Over the past few months, Next Stage has been developing a new approach to advancing social good — offering workshops and learning management for professionals on a range of topics including movement-building brand marketing, effective forms of collaboration and dynamic methods of building public-private partnerships. You can learn more and register for our webinars here.

The first topic we are tackling is Community Voice, which we define as “a two-way directional approach geared toward listening to individuals and institutions alike while building trust as an asset, embracing transparent communication and moving change-worthy initiatives forward together.” It is a concept that has existed for some time – the Google Ngram Viewer suggests a spike in its usage in the 1990s – but it has taken on increasing importance in the 2020s.

The one-two punch of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in early 2020 shifted approaches to reaching people in need. Systems and service providers realized the importance of building stronger relationships with the communities they were serving.

But in the years since, we’ve noticed something else occurring – an appropriation of the language of social good, transforming definitions and ultimately devaluing the concepts they represent. It is a scourge and we feel the need to call it out. 

Words, Words, Words

It wasn’t that long ago that other buzzy impact terms like ESG and CRT were vilified politically, twisted in their meaning to suggest something they were not. DEI is similarly under attack, with efforts across the country to either limit or completely eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on public university campuses. Corporations that once championed these concepts have quietly shifted their strategies, downplaying past statements and pulling out thesauruses to find less triggering language. 

Inside the world of social good, we have also observed an opposite trend. As opposed to running from these terms, organizations have adopted them to describe their programming, whether earned or not. Large, agency-like nonprofits have taken to calling themselves “community-based organizations,” stretching the definition to fit as new sources of funding flow to trust-built neighborhood groups. The concept of community voice has also been appropriated, with every digital survey and focus group rebranded to suggest a deeper and more impactful form of engagement.

We know language matters, so who defines what constitutes authentic trust-building in the community? If every form of engagement is rechristened as Community Voice, won’t that devalue its substantial potential to disrupt the status quo?

In short: yes. 

Recently, Next Stage published a community report on the topic – Inside-Out: The Case for Community Voice – highlighting the role Community Voice plays in bridging divides that limit referral pipelines and slow pandemic recovery. In it, we make a passionate argument for increasing community voice efforts to overcome a crisis we fear is dismantling decades of forward progress on social causes

A Crisis of Trust

According to Gallup’s annual survey, confidence in America’s ‘trusted’ institutions has eroded significantly in recent years. While this trend of declining trust has been decades in the making, extending back more than 40 years, there has been a sharp downward dip, with community trust in businesses, government, faith communities, media and the medical, justice and education systems at an all-time low.

It doesn’t take long on social media to see how this mistrust is breeding misinformation, upending social norms, and fostering disdain across socioeconomic lines. With the rise of AI and lifelike avatars of real humans, the future looks uncertain for how to recapture trust in systems.

Nonprofits have been similarly feeling this pinch. Traditionally, nonprofits have not self-identified as being part of ‘the system.’ Instead, they think of governments, corporations and institutional philanthropy in those terms, seeing their programming on the same side of the table as the people they aim to serve. And yet, these organizations are wrestling with the same lack of engagement as these other institutions. They are learning that ‘systemness is in the eye of the beholder.’

Not all nonprofits are having the same experience. Those 501c3 organizations that had previously invested in growing relationships with the constituents they hope to serve have fared much better than those that largely sat back, depending on referral pipelines from safety net partners. Nonprofits that often brag about how many organizations they receive referrals from are more often passive in building unique relationships themselves, satisfied instead to await the person in need to come through their front door.

At Next Stage, we believe there is another way – one that requires an increased focus on relationship-building ahead of the deployment of services. It is a shift in practice that is too often not funded, not prioritized and not done effectively.

It is a shift that centers Community Voice as an essential first step.

Championing Authenticity

With such a challenge of mistrust to overcome, nonprofits that slap the term Community Voice on pre-existing strategies are likely to find themselves moving backward. 

We recognize the challenges faced by service providers, who struggle with limited resources to address trendlines like this crisis of trust. This is why, as a follow-up to our report, we have launched a webinar series on the topic of Community Voice.

On May 8 at 11 am, Next Stage’s Senior Director of Community Voice, Helen Hope Kimbrough, and I will lead a free webinar entitled “Programming Matters: How to Strengthen Nonprofit Effectiveness Through Community Voice.” We will walk through the ways Community Voice aids in evaluating program efficacy, increasing constituent acquisition, deepening partnerships and growing peer engagement. It is a session ideal for chief administrators, program directors and philanthropic leaders.

On May 30 at 11 am, Helen and I will be back for another free webinar entitled “Marketing Matters: How Community Voice Leads to More Effective Marketing.” This session will focus on how community voice can help your organization understand its true value proposition, test market language, leverage gatekeepers and “neighborhood PHDs,” and tell stories that celebrate equity and honor the people you profile.

We believe every organization has the potential to adopt approaches to community voice that lead to stronger services, more equitable storytelling, and ultimately better decision-making. We hope to see you at our webinars in May.