by Josh Jacobson

Have you noticed Next Stage looks different than it did a few years ago?

For one thing, we’re larger. We’ve doubled in size since the onset of the pandemic, adding new service lines, digital tools and approaches to our work. We recently moved into a new office because our team simply could no longer thrive in a co-working environment.

When I describe the history of our company, one of the demarcation points was the addition of Helen Hope Kimbrough to our team. Added as a Consultant in 2021, she recently got a new title that is so fitting – Senior Director, Community Voice.

It is apropos because her addition signaled a change in how our company does its work. Most of our engagements with nonprofits include a discovery phase where we gather insights to inform a Current Condition Assessment deliverable to support the process of strategic planning. In the past, that process tended to focus on ‘grasstops’ stakeholders – business executives, philanthropists, system leaders and elected officials – with interviews designed to capture their perspectives toward shaping forward progress.

Missing from the analysis was a critical component – the perspective of the people the organization hopes to engage with its programming. It was an absence that Helen called out and rectified through a modification to our qualitative data-gathering methodology. Now every engagement includes it.

The process of collecting insights from target populations for services now has language to describe it – community voice – and it is at the center of our work.

If you missed Helen’s stellar piece from last week, I encourage you to read it. She defines the concept of community voice and makes such a compelling argument for why trust is at the heart of forming lasting partnerships in the communities local nonprofits aim to serve.

And boy, do we ever need it.

We believe we have arrived at a community-wide proof point for trust, and it requires immediate action.

‘Where are the people for our nonprofit’s services?’

Organizations across Charlotte are experiencing a unique challenge. With ARPA funding and renewed investment from philanthropic sources ready for deployment, area nonprofits are flush with resources.

But for many of the nonprofits Next Stage has spoken with of late, what had once been a steady stream of program participants has slowed substantially. At first, the natural assumption was that the pandemic was having lasting effects. But as time has gone on, there is concern that something else has happened as well – a significant loss of trust.

We believe there are a number of factors contributing to this trendline. Chief among them is poorly-constructed outreach efforts that pre-date the pandemic. The championing of quarterback community-based organizations (CBOs) has led in some cases to an overreliance on them, with services concentrated on the economically-vulnerable populations in a handful of historic neighborhoods around uptown – ‘the Crescent.’

And yet, decades of displacement through development and gentrification have forced many people further out into apartment homes in Steele Creek, Mint Hill, Pineville, Northlake and University City. Still others have moved over the border into nearby counties where resources are even more scarce. Many in our region who are one crisis away from economic catastrophe live in micro-geographies that have historically featured relatively little dedicated outreach. And as opportunity corridors and redevelopment take hold, these are the communities where even more displaced residents will be moving.

We believe building infrastructure to reach these populations is imperative for area nonprofits. We at Next Stage are committed to addressing this challenge head-on through community voice efforts designed to spark engagement, build buy-in and activate programming through a listen-first philosophy designed to bridge community through trust-building.

Going where others are not

Next Stage has always focused on the bleeding edge for social good. It is the role of provocateur that we are uniquely positioned to play.

Back in 2017, we launched an incubator for emerging nonprofit organizations – many of them CBOs led by people of color – at a time when most philanthropists and civic leaders were loath to engage them. ‘Not another new nonprofit’ was a common refrain as we worked with founder-led organizations on the outskirts of social impact.

Skip ahead a few years and the disruption of the pandemic mixed with a renewed fight for racial and social justice has made CBOs not only fundable but a civic imperative. Corporate foundations and community-giving organizations that once created barriers for smaller, early-growth organizations are now making them a centerpiece of their work.

As a result, we dismantled our brick-and-mortar incubator, moved it online, and now give it away for free. Our job is not to compete where there are robust resources, but instead to think ahead and go where others aren’t.

We probably read Blue Ocean Strategy a few too many times, but somehow it works for us.

That is the energy we are taking into our next social impact venture – Community Voice-Enabled Demand Generation.

The process of building referral pipelines

Acquisition is a significant challenge facing nonprofits. It has been a barrier on the resource development side for years, where organizations struggle to tap into new networks or pioneer relationships with those who relocate to our community. And now it is impacting their programs.

That is due in part to a system of supports that trace the origination of relationships back to systems and safety net organizations. A first-time relationship with a resident is most often to come reactively, as someone reaches out for support in a crisis – e.g. access to housing, food, transportation or health services. The act of a resident, often in desperation, starts a chain of referrals to not only help that person in the moment but also to help ensure that the crisis is not experienced again.

But what about people who never reach out for that sort of support? If economic mobility is the Charlotte region’s central challenge as a community, how is that being addressed if the primary entry point to services is through crisis?

We believe there are many people who are under-employed and under-resourced in our communities who may never be reached because they do not step foot in a safety net provider organization. If we are to address our signature challenges, we must be willing to not just be reactive to need but proactive to opportunity, pioneering relationships that build demand for local services.

Next Stage’s Community Voice-Enabled Demand Generation is a four-step process:

  • Step 1: Constituent Modeling – The first step is to identify ideal characteristics of your target audience and map to micro-geographies using available tools like census data, Claritas and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer.

    The premise of this service line is that there are many residents throughout Charlotte who could benefit from a nonprofit’s programming, but they are unknown, unmapped and, as-of-yet, unreached. The first phase of Next Stage’s work aims to build an understanding of the organization and its ideal client population, identify neighborhoods with residents who match those traits, and design a plan for community voice engagement.
  • Step 2: Community Listening – With geographies selected for engagement, we conduct relational outreach and community listening to build understanding and spark relationships.

    We believe that every voice matters – and that diverse perspectives belong at every table. Our team engages community members and gathers data to provide clients with actionable insights into the needs of their community. We see community engagement as a two-way street – constituents must be given an opportunity to inform the programming that will serve to intervene in their lives to make for a better future.
  • Step 3: Program Aligning – Feedback from community listening efforts inform an effort of aligning programming and services to match needs and leverage community assets.

    It is a fallacy to assume that the absence of knowledge about your programming is the missing ingredient holding economically-vulnerable Charlotteans back. The absence of trust in systems is a decades-long trendline that will not be overcome through digital marketing or one-time efforts. We utilize community-voice research as a jumping-off point for aligning programming and determining a pathway forward.
  • Step 4: Neighborhood Linking – The last step in our process is to link neighbors to service providers through informed marketing and engagement efforts that lead to new relational networks and an ongoing pipeline.

    With a strong, community-informed plan for programming deployment and neighborhood-level communication in place, we partner with our nonprofit clients to onboard the organization to the communities engaged. This includes brokering key relationships and implementing neighborhood-level events and activities that will launch the organization’s services.

We aim to be a catalyst for these activities and make no assurances that these efforts alone will ignite resident demand for services. As Helen wrote last week, “people need staying power with intentionality and action,” and becoming a mainstay in these communities will be essential to realize positive outcomes.

But we believe it will never happen if we don’t prioritize it as a need and do something about it.

Our vision is the creation of new referral pipelines constructed through trust-building, where service providers originating relationships in new parts of the county can serve as an entrypoint for other nonprofits with reinforcing programming.

We are piloting this service line in 2023 with the goal of expanding it in 2024 and beyond. If your organization would like to learn more, we welcome the opportunity to discuss.

Together we can activate a new approach to winning the trust of the communities our missions call us to serve.