Lauren Parater
Dec 14, 2018 · 7 min read
Illustration by Ailadi.

“We’re experiencing a darkening sky for nonprofit organizations and for the social sector, and for people all across our global society, and there is a real risk that those points of light will begin to wink out because they do not have the support to exercise the moral leadership that they know they need to in order to be relevant players in our society,” said Grant Oliphant, President at The Heinz Endowments.

When I heard this part of a speech Grant gave last year, I immediately stirred and honed in on every word that followed next. I had also been feeling an unprecedented heaviness in the grave challenges he spoke of. It was hard to deny the darkness referred to that day in my own work at UNHCR. We had witnessed the rise of old hatreds and xenophobic rhetoric towards refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and many other minority groups across the world. We had observed the disquieting trends as borders become more unyielding and communities question more deeply whether to support refugee communities. A shift that innately reflects the world in which UNHCR operates.

While these borders are physically being built, technology has given us a level of global interconnectedness that we’ve never experienced before. Words and images spread across the web, weaving, in contrast, a borderless narrative that can confuse the veracity of information.

These trends signaled an even greater need for us at UNHCR’s Innovation Service to do better and connect innovators to help address these complex issues. But time and time again, we heard from colleagues that innovation was seen as something technical, inaccessible or simply not relatable.

In one instance, a colleague told me they pictured innovation as this quick, lightbulb moment where someone like Bill Gates comes up with a new invention. A fleeting spark of brilliance that is labeled the “next best thing.” Conversely, there is little about innovation in practice that is as transient or momentary as a light bulb switch. And the innovation we were interested in was not concerned with shiny technological toys or sparks of invention. But ultimately, our communication around innovation wasn’t being understood or inspiring everyone in the organisation to see themselves as innovators.

In reality, UNHCR has always been innovating.

For us, innovation is supporting a young refugee entrepreneur in Algeria to build experimental shelter prototypes. Innovation is fostering “creative confidence”, the ability of refugees to develop their own solutions for local issues. Innovation is about not stopping until you’ve embedded refugee-centered design into your operation’s programming cycle. Innovation is about trying to serve refugees better in emergencies and improving internal processes like procurement or human resources. Innovation is putting an amplifier and a solar battery on the back of a motorbike to improve the information needs of refugees in Uganda. Maybe it’s not a perfect solution but one good enough to start testing and improving.

Innovation is about embracing the urgency and desire to change, because the complexity of our work does not allow for the luxury of time and benefits from different and sometimes new ideas and tactics. And most importantly, it is about adding value for refugees and to UNHCR.

We knew we needed to communicate better about how creativity could help transform our work. We defined our challenge and set off to figure out possible pathways to experiment and test our assumptions.

So, let’s go back to the beginning of the story

One morning in early 2017, I serendipitously discovered the public interest communications approach through an article published by Stanford Social Innovation Review titled, “Stop Raising Awareness Already.” And wow, I was so tired of this idea of raising awareness. The article called on organizations to move past communication efforts that simply “raise awareness” of an issue and instead focus more narrowly on connecting with the group of individuals whose belief or behavior change will result in a lasting difference. It felt as though we were speaking the same language before we had even the chance to speak. I knew I needed to reach out and set up a call with the authors, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand, and discuss their research and public interest communication in more in-depth.

So what is public interest communications?

Public interest communication combines the truthful and compelling storytelling that is the hallmark of great journalism with strategic thinking rooted in primary research and social science. It has been defined as a “science-based approach to planned and lasting change on an issue that transcends the objectives of any single individual or organization.”

I was an easy convert.

Ann and Annie’s article resonated because it spoke to so much of what our team had been discussing and this was an opportunity to test something meaningful based on evidence. We had been talking about why innovation was so important but not addressing so much the how of actually doing it. Our team had faced barriers in communicating not only what innovation is, but precisely what its role is within the organization. We’ve struggled to identify the right storytelling methods around our work that makes sense to others in the sector and catalyzes them to also innovate.

So, UNHCR’s Innovation Service partnered with the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida (UF) to apply a science-driven, public interest communications approach to build a better understanding for our work and drive innovation more quickly both within UNHCR and the humanitarian sector. Additionally, our approach to innovation within UNHCR is focused on behavior and mindset change and we recognized that engaging academics in this field that carried this specific expertise in behavioral, cognitive and social science was important.

Issue Briefs: Changing hearts and minds around innovation and refugees

One of our first experiments in the public interest communications space is producing a series of research or “issue briefs” with our team at the University of Florida. The briefs collate existing research around specific topics that have been identified by the Innovation Service and colleagues in other parts of UNHCR. Each brief contains multiple exercises to bring these academic insights directly into the day-to-day work of humanitarians and others working in the social sector.

The objective of this series is to help others understand topics such as how worldviews and values shape others’ perceptions of refugees, how to tell stories about complex issues or how to get buy-in for your innovative idea — and give people the research, tools, and actions to do their work better. Each brief will be broken up into a smaller digital series and soon after, we will create a publication series with UF’s Centre for Public Interest Communications that examines each issue.

These briefs have multiple purposes but at the core of the work we are doing, it is about creating a new storytelling culture around innovation, changing minds and changing hearts. Science can help us do that. The tools and research we present can assist in identifying methods that will make your messages resonate with your target audience — even if they disagree with you.

Right now, we need courageous communications and we need courageous communicators to take these ideas forward and inspire others to do the same. And we need to be better at listening, not just speaking to people. We hope you’ll follow and join us on this journey.

If you want to start taking action today:

To Read:

  1. Read the article from Ann and Annie in Stanford Social Innovation Review that started our partnership.
  2. Learn more about what inspired UNHCR’s Innovation Service to bring science into their communications and the research you should read to get started.
  3. The first Journal of Public Interest Communications was published last year: it’s a great resource for understanding the theoretical background of this work and has now expanded into multiple volumes.
  4. Read the words of other courageous communicators. In February 2018, during his final opening statement as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, blatantly asks, “Have we all gone completely mad?” Read his final comments here and learn from them.

To Do:

  1. Be bold when speaking about the issues you care about. You can be diplomatic while also inspiring people into action. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
  2. Start testing these ideas by exploring our first issue brief and discover practical tools, research, and exercises to help you be a courageous communicator.
  3. Follow our journey and learn from the experiments we’re working on and see how you can replicate them in your organization.
  4. Email us at if you want to experiment in this area, collaborate on storytelling or just have an idea or story to share.

And stay tuned as we continue to move forward and probably fail a few times along the way.

About Our Partnership:

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Innovation Service has partnered with the newly established Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The partnership will explore how communication strategies rooted in behavioral, cognitive and social science can accelerate the spread of innovative approaches to providing care and protection to the world’s more than 65 million displaced people.

The University of Florida team, which includes faculty from journalism, telecommunication and public relations as well as team members with expertise in sociology, social psychology and pedagogy, will collaborate with UNHCR’s Innovation Service as they explore how new approaches to storytelling and communication strategies grounded in research can change perspectives and increase support for displaced people and innovation in the humanitarian sector.

In an effort to move past communication strategies that simply “raise awareness” of an issue, the UN Refugee Agency and the University of Florida partnered to better understand how science can connect individuals with calls to actions that will result in lasting difference on the issues that matter most. To discover more from the publication and partnership — follow The Arc here.

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

Lauren Parater

Written by

Leading on comms for UNHCR’s Innovation Service • humanitarian innovation enthusiast • thoughts on refugees, migration + #scicomm • maybe a little wine •

The Arc

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

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