Written by: Helen Hope Kimbrough

“I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters.” – Oprah Winfrey

Have you ever been a part of a community forum where your perspective, insight, and lived experience did not matter?

Have you been ostracized over an opinion or action that was contrary to everyone in a meeting and later told that you lack vision?

How do you feel when groups or organizations make decisions on your behalf without consulting you, thinking that they know what’s best?

If one of these scenarios has happened to you coupled with a feeling of inferiority, unworthiness, or degradation, please raise your hand.

No one person or group deserves to experience these negative experiences when speaking up or expressing themselves authentically, but it is more common than many of us realize. Which is why it is critical to amplify the importance of active listening and the validation of being heard and acknowledged – common threads that resonate with everyone.

Community voice for social impact involves inviting the community’s wisdom to discuss successes, share concerns and improvements, and determine solutions for favorable outcomes together. It means welcoming voices that would normally be unnoticed and unheard.

Even corporations like Nike invest millions to gain insights from their customer base to analyze beliefs, values, and interests for marketing purposes. Knowing their audience in a personalized construct is the best driver to leverage business and impact. Likewise, nonprofits and corporate social impact teams need to adhere to the same practices with vigor and tenacity. Earnestly connecting with the community before developing projects and programs is especially important when the boards and administrative teams aren’t fully representative of the children, families, or individuals served. Finding opportunities to establish kinship and inviting people whom organizations seek to serve to the table in dialogue is an optimal approach to social impact that yields tremendous rewards.

Community voice is currently a hot topic for many social impact projects, for good reason. Over the last year there has been an increasing awareness that the way both nonprofits and businesses approach community impact may be lacking something important – the input of the communities they most want to serve. Organizations have frequently started with the solution they think will work best, rather than sourcing input and solutions from the neighborhood or individuals themselves. And while these notions are often generous and well-intentioned, these solutions face challenges when rolled out because they do not resonate with the communities they are meant to serve.

A growing body of research shows that interventions that are developed in partnership with communities are significantly more successful than when community voice is not engaged. Consider the questions from the beginning of this post – wouldn’t our strategies and solutions be more effective if we intentionally considered the experiences of everyone at the table as we worked?

As a firm, Next Stage prioritizes community voice in its engagements with clients and firmly believes that community should be invited to inform the direction of a strategic planning process. It is imperative to hear viewpoints internally within an organization, but also externally from supporters, neighbors, partners, and leaders with different objectives, viewpoints, and experiences. Over time, these conversations create awareness and build trusted relationships that yield immense rewards for both the neighborhood and the organization.

When Next Stage works with organizations to include community voice, we frequently use the following:

  • A series of stakeholder interviews is designed to obtain perspectives and insights while uncovering needs and preferences, and testing new ideas. These are scheduled with community leaders who will be directly impacted by each project.
  • Two to three focus groups are geared with a process-oriented approach and serve as a listening session. These include exercises tailored toward specific individuals with lived or shared experiences.
  • To gather numerous and large-scale information from individuals based on demographics and key service components pertinent to the goal or mission of the organization, surveys are instrumental in terms of accessibility and affordability.

The pursuit of these efforts is for people to feel included and harness the critical components of leveraging community voice. For social impact to fuel significant change, I believe there is no more important element than voices being heard.