By Helen Hope Kimbrough

“The best questions get to the heart of the matter.” – David Ehrlichman, Impact Networks

A common first question when meeting someone is “What do you do for a living?” Responses range from reflections on a journey as to how someone got to a certain point in life including where you grew up and what schools or universities did you attend to where you currently work and what drew you to that job. The answers are like a resume that’s developed over time – a mix of academic and professional experiences that document achievements, accomplishments and milestones. Not everyone responds to this question with excitement. Some people dive right in eager to respond while others are bothered by this line of questioning.

Why, you may ask? Because it’s a standard way of questioning that can be seen as a way of sizing each other up rather than as an authentic exchange of communication.

A few weeks ago, I was attending an event and a different question was posed, “What does your typical day look like?” This question was asked in an unassuming way and didn’t pry about my professional or personal status in life. No one had ever posed a question like that to me with that kind of care and intention. I immediately paused and stated that I was surprised by that question, but welcomed it. Then we talked about the importance of getting to know people on a different level – not in the mundane or standard way. This question made a favorable impression on me and on the one who thoughtfully asked it.

So what does communication have to do with community voice? Everything! How one shows up matters and how one questions or communicates deeply matters. 

Just recently, Janet, Josh and I were asked to provide the keynote at the 22nd annual ‘Profitable Communication for Nonprofits’ workshop hosted by the International Association of Business Communicators/Charlotte (IABC). We tackled three different topics, Marketing, Philanthropy/Fund Development, and Community Voice (which I honed in on.) To prepare appropriately on how communication impacts community voice, I asked several nonprofit leaders and organizations to share their reflections on the following. Here’s a summary of what they said:

Communication and messaging can “get lost in the noise” especially for intended recipients. Thus, how can it be positioned effectively to ensure community voice?

Speak from the heart and share the purpose, connecting personally with your audience. Such as, “We all want our kids and children to be successful” is a message that strongly resonates with parents and families. This message is inspirational and aspirational.

Write language in a way that’s easily understood so that individuals served are familiar and comfortable with what’s being expressed. This applies to offering communication in English, Spanish, or other languages on different platforms that speak to your audience through emails, websites, flyers, text messages, voicemails, etc.

Oftentimes, organizations feel as if they have to add everything about themselves in their messaging with a long email, a long one-pager, or too much fluff. It was stated that this dilutes the main point to the intended recipients. Therefore, ensure messaging is clear and concise and possibly in a bulleted format to demonstrate impact.

For a philanthropic lunch or dinner, consider inviting one or two people from your audience to  join you at the table, giving them an opportunity to engage and interact with others in an authentic and intentional way. This is true relationship-building. This is also a way for a funder to hear directly from your recipients.

Let’s keep it real, some organizations don’t know their audience or their audience has changed, and the message doesn’t align with the mission or outcome of the organization. There’s a lack of awareness and sometimes the inability to meet people where they are. It’s been shared that less is more while outlining an overview of the organization, specific services, intended outcomes, recent accomplishments, qualitative and quantitative data as well as collaborative partnerships – all can help an organization stand out and deepen opportunities to approach and cultivate community voice.

What are ways to overcome barriers as it relates to communication and community voice?

People have had different experiences and may have been disappointed by systems in the past. Therefore, it is essential to share examples of success while being honest and realistic about what happens so that people are aware. In every exchange, be ready to listen, check your bias, and ask for feedback. This will help everyone to become better in the process.

Attend community events and gatherings to connect with people in environments where they feel comfortable, heard and validated. Plus, it may be a good time to visit locations or points of engagement where individuals regularly visit such as houses of worship, schools or community centers. While this may be no easy lift, it does give your organization one-on-one or group interaction to deepen understanding, provides a richer experience about the work you’re doing in the community, and enables you to be proximate as a way to build and cultivate trust.

At another recent cultural event, I got an opportunity to sit next to a gentleman who was introduced to me by a dear friend. This removed an initial barrier and centered me in a favorable position where he felt comfortable sharing his background of homelessness and substance abuse. He also shared information about his family (who he is deeply proud of) and how he’s been able to get life back together on his terms. Today, he serves as a community advocate and ambassador, partnering with nonprofits and companies to make sure that his community has what it needs as it relates to services and resources. He is a trusted source and leverages that to assist and help others. I appreciate how he navigates his expertise and lived experience and that he entrusted me with his story. This is an example and a gentle reminder of what community voice is all about and why communication matters.

Special thanks to supporters and individuals who helped inform this blog:  Jane Freeman and Andrew Ladd from Communities In Schools of Charlotte, Sam Smith from Greenlight Fund, Alyssa Wood from  Smart Start of Mecklenburg County, Elizabeth Trotman, Jared Keaton from AC4Ed,  International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Charlotte & Jennifer Peele from Care Ring