Donald Trump

Trump reminds us of the power of voice

By Guest contributor 11 November 2016

Through the din of the post-US election results, I heard a different—but not unrelated—story on the radio. It was about British charity Voice 21, who are working to get more lessons on verbal communication taught in schools. They argue that being able to articulate themselves effectively through speech is crucial to young people’s empowerment, and for social mobility—something I can well believe. Alongside literacy and numeracy, they want ‘oracy’ on the curriculum.

Oracy is a key weapon in the political arsenal, and it’s one we’ve seen wielded both sharply and bluntly during the recent US election campaigns. Numerous supporters of Trump have said that they like Trump because he ‘says what he thinks’ or ‘tells it like it is’. In a context of increasing political correctness, voicing what his supporters see as ‘unpopular truths’ has clearly made an impact. Perhaps they feel he is trustworthy. That he is talking directly to them. That he is speaking up for issues that concern them. Trump believes he is giving a voice to the voiceless. What has alarmed and shocked so many people is the tone of anger and hatred in that voice.

Many also speculate that Trump succeeded not just because people felt he spoke to them, but because the other parties didn’t. We’ve seen already how not listening to—and not speaking to—the grievances of huge swathes of their voters has damaged political parties on the left and right of centre in the UK and Europe. In this regard, Trump’s likening of his win to Brexit plus, plus, plus may have been the most accurate thing he’s said this past year.

Charities should take note. Offering a voice to the voiceless and empowering the powerless is a role many charities feel they fulfil—even those that don’t campaign. But in reality, how much do charities really listen to these voices? How much are the views of the people charities serve steering strategy, determining mission, shaping activities?

This is something we’ll discuss in our upcoming paper—co-written with Keystone Accountability—on user voice, due to be published next week. In it, we outline how the people for whom a charity exists—its users—should be involved at each stage of its ‘impact cycle’. We even touch on issues of word choice: What are the implications of different terms like ‘user’, ‘beneficiary’ and ‘customer’? How do they carry meaning and imply various power relationships?

The report aims to get charities to re-evaluate how they enact this role of ‘a voice for the voiceless’. We hope it will help them to think more deeply about they support people through their work, assess whether they are enabling people to speak rather than speaking for them, and to take positive steps towards change—something that feels rather more urgent now.

As Obama said recently: ‘One voice can change a room, a city, a country, the world.’ Charities have nothing to lose by listening.

This report on user voice will be available on our website on Tuesday 15 November.

We’ll be discussing whether charities can help heal divisions in society at an event on Thursday 17 November.