The case for community-centered languages that help groups succeed in chaos and complexity.
Organizations exist in a complex landscape. It’s hard to make sense of economic, political and climate chaos. How do you make plans for hiring and fundraising when you face existential questions about the ability, even the need, to meet your mission?
The nonprofits/NGOs with whom I typically work are staffed by creative, sharp and high performing people. But organizations struggle amidst complexity. Collective sensemaking is tough. And coming together to solve big problems is impossible when you don’t know how to describe the situation.
There are ways to assess and meet complexity. You can build listening, learning and new “operating languages” into your organization’s culture. This means investing in community and mutual aid, learning to really listen to people instead of market to them, and understanding the deep narratives that are influencing systems.
Organizations aren’t built for chaos, complexity and rapid change. We have human resources departments and budgets, payrolls, multi-year fundraising strategies and big investments in data, marketing and communications. The budgets of most NGOs are tied up in people and their skills, salaries and expectations. Organizations, even small ones, are like the Titanic steaming headlong into a million icebergs of chaos and uncertainty.
The economic and political climate are much different than just five or ten years ago. And so is the “climate” climate. We’ve experienced a pandemic that, so far, has killed well over a million Americans and disabled many more. We don’t, frankly, have any idea of the long-term impacts of COVID on American public health. Fewer living humans means fewer people able to work. Far more humans with health problems means fewer people able to do the same work as before.
We also have a political system turned inside out by disinformation, white nationalism, protests and even political violence. Political change can be good. But long-term political uncertainty puts the brakes on innovation and investment. The effects wash over nonprofits sooner or later.
We’re also seeing climate change creating systemic changes to the natural environment. More frequent extreme weather is producing flooding, wildfires, hurricanes and 100-year events that pop up every couple years. Whole towns have been lost, fire and flood insurance is unavailable in many places. Conversations about city rebuilding versus abandonment are no longer hypothetical.
Throw some inflation and big tech sector layoffs into the mix and it’s no wonder we’re seeing dropping charitable donations. Whether it’s fear or falling incomes, people are hunkering down.
Organizations that are slow to adapt or learn are often viewed as having structural problems: too many layers, too much internal hierarchy, too little collaboration, not the right skills, too many managers. Such critiques may have merit. But they’re assessments that frame organizations as entities independent of the community and systems around them.
Language is part speaking, of course. Language is also dependent on listening. Organizational operating languages guide what we say. And what we hear. Our collective ability to listen to and learn from the community can and should ground organizational language and the planning, responses and systems built from that language.
Community, Listening and Narrative
Language is the foundation of our organizational structures. We talk of human resources, leadership, power, evaluation, deliverables, products and hierarchy. And so we have organizations focused on managing those organizational components. We may talk of analytics and data that informs marketing. But this is aimed at getting attention, selling a product or getting a donation.
What if we use a community-centered operating language that rebuilds or at least redirects the focus of our structures? This could allow us to see crises in advance, engage more people in their resolution, and weave together bigger and stronger networks that can experiment, innovate and share the progress (and problems) of complexity and chaos.
A community operating language could have three pillars:
 Turn outward.
Prioritize your community of supporters, families, clients, neighbors and employees instead of owners, board, products or endowments. Consider how cooperative ownership structures work: a community of people is responsible for product and process. This spreads risk, value and profits (sometimes to the chagrin of capitalism). But it engages new ideas and innovation from a broader field of people than just board, staff and consultants.
Membership groups used to offer meaningful elections on board members and big decisions like budgets and executive leadership. Some still do. Associations and volunteer-driven groups often offer training and skill-building.
Nonprofits can also model and teach community engagement. Organizing groups can build community or political power, of course. But they also teach people how to build their own networks to offer mutual aid and solve community problems. Think about how feedback from people and groups in these ripples of community organizing can inform your organizational learning and planning.
 Build your listening muscles.
Sit down, slow down and listen to your community, including your team, partners and networks. And don’t assume listening only exists in the marketing, sales or fundraising channels.
Any mention of listening usually launches a conversation about analytics and data. If we examine and really (really!) understand our web, email and social analytics then we’ll know what people do and want. If we run smart tests we’ll learn more from the data we’ll learn more, optimize our pages and form and sell more products or raise more money.
Sorry but page testing and analytics gathering are cool and useful but they’re not listening to your community.
Ask for feedback. Invite community leaders/members in for real conversations. Ask questions. Expose the gaps in your understanding. Give people a chance to tell you something, guide you and gain value (compensation, ownership, skills, etc.) from an active listening process.
 Identify, understand and engage with narratives.
Narratives are the core programming language of community and society. The central stories we use to make sense of the world – things like individualism, freedom, meritocracy, racism and religion – shape who influences communities and how communications works (or fails).
A single organization probably can’t control the impact of narratives or shape and drive new narratives. But an organization can and should recognize the narratives, stories and values operating in the community. An organization can operate in and learn alongside networks of groups. An organization, better yet a network, that is facing, conversing with and engaging the community can listen for narrative shifts and signals. A network engaged with community can even help shape new narratives. This could support short term fundraising, long-term existence and simply help an organization plan and manage its future.