Redefining Representation: Empowering Voices and Shaping Narratives in the Nonprofit Sector


In my twenty-five years of experience in the nonprofit sector, I can’t count how many times I have heard organizations use the phrase “we are a voice for the voiceless.”

In the early days of my work in this space, I used similar phrases without giving much thought to the implication of my words. I remember it was through the prompting of a friend that I began to reconsider the language I was using and the lens through which I viewed our work with the communities we served.

When working for an organization I founded, a friend in Guatemala heard me refer to her homeland as a “third-world country.” She pulled me aside and respectfully asked me not to use that terminology when referring to her country because it was disrespectful, condescending, and implied that Guatemala was deficient in resources and beauty compared to other countries. She asked me to use the term “developing country” instead. Because of her honest feedback, I never used the description “third-world” again.

Traditionally, adopting these phrases has proven effective in striking a sympathetic response for those we represent. But we should be seeking empathy rather than sympathy. As my friend did with me and as I now do with clients — I invite you to consider that this type of language is potentially harmful and ultimately counterproductive.

By definition, the word voiceless means having no voice, mute, or speechless and implies that people living in communities historically underrepresented and disadvantaged due to unjust systems and laws are void of a voice — or voice-less. This statement couldn’t be a less accurate depiction of the people our organizations serve.

The communities we casually presume to be voiceless have abundant wisdom, understanding, and intimate knowledge of their own needs. They carry with them the solutions to the issues we attempt to mitigate on their behalf. They hold personal stories of injustice and inequalities within their hearts and minds, and countless voices go unheard — and far too many of us are not actively listening.

We’ve made some societal advances toward balancing the scales of injustice — minimal compared to the work still in front of us. As workers in the nonprofit space, we have a beautiful opportunity to consider the importance and implications of our words and how we use our platforms of advantage.

We can begin by scrutinizing our internal and external messaging and asking if the words we choose are potentially damaging and counterproductive to moving toward more equitable systems. We can commit to asking good questions, listening to the answers within the communities we serve, and developing accurate representations.

At Liminal Creative, we are passionate about careful, deliberate, and thoughtful messaging and communications. We believe that words have the power to discourage, inflame and confine or to energize, influence, provoke hope, expand understanding, and shape cultures.

We would love to partner with you to unearth the words that help to reveal the importance of your work… and honor the amazing people at the center of your organization’s story.

“Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Bill Cummings

Bill is a seasoned nonprofit founder, leader, marketer, fundraiser, and storyteller. He is the founder and former executive director of Lemonade International and has served in leadership positions with Zoe Empowers and Restore NYC. He works with clients on organizational strategy, branding, fundraising, and communications.