teaching from Burness, the network is training their own staff, spokespeople and partners to use these messages in their daily work and weave them into their materials, programming and community events. And, together, WFET, Burness and the network will create a dedicated website and materials that others can use to get involved and spread the word. The plan calls for a completion of the first round of campaign deployment by the end of 2020.  

Results and Impact  

The narrative change effort is already paying off. The network of eight organizations has a strong set of messages in hand and has begun using them to inspire and activate their staff and partners. With an overall campaign plan and goals in place, spokespeople have been engaged and the network is nearing readiness to train them.  

The campaign is blessed with network members eager to learn and they have quickly become savvy at the art of effective communications, working together to offer great ideas for campaign adjustments and refinements. They know their audiences well and have found a way to turn that knowledge into language and practices that work.  

These early efforts have paid off. At the end of Year One of the project, each network organization received additional WFET funding. Their energy and accomplishments impressed a local funder who sees the potential for the campaign to truly change the narrative around postsecondary education for young women in the region. As the campaign is fully deployed, Burness will work with WFET and the network to evaluate the campaign’s success, with hopes that what we find out will inspire a second phase of funding and commitment.  

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