With the coronavirus outbreak branching further across the globe and causing widespread anxiety and disruption, nonprofit professionals have been facing unprecedented challenges.
Many are taking decisive and difficult actions in order to have chances of surviving the COVID-19 crisis.
Amongst many obstacles that nonprofit professionals need to surmount are also the novel implications to nonprofit communications and messaging, especially with donors and funders.
A tone-deaf email or Facebook post can damage a business or organization’s name and reputation even during ‘good times’. During a crisis, when everyone is on edge, the damage from poor communications can be devastating.
Therefore, for nonprofits looking to keep serving their beneficiaries, there are some key considerations to keep in mind.
Before we dive deep into the tips, it’s important to note that creating trust is paramount in times of crisis. In fact, when the environment becomes uncertain, unpredictable, or dangerous, the only way to lead is through trust.
The role of crisis leadership
Jason Richmond, Founder and Chief Culture Officer of Ideal Outcomes and author of “Culture Spark: 5 Steps to Ignite and Sustain Organizational Growth” defines crisis leadership as being about putting other people first, similar to the concept of servant leadership.
Key qualities that servant leaders exhibit include recognizing that every person adds value and deserves trust and respect, that purpose is an inspiring motivator and that serving others is paramount. Crisis leaders bring people together, and they do this through thoughtful words and actions. It is about looking inward, reflecting on what needs to be done, and inspiring others to join in.
He differentiates crisis leadership from crisis management which is defined as being about agile planning and execution. It’s about managing reputation and social media and assigning critical tasks. It requires root-cause analysis, problem-solving, and solid execution. It requires direction and a sense of control. Crisis management is about pushing outward and getting the right things done.
Both crisis leadership and crisis management are essential to nurture if your nonprofit is to communicate effectively during the time of the COVID-19 crisis.
A unique challenge that nonprofit communicators have is that they have several different audiences to communicate.
Beneficiaries, board members, donors, volunteers, and staff members need to be updated and informed about how your organization is responding to this crisis.
In this article, we focus mostly on donor communications, but most of these tips are relevant to communicating with other stakeholders too.
Best Nonprofit Communication Practices During Covid19
1. Assess Risk and Revisit Strategy
Now is the time to revisit your organizational strategy, including any marketing, fundraising, and communications plans.
Address and assess your nonprofit’s level and type of risk. For example, do you work directly with at-risk populations like the elderly or those with preexisting conditions? If so, your response should first focus on mitigating their risk of exposure and negative outcomes.
Even if you’re not working with at-risk populations, you need to think through risks of exposure to employees, volunteers, and program participants. Outline all the potential scenarios your nonprofit could face in the future and how you will address them should they occur.
Establish and share a written emergency communications tree. This is the plan that your organization will follow to communicate with key internal and external stakeholders. Establish a process for reaching stakeholders through combinations of emails, intranet postings, fliers, posters, social media posts, FAQs, video calls, and more. The plan should identify simple key messages, a reliable process, and the methods for providing continual updates and collecting feedback from stakeholders.
Here are some stakeholders you might need to be communicating with:
- Board of Directors
- Funders and Grantmakers
- Partner Organizations
- Government Agencies
Pro tip: Edit or cancel your recurring/pre-programmed communications. Much of what you had set up to be sent out over the course of the next few months won’t be relevant anymore. It’s time to cancel or adapt those scheduled email drip campaigns and social media posts and get more plugged in with the reality of what’s going on.
2. Form a COVID-19 Comms Task Force
This task force should include representatives from your key areas, including fundraising, human resources, communications, operations, legal, and more.
Determine the task force’s command and decision-making structure. For key decisions, who is the ultimate authority?
Only specific, appointed people from your organization’s COVID-19 task force should be communicating with employees and external audiences. Even then, these appointed individuals should only answer questions they know the answers to. Otherwise, they should say “We’ll look into this and get back to you as soon as possible.”
It’s also very important to establish a protocol for drafting messages, approving them, and releasing them. It’s important to agree internally about what will be communicated before any announcements are made to assure that messaging will be consistent across different audiences.
However, make sure this protocol allows for a quick turnaround as crisis communications need quick communication.
Pro tip: This task force can also create a crisis communication plan.
3. Map Communications Strategies to Audiences
Understanding your audience and tailoring your communications to their needs is always important, and crisis response is no different.
If you already have plenty of insights and data about your audience, you will have a head start. But even then, taking the time to regroup is important in such extraordinary circumstances.
Review your audiences’ needs. Who are the key stakeholders with a need for information from your organization? What information do they need, who needs it first, and for what purpose?
- most important information for the specific audience in question
- their emotional context and needs
- the objective of the communication and how you can best deliver it
Develop messaging and communications strategies for each audience segment, and assign a communications lead. Then think… What communications tools will you need? How will you communicate with each audience)? Have you tested your emergency communications system and tools? What should your tone be (e.g. calm, reasoned)?
Pro tip: Listen, track, and measure your audience’s response. Use monitoring tools to understand how your audience is reacting to the crisis and your organizations’ response to it. Adjust your communications accordingly.
4. No Space for Silence
In a crisis, there’s little space for silence.
Make sure you address some of the key questions your donors might have: “What are they doing with donations right now?” or, “How are they ensuring the safety of their beneficiaries?”
By addressing these questions yourself, you will be eliminating any speculation and doubt. The longer you wait to communicate with your stakeholders, the more likely confusion and panic will set in. Even as you’re still assessing your risks and preparing your communication strategy, don’t delay in getting an initial message out to your staff and community.
However, it’s very important to take a bit of time to think before communicating anything. Take a breather and always figure out what is going on before speaking or sharing. Yes, it’s important to share information, but you must do so deliberately.
Without sufficient forethought, it is easy to share misinformation and, therefore, to have to change messaging or shift direction too soon. And this won’t reflect well on your organization or your leadership.
Regularly reach out to your contacts with updates as the situation progresses. These regular communications should be informative and valuable to your recipients. Don’t just send out updates with nothing to report, cluttering inboxes and feeds!
Pro tip: Consider using video instead of plain text. Video can help relay the subtleties of communication that text can’t. And in the times of social distancing, seeing a human face and hearing a human voice will be very much appreciated. Bonus points for getting your leadership on video. (But keep the video short!)
5. It’s Not “Business as Usual”
COVID-19 pandemic has been a very disruptive and challenging experience for many people and organizations around the world.
Pretending that it’s not isn’t going to help. Therefore, it’s very important to address the situation as it is.
However, even when addressing the gravity of the situation, you can remain positive – without sugarcoating anything.
Express optimism and your belief and trust in everyone’s ability to persevere. Thank your donors sincerely for all that they do and the impact they have. Let them know you feel confident you will all weather the storm together.
Be honest and be kind, as well as vulnerable and empathetic. Realness and authenticity will be very much appreciated.
And, continuing to act and communicate as “planned” might also come off as out of touch or insensitive. Imagine being quarantined with your family, trying to juggle care for your parents, children, and working from home, only to receive an email inviting you to donate to your alma mater for the Alumni Giving Day as if nothing was happening. Remember that the tone of communication has shifted in these times to a more empathetic, heartfelt, and reassuring voice.
Pro tip: Keep up to date. What might have felt like a good message yesterday might not be the right one today. Stay on top of the news and adjust messaging accordingly. When you share information, cite your original source. Make sure it’s aligned with trustworthy sources like the CDC or Johns Hopkins and local health and safety authorities. Avoid any media sources that might be viewed as biased.
6. Care About Your Donors
Yes, it’s incredibly important to update your stakeholders on what it is you’re doing to serve and protect your beneficiaries. And it’s important to be vulnerable about your own experience as an organization. Vulnerability helps create a connection between you and your donors.
However, it’s also important to be mindful so that your communications don’t turn into too much of a ‘me, me, me’ content. Remember, one of the most powerful words in a nonprofit’s vocabulary is “you.” Focus on donor care above all else, whether it’s about how you’re changing your plans in response to the pandemic or about what you’re accomplishing with their donations.
How can you hear from your stakeholders and donors? How can you invite them into a conversation? What are the best ways to serve them and be there for them in these challenging times? How can you add value to their life at this moment?
Are you a library that can share some free resources? Or a theatre that can stream some free exhibitions? Or maybe you’re a research foundation that can bring in scientists to talk facts?
Think about how you can add value, instead of thinking only about how you can get value from your donors.
For example, Family Lives listed practical advice for families in self-isolation. Amnesty International UK created a gif to raise awareness about the spread of hate and racism connected with the virus; and Good Things Foundation released information about accessing digital healthcare to support people who may have to do this for the first time due to the virus. Mental Health Foundation shared information about looking after your mental health during an outbreak and Mind wrote about coronavirus and your wellbeing, focussing on planning ahead for self-isolation.
7. Think Clear and Accessible
Information that you share (always, but especially now) needs to be clear and accessible. Use graphics, infographics, and brief text. These can quickly share information in an unambiguous way.
If you are sharing images with text via social media, don’t forget to include a link to a web page where the same information can be read and/or repeat the text in your post.
As more data surfaces, be careful so as to not overwhelm your audience with information and, with that, also muddle your message. Use direct sentences with active not passive verbs, include only the essential details, and keep it short.
Lead with and focus on the facts so people know what to do. Don’t recommend ten different directions for people to go in. Be clear and explicit. Don’t create more noise and confusion by injecting your opinion.
And really think about what you’re communicating. Does everyone need to know you’re encouraging your staff to work remotely when that’s what almost every organization is doing? Really think about what does and doesn’t need communicating, we are all being bombarded with too much info right now.
Pro tip: Only ever link to one page which you are keeping up to date. As the situation develops you don’t want people to be seeing outdated information.
8. Language Matters
How we talk about COVID-19 affects how we respond to it. The framing of the stories we share and the words we use influences what we think and do.
Read this excellent article about 8 Tips for Framing Covid-19 by Ella Saltmarshe.
Uplift in Ireland, suggests this messaging to celebrate solidarity instead of panic:
“No matter who we are or where we come from, we are all in this together. If each one of us makes a change to protect ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and communities, we will protect each other”
“This crisis is going to get much worse and people are being selfish. In a few weeks, we could descend into mayhem and anarchy.”
See Uplift’s Covid-19 framing guide for more tips.
Pro tip: Think critically about the images and words you use. Avoid photography that may feed harmful stereotypes, fear, or panic about the virus. Steer clear of sensationalist and divisive language. Be as specific, accurate, and empathetic as possible, and think about how your images will affect your audiences. Always have multiple people review the content going out (at least two).
9. Ask for What You Need
While raising funds during a crisis is certainly more tricky (unless you’re a hospital or a food bank), it’s not completely out of question.
With so many businesses and individuals struggling right now it can feel awkward to make an ask — particularly of a financial nature. However, keep in mind that your donors and funders support you because they care deeply about what you do.
For many donors, making a donation or sharing your fundraiser will make them feel good and like they can make a difference when so much feels out of their control.
There are ways to ask your supporters for help. And it doesn’t have to be just for money. Let your donors and volunteers know how they can help your organization in ways other than giving. That also keeps donors emotionally connected to your mission and its work.
Make sure you acknowledge the context and the current climate. This really does make a difference in humanizing your brand.
Even a simple “It feels weird to be fundraising right now, but…” can go a long way in showing your supporters that you’re listening and caring.
How to approach a Donor?
Get even less formal than usual and avoid a targeted ask. Instead, just leave a blank space for donors to write in an amount that works for them. Example:
“We know these are trying times, and any support you can provide is greatly appreciated. If you can, please consider matching your last gift of $25, or writing in an amount, no matter how small, that is more comfortable for you today.”
With major donors, you might want to apply a bit of a different approach. Be honest about need and urgency, especially with large donors- ‘We need to raise x amount by y date or z will happen.’
Highlight recent examples of generosity. Inspire others with a testimonial from a donor who stepped up in this time of crisis.
Pro tip: Create an “emergency relief” fund for things like utility bills, rent, salaries, and other expenses. Consider asking a super donor for a zero-interest loan to pay for expenses. Make specific appeals to specific donor segments for specific needs as outlined above. For example, you could create ‘wish lists’ of items you need to get funded.
10. A “Thank You” a Day
Automated responses are huge time-savers in ordinary times, assuring that your donors receive prompt thank you’s for their donations.
But a more personal, additional ‘thank you’ is golden, especially now. This can be a mailed letter that includes some insert material, a welcome package for new donors, a simple hand-written note or, even better, a phone call.
The initial shot of ‘feeling good’ donors get from giving doesn’t last long. To sustain that, they require an ongoing gratitude practice. Thank your donors for being kind, caring, and generous. It will make your supporters want to stick with you!
Make sure you emphasize that you’re there for those who support your organization and you want to make sure they have the support they need during this difficult time.
This can greatly improve your relationships with your supports, which can translate to longer relationships and increased giving post-crisis.
Pro tip: You can even film some short personalized ‘thank you’ videos for your donors. These will be very much appreciated.
11. Feel Free To Share Some Fun
Your supporters are getting plenty of doom and gloom from the news. Your nonprofit can provide a temporary break from that by providing some much-needed positivity and entertainment to those isolating at home.
Post a contest or post quiz questions about a theme somehow relevant to your work to help keep people’s minds off the disaster. Share your favorite coloring book pages, link to YouTube videos, and post the occasional meme.
Just be sure that you’re taking the emergency seriously and ensure you’re not making fun of a serious situation.
Now is a good time to think about creative ways to communicate with your donors.
Think about how you can recreate “in-person” moments online. Consider hosting a cultivation “social hour” led by organization leadership, campaign chair, and any subject matter experts (physician, teacher, curator) at the organization.
Pro tip: If possible, communicate candidly about your learnings, highlight stories of courage and hope, and demonstrate the ways your community is coming together.
12. Communicate Internally
While this article focuses mainly on external communications (i.e. with donors), don’t forget about your internal stakeholders (i.e. staff and volunteers).
Communicate on a regular basis with employees to let them know of any ongoing developments and what your organization is doing to handle COVID-19.
Prepare statements/intranet news for employees and regularly pass on information to them.
Prepare new guidelines for staff and volunteers to follow to keep themselves and clients safe. Share any resources available for staff experiencing added stress during this time.
Make sure your staff and volunteers know whom to contact if they have a question or concern and what to do if they are contacted by a journalist or media outlet.
Your beneficiaries need to hear from you too. Communicate clearly how will program and service offerings change during this crisis and what would you like for your beneficiaries to do to continue participating in your programs. Share the exact steps that are being taken to protect their safety. Make sure your beneficiaries also know whom to contact if they have a question or concern.
Communicate with the Board too. Tell them how they can support your organization’s efforts to respond to this crisis. Share with them how are you ensuring the safety of everyone involved in your organization’s programs and services.
Pro tip: To make it easier on you, always identify the single most important thing the specific stakeholder group needs to know, develop one central message, and then go from there.
13. Do What You Can, Prepare for the Future
We have no way of knowing how the coronavirus pandemic will alter life as we know it. But, one thing is certain, online fundraising is more important now than ever… and it’s here to stay.
Spend time (and even valuable resources) preparing to heavily rely on digital fundraising for the foreseeable future. Make sure your website is up to date. Test all your donation pages (or create new ones if necessary). Make sure every call to action button works properly.
Develop a good post-disaster communications plan. A plan can make a real difference in how easy or hard it will be for your organization to resume operations after a disaster.
Disasters, including the current COVID-19 pandemic, bring high levels of chaos, and the more you can do ahead of time that will help you manage that chaos, the better off those you serve will be.
Some Nonprofit Communication Resources
- Open Source Google Doc
- Open Source Examples/Resources Google Sheet
- Social Media Hashtag: #Comms4Good
- Talking About Coronavirus: Centering Language around Inclusion, Empowerment, and Justice – The Opportunity Agenda
- 10 Ways Inclusive Leaders Can Mitigate Bias When Communicating About Coronavirus – Brevity & Wit
- National COVID-19 Messaging Document – Brave New Words
- COVID19 COMMS4GOOD Resources, Examples, and Best Practices (primarily from foundations) – The Communications Network
- COVID-19 – Racial Equity & Social Justice Resources – Racial Equity Tools
Without a question, we’re living in unusual times.
There’s much to ponder and much to act upon. But getting very deliberate about how you communicate as an organization is essential.
Build and keep strong connections to donors by crafting clear, thoughtful plans and increasing personalized outreach. This crisis will end at some point. And when it does, the relationships that you invested in will ultimately pay off.
We are all learning through this new situation together, and we want to show appreciation to our community.
During this challenging time, we are continuing to offer our perspectives and lessons learned from working with thousands of nonprofits. Click here to access our COVID-19 Resource Center.
Here you will find resources that provide best practices and optimal strategies to help your organization build a path through this crisis and beyond.
Furthermore, Donorbox is reducing its platform fee to 0.5% for nonprofits working directly in relief for those affected by a coronavirus for the next 2 months. Please reach out to our Donorbox team if you have any questions or concerns that we might help you with!