A Toolkit

Telling the story of civil society

This is a toolkit to help you build new narratives about civil society. It is designed to guide you through the process of carrying out communications work dedicated to changing the narrative around civil society in your context.

You will find advice for finding and sharing stories that build support for civil society, but also practical steps you can follow to integrate narrative change into your own work.


Why narrative matters

What do you want people to know about civil society?

If we want people to stand up for civic space, then we need to tell a compelling story about civil society: what it is, how it works, why it matters.
People understand the world through stories. Even facts tell stories. What is the story we want people to understand about civil society? It needs to be a hopeful story that motivates them to get involved in civic life, to engage and participate in the decisions that affect them. It needs to make them care enough about each other to passionately defend civic space and human rights when they are threatened—as is happening in many countries around the world.

How narratives can grow civic space

Narratives matter for civil society because what people believe influences how they behave. We need people to believe that civil society matters to them enough to act, to join it and defend it when attacked.
Narratives are the set of stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. They are ways we understand complex things that are happening in society and impact us. If people come to think a certain way about, for example, what it means to be a civil society activist, it can be very hard to change their minds, even if we present them with compelling evidence, with facts.

Strategic approach

Narratives are made by constantly repeating words, images and storytelling. If we do not tell our story, it can never become a narrative.

Normal communications raises awareness, strategic communications changes attitudes and behavior. We do so by identifying goals, knowing and prioritizing stakeholders, creating hope-based narratives and conveying them to our stakeholders to engage and mobilize them.

Narrative communications is about telling our shared story: the values we want to live together by, the vision we have for the future, knowing our audience and the voices that need to be heard. Everyone has a part to play in telling the story of civil society, and this toolkit aims to make it easier for you to tell your part of that story.

People are more likely to support something they feel a part of.
People need to see something in order to understand and believe in it.

How to design your narrative comms strategy [in three steps]

How to use the toolkit

This “toolkit on a website” takes you through a three-step Message-Audience-Story process to design and run your own narrative communications strategy. Each step contains worksheets and instructions you can use to develop your narrative with your colleagues, allies, and stakeholders. These will provide you with the basic pillars of a narrative communications strategy – the message you want to share, the audiences whose support and engagement you need, and the stories and images you need to share to bring your narrative to life. You can then plug the results of the exercises into the template strategy document provided to guide your on-going work.

We worked with civil society groups in El Salvador to identify narratives that would build support for their work.

To articulate the narrative to promote, we ran workshops where activists talked about the values messages that underpin support for civil society. They drew images that expressed their ideas and the kinds of stories that showed their values in action. We then worked with solutions journalists to create articles and videos telling stories that brought those values to life. We ran tests on social media to see which ones resonated best with potential supporters. You can find the results and the insights we drew from them throughout this microsite.

This toolkit shares the messages that worked for us but also the approach we used to find and refine them, so that you can follow the same approach and come up with your own strategy. We are sharing work we did in El Salvador, but the tactics we used can be adapted. You can use the content, although it will probably be different. This website also provides guidance for that.

Once your goal is set, we believe a simple strategy can be built around three pillars: message, audience, story.



How we talk about civil society using values that matter to people and repeating simple ideas about what civil society is, why it matters and what values motivate its work.


How we reach people who care about civil society and who can tell other people why civil society matters.


How we elevate and amplify the stories from our communities that show what it really means to be part of civil society.

A hope-based approach to talking about civil society

Shift 1

From fear to hope

Show that civil society can protect and deliver change for people. It works!
Shift 2

From problem to solution

Offer a clear plan for making it easier for people to participate in their communities and societies.
Shift 3

From against to for

Talk about what it means to be for civil society, and part of it. When you support civil society you are actually for community and togetherness.

Shift 4

From threat to opportunity

Give people a sense of belonging: Make them feel passionate about being part of civil society, even if they are just part of a small local community group.
Shift 5

From victim to human

Show what it means to “do” civil society work with tangible images of daily life that everyday people can relate to.

Narrative leaders

The people whose voice you want to elevate. Ideally they will be with your campaign from the beginning, articulating the values in your early workshops and taking part in the stories you tell.

Train them to give interviews in the media and to make their own content with their smartphone. Narrative leaders are the people who will turn your campaign into sustainable narrative work: They will continue to tell stories and encourage others in the movement to think about narrative. And they can give interviews when you want to frame the day’s news in terms of your narrative.