Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash
June 1, 2020

Balancing proactive and reactive communications during this crisis

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As the spread and impact of COVID-19 changes from day-to-day, it can be hard to determine when and how your nonprofit should respond.

  • If you have a communications plan, do you just abandon it in favor of daily reactions?
  • If you don’t already have a communications plan, is it worth the time you need to create one?
  • How do you balance being proactive and reactive, while also making room for any necessary pivots as your audience responds to what you produce?
  • Is this the time for rapid, one-size-fits-all messaging or one where you might apply some segmentation?

Big Duck’s senior strategist, Laura Fisher, and chief growth officer, Farra Trompeter, discussed how to manage your communications at this moment and shared some strategies and tactics you can experiment with.


Farra Trompeter: Hi everyone. Welcome to our webinar. Just a few housekeeping items before we get started. First of all, if you have any technical difficulties during today’s webinar and need support, please email [email protected]. We just want to let you know our webinar is scheduled for 60 minutes. We are going to make sure that there are at least 15 to 20 minutes for your questions. We know we’ve been getting a lot of questions on this topic so we’ll be sure to leave time for that. If you have any questions while we are going, feel free to submit them, but we’ll also ask for your questions toward the end. We always often get this question, “Will I get a copy of these slides?” We will be recording today’s webinar and you will get a copy of that recording after the webinar. Usually a few hours to the next day, we will send out a copy, a link to the recording, as well as several resources we mentioned.

If you would like to tweet during today’s conversation and find any helpful takeaways, please use #NPCOVID19. You’ll see that show up on our slides. Again, that’s a hashtag many folks are using for nonprofit-related resources to the COVID-19 crisis. You can also follow us as we tweet out some learnings and findings at Big Duck. Lillie Rice, our Marketing Coordinator, is with us and she’ll be sharing those. And in just a moment you will meet my lovely colleague, Laura Fisher, who will be talking with me today. So without further ado, let’s dive in.

First of all, we want to hear who’s here. So we’ve already had someone chat in who they are and where they’re calling from. Tori, thanks for joining us from sunny Santa Fe. Great to hear the weather’s nice over there. So feel free to chat in who you are. If you want to share your gender pronouns, the organization you’re with, your role, anything you’d like to share with us. We just want to see who’s here today. So let’s take a second and see who’s with us. So it looks like we’ve got, wow, lots of people chatting in and we’ve got Washington, D.C., we’ve got Georgia, Carolina from Catalyst in Miami. We’ve got someone in North Carolina. Dan from Alabama. Theresa, from here and the Foundation for New York’s Strongest. We’ve got someone named Laura from New Jersey, Peggy from the YMCA in Connecticut. Lots of people here from all over. So thank you all for joining us. Really excited to have you here with us.

Before we dive in, I just want to mention a little bit about Big Duck on the off chance this is your first webinar with us. Big Duck is a communications firm that works exclusively with nonprofit organizations. We really focus on helping organizations achieve their mission. We’re developing strong brands, strong campaigns, and strong teams. We’ll actually be touching on all of those subjects in today’s webinar, and we can’t wait to share our thoughts with you and learn from you as well. So just so you know what we’ll talk about today, we’ve already done those intros. I’m going to shortly introduce myself more officially and Laura Fisher. Then we’ll talk about what’s typically in a communications plan and then how you adapt that to this moment in this crisis. And again, as we said before, we will leave lots of time for your questions and share some resources with you.

One more check in to see who you are. We’re curious, before we formally introduce ourselves, we would love to hear from you where you are in your own communications planning, whether you actually have a plan. You might even have a regular organizational plan and a crisis communications plan. So we’re going to publish a poll and we’d just love to see where folks are. So please take a vote. And when we see most of you have voted, we’ll see where our results are. Just pick the one that best describes where you are when it comes to communications planning. All right, well it looks like we are seeing that many of you have a plan, but you need to adapt it. And again, all different resources and answers. Just give me a second here. Great. So thank you all for voting, and I hope that today’s conversation, even those of you don’t have a formal communications plan, you’ll be able to learn something from today. And those of you who are working on creating a plan, I think you’ll find something from this. The 8% of you that actually have a crisis communications plan, please feel free to chat in to us even if you don’t have questions, just comments and ideas that others might learn from your plan. So if there’s anything we’re sharing that you have found or new ideas that you’ve found helpful, please share those with everyone.

Farra Trompeter: All right. So if you are not familiar with this voice, it belongs to someone who is myself named Farra Trompeter. I am Chief Growth Officer at Big Duck. I use she/her pronouns. If you’d like to connect with me on Twitter, I would love it. I am @Farra and often one of the people behind the Big Duck handle. Again, please use #NPCOVID19. And I’m really excited to be joined today by my colleague, Laura Fisher. 

Laura Fisher: Hi everyone. My name is Laura Fisher. I’m a Senior Strategist at Big Duck and I’ve been at Big Duck for coming up on five years now. In my time at Big Duck, I’ve worked on a number of communications plans for environmental organizations, social justice organizations, community based organizations. So I’m excited to share what I’ve learned from that today as well as how you might adapt it to this world we’re living in right now. Looking forward to getting started.

Laura Fisher: Great. So we’re going to start just by talking about what is in a communications plan and then we’ll spend the bulk of today really highlighting how you might adapt some of these elements for the world we’re living in this COVID-19 crisis. So, we think about a communications plan typically as a one to three year plan that guides your communications and everything coming out of the organization. The elements we tend to see in a communications plan are these bullets you see up on the screen. And we’re going to go through each one today and talk about how we might adapt them for this particular crisis. But just to give you a high level overview, we tend to start a plan with context. You know, what’s happening for you as an organization and in your landscape and the issues that you work on.

Laura Fisher: What are your communications goals and objectives? What do you want to achieve and how are you going to measure that? Who are your audiences? Who do you need to reach to make your mission happen? Strategies and tactics, how you’re going to actually communicate, and the specific activities and actions you’re going to use to achieve your goals and objectives. Roles and responsibilities is really who’s going to make it happen and who’s responsible for what. Evaluation, how you’re going to measure success, and timeline, of course, when is all of it going to happen? So that’s typically what we see in a communications plan. Of course today we are talking about adapting this plan for this particular crisis. So, many of you, as you said, have a plan. So what are the ways in which you might adapt each of these elements for COVID-19?

Laura Fisher: So first thing to do is to, rethink your context a little bit. As I said, context is typically the landscape that you’re working in. That might mean things like your strategic plan, what’s going on in the issue area on which you work. But it’s also about what’s going on with your audiences and what their mindsets are, what they care about right now. So while you might have a strategic plan and you might know what’s going on in your world, obviously COVID-19 has really affected everyone in big and small ways. So rethinking the context is going to be really important and asking yourself in your organization some new questions about how COVID-19 will be affecting you. So how does COVID-19 affect your organization? How are big organizational plans shifting? How are others in your landscape responding? What are your peer organizations doing and saying in response to this crisis? And then really importantly, how is your community and your audiences’ mindset shifted? A lot of people are feeling new feelings, feeling new emotions, changing their behaviors, changing their motivations. So how is all that going to be affecting your work and how you need to communicate?

Laura Fisher: The second thing is taking a fresh look at your goals and your objectives. Goals are really big picture statements of what you’re trying to achieve, whereas objectives are the more measurable outcomes that indicate progress and might be more time-bound and more measurable. So we think it’s best right now to not abandon your overall communications goals and objectives. Of course, you want to be emerging from this crisis, if possible, with some of your long-term plans intact. So not abandoning those big picture communications goals and objectives, but really considering first, if any of those big picture goals must shift. Are there things happening with your organization and your communications that are going to make some of those goals different or shift what they might be and then creating goals and objectives specifically for this crisis. That might be something like being seen as a thought leader on COVID-19. That might be a goal of your organization that’s new and in response to this crisis. So taking a fresh look at them and thinking about one, are any of the big picture things we’re working on this year, do they need to shift? And then are there any new goals and objectives we need to be creating to respond specifically to this crisis?

Laura Fisher: The next is really about meeting your community where they are. As I said before, the mindset of so many people is shifting right now. Audiences are the group that you’re trying to reach and engage, and the world that those audiences are living in is much different today than it was a few months ago. So I think it’s important for organizations to recognize how their community’s mindset has shifted. What are they thinking about today that they weren’t thinking about a few months ago? Think about the most effective channels to reach them. People are home. More people might have more free time, but people are also really overloaded with messaging. So, how are the channels you’re using shifting in response to the way audiences might be engaging with social media differently or with email differently. And, in a world in which so many organizations and companies and news outlets are communicating about COVID, how can you make sure that your message is being put in a place where your audience might view it?

Laura Fisher: And Farra’s going to talk a little bit more about that in a few minutes. We use this framework called the ladder of engagement that’s really about how to deepen engagement with communications with various groups of your audience: for people who don’t know you but should, to people who are really your biggest advocates and your biggest fans. Right now, we see it as probably most effective to really focus on people who already know you and people who already support you, and those biggest fans. This is the group who you won’t have to explain your work to as much. They already know you. They’re already engaged with you in your mission. That might mean it’s time to reduce some of those acquisition efforts. Focus less on, bringing email addresses and paid advertising and that sort of thing. And really focus on talking to your community, engaging them about your mission and how it’s related to this crisis and really speaking with those people who already know you. Of course, this isn’t universal, but we see right now as your resources are shifting around, really speaking with those people who are already connected and know your mission and know your organization is an effective use of resources.

Farra Trompeter: So, as Laura noted, one of the biggest elements in a communications plan are strategies and tactics. I think when most of us think about communications plans, we often go right to the tactics. What are the things I’m doing? How often am I updating Twitter? Should I do an Instagram story or get on Snapchat? Right? These are a lot of the questions we often get when we’re thinking about communications planning. For us, we always love to anchor any kind of strategy work we’re doing, including communications planning, in goals and audiences, as Laura was just discussing. And then we really get into, we’re really clear about the people we need to connect with and what we’re hoping will be the result of that connection. And how do we get there. And strategies for us are really kind of the roads to take to get to that destination, which is your goal.

Farra Trompeter: One thing that we really believe at this moment is, you don’t necessarily need to throw out every existing strategy you’ve had before March or before the crisis really impacted your organization, your community, where you are. But really looking at where you can be responsive. Maybe there are some of your strategies, you might shift how you implement them, or you may dial one up and dial one down. For many of you, you might need to create some new strategies again based on how this crisis is impacting your organization, the people you work with, and in your local community, or national or international, depending on the scope of what you do. We’re really big fans of scenario planning. I think one of the things that’s incredibly difficult about this moment we’re in is sort of both the duality between the health pandemic and the economic crisis.

Farra Trompeter: And at this moment the news changes every day, and what happens with a crisis and where it’s going and how it’s impacting again on the local level, regional level, national level, and globally, shifts. So if you’re not sure what’s going to happen or what’s happening in your community, it’s helpful to think about different scenarios. And that might also be different scenarios in your community, maybe different scenarios if you get the funding you’re hoping for or don’t get the funding you’re hoping for. Different scenarios about what happens again with the people you’re working with. So it’s important as you’re developing this to imagine some different things. And those scenarios honestly may change every week. And Laura will talk a little bit more about where timing plays into this. We also are big fans of branding here at Big Duck and we do a lot of work with our clients on defining brand strategy, which is in essence, how do you want people to think and feel about you?

Farra Trompeter: So for some of you who’ve gone through a branding process, whether it’s been formal or informal, you may have a sense of, well, when people think of my organization, I hope they think we are X or X idea. A description should come to mind. And I hope we make them feel Y, right? There’s usually some adjectives that become your tone and style. We think about those concepts as positioning and personality, and we think they’re an important checkpoint in this moment when you’re trying to figure out the direction you should go. Pause for a moment. Think about your ongoing brand strategy. You may decide, look, because of this moment and the work we’re doing, we really need to push more on this attribute of our personality or we may need to modify our big idea or maybe it doesn’t make sense for us to push our positioning right now.

Farra Trompeter: That should just be a discussion and a checkpoint. For many of you, for some organizations who may have a more fierce or even academic personality, you may wonder, do I need to bring some more warmth in, depending on who I’m talking to and what I’m saying? So again, look at your ongoing tone and style and personality and then think about this moment and what your community is looking to hear from you. Some of you, maybe your community is looking for you to be fierce, depending on what’s happening and how people are being impacted by this. So just ask that question. Should I be using my ongoing tone and style or do I need to shift it in response to what’s happening? Some of the sort of big picture crisis communication strategies we want to share with you, and again we think about strategies as big picture approaches, first and foremost is to make it easy for your community to support you and engage with you.

Farra Trompeter: That’s not just financially, though we will certainly talk about that. But it might also be in a way to volunteer, in a way to even find you, know what you are doing. Make sure that your communications are clear and factual when there’s so much unknown. Say what you can say and what you can own to saying. If you don’t have information, then either be clear about that or hold back on content until you know what you can say and what’s accurate. We don’t believe you should stop communicating altogether. We have seen during other crises that folks have just stopped communicating. They had to cut sending out their ongoing newsletter or they had to let go of their communications team and were no longer able to sort of say what’s going on. If you go completely quiet in this moment, the people who are supposed to know you will forget about you. Now, how you should communicate and who should communicate on behalf of you.

Farra Trompeter: We’ll talk a little bit about that in tactics. And again, it will be different for all of you, but we really recommend you don’t go all the way to zero on the volume level. Of course, finally, and maybe this should be number one, especially based on some of the earlier conversation, center your audience. Think about the people who are hearing from you, who else they’re hearing from, and think about speaking to them and really honing in on bringing that audience front and center in what you’re doing, and not necessarily your organization. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about your organization at all, but this is really the time to talk about your community. Some of these strategies are linked to an article that I put together with advice from folks at Big Duck and other folks in the nonprofit sector. It’s on our website in the Insights section.

Farra Trompeter: We’ll also send out a link to it as well. So I’m going to just break down some of these strategies with examples. The first here is an example with me. So I am a proud board member of a group called NTEN, which really tries to help organizations use technology to achieve their mission. NTEN’s annual conference, The Nonprofit Technology Conference, typically happens in the Spring and had to be canceled as a result of the crisis. The fees, both the registration, the sponsor fees, exhibit fees, etc., make up two thirds of the organization’s budget. So having to make that decision is obviously devastating financially. Several volunteers like myself got together and put together a crowd fundraiser for them. This is something that first, we were able to do. NTEN had used this platform. This was on a platform called Causebox.

Farra Trompeter: We were able to do this pretty quickly. And what’s been great about it is not only have people like myself created a page and gotten people to donate, we’ve had other people join the campaign and become fundraisers too. So this may be a time to embrace and look at things like crowdfunding and different tools for that. Making sure you’re clear and factual. This is an example from the New York Women’s Foundation who’s sharing the content from one of their grantees, the New York City Anti-Violence Project. One of the, there’s been a lot of negative consequences, clearly, of this moment. One of them has been an uptick in domestic violence. The New York City Anti-Violence Project focuses on intimate partner violence within the LGBTQIA community and they’re sharing really clear information about the crisis number to call, hotline number, as well as things people can do if they are experiencing this.

Farra Trompeter: And the New York Women’s Foundation is doing a great job about amplifying this information. So this is another great time to, even if they didn’t have the facts on this, they’re sharing those facts in how they communicate. We’ve talked earlier about not fully turning things off. I imagine, we haven’t worked directly with Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, I imagine they had an ongoing plan for how they were going to talk about the census. April 1 last week was Census Day. They still sent an email out that talked about the fact that April 1 is Census Day, here’s what we need to do, here’s how you need to be counted. They still also referenced the coronavirus pandemic in that, so again, I imagine they had a communications calendar that had this message going out. They still sent it out, but acknowledged the moment we’re in.

Farra Trompeter: And finally an example here from one of our former clients, Camp Havaya. They are a summer camp. They bring people together in two different locations and summer is a huge time for them, obviously. And so they know their community of alumni and families that are planning to send their children to camp this summer are among those being impacted at this moment. They pivoted completely and created something called Havaya at Home and really just said, you’re stuck at home and so are we, right? They’re thinking about the people in their community. They’re even using that language that says, we’re thinking about you and here’s what we’re offering. And as this email goes on, it talks about different Zoom gatherings or even doing an online Seder this week for Passover. So those are strategies. Again, big approaches. At the heart often of a communications plan and what many people think about are the tactics. What are we going to get done to make sure we can carry out those strategies?

Farra Trompeter: In this moment, we think it’s really important to be flexible with those tactics. What may work in one week you may find doesn’t work the next week. And it may just shift almost on a daily basis. So what you’re saying, where you’re saying it, what channel you seem to get responses on versus ones you don’t, may shift. So I think this moment is really putting even more pressure on you all, my friends out there, who are doing communications to really pivot often. I think pivot has been the word I have probably used the most in the past month. So some of the tactics we see for crisis communications are first and foremost to create specific messaging related to this moment in this crisis. So you may have organizational messaging that describes who you are and what you do. Crisis messaging takes into account how your organization is responding. It may also be important to designate one or several people as the official spokespeople for your organization.

Farra Trompeter: In many organizations, this gets defaulted to the Executive Director and or the Board Chair. It may be important to equip other people to speak on behalf of the organization if there is an official question and to provide talking points to all staff and to all board members in case they get questions. This is also a moment to rethink how you use different channels. Maybe you’re going to use a channel you’ve been using one way a different way, or you’re going to experiment with new ones. And again, every time you’re thinking about the actions you want people to take, we hope what you’re thinking about is not just responding to the crisis, but how this crisis is impacting your mission and therefore impacting the people you work with. So we’ve got a few more examples here just to get you thinking. We know lots of people get creatively charged when they see examples from others.

Farra Trompeter: We are soon going to be breaking for questions, but feel free if you also have seen some great examples, chat those in and we’ll share them too in the Q&A. So, the crisis messaging we spoke about earlier. These are some of the questions your crisis messaging might answer. Again, first and foremost, what are you doing? How are you changing as a result of this crisis? We are working with many arts and cultural institutions who no longer can have people come into their space here in New York for the next few months and actually across the country. So what is your organization doing differently? Or maybe your organization is continuing and has essential services and you’re doing them in different ways. How is your organization impacted and how are you changing? What are the ways someone can help you and what are the different ways you want to provide for people to support you?

Farra Trompeter: And again, that’s important. It might be more than just financial. Is your mission at all impacted by this crisis? Likely it is in some way. How? How do you anticipate responding to that? And finally, it can be important to note and share what, if any way, your programs and funding sources might be impacted. Maybe there are certain programs that you actually have to do more of and there’s an even greater demand than there ever was. In some other cases, maybe you can’t do the programs you’ve been usually doing. And so next here’s what you’re doing instead. Talking points. This is an example we found online from Welcome America. They have a network of organizations who work with them on providing welcoming communities for for immigrants. And one of the things that they have done here is created a talking guide for all their members, talking points and an email guide. And what’s great about this example, and we’ll again include it in the follow up resources, is they’re really explaining some key narratives and stories you might share, and really kind of getting into how people can talk about it in this moment.

Farra Trompeter: The next example, again, rethinking how you use channels. Here’s an example from the Atlanta Community Food Bank who’s now doing Instagram Stories and not only putting their own content on Instagram Stories, but sharing when some of their community and volunteers… here’s somebody on the first image on the left who got to volunteer with Hands on Atlanta and the Atlanta Community Food Bank over the weekend and got to distribute meals. And then another person who shared a special SMS texting service they have. And there is actually, I think, nationwide where people can find food pantries. So again, using stories in a different way than they had before. This example here, I’m talking to you all from Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which is not too far away from where I live. This is cherry blossom season.

Farra Trompeter: This is probably the busiest time the garden usually experiences. Unfortunately, they have to be closed. So what they’re still doing is look, the cherries are blooming. You can actually follow along with what’s happening. They have people who love coming to that and they’ve created now a special page on their website for cherry watch. Right? They never had that before. And they’ve got a tracker going as people are doing that. UNICEF. One of the things we thought was really interesting is LinkedIn, which I think a lot of people forget about as an important social media channel. Great channel, especially if your audiences are more professional or more major donors. Maybe they’re spending more time on LinkedIn. Here they’re talking about how they are working with children across the world in keeping their hands clean.

Farra Trompeter: And actually this image is a screenshot, but it’s a video of a young girl showing how she is keeping her hands clean. We also talked about actions that actually connect. So the Newark Museum of Art, what they are doing here is, they normally, they say our annual favorite becomes a weekly digital challenge, right? So before they had this art battle that would happen. Now you can play through Facebook and Instagram every Monday at two. They also, this is from an email they sent, they also have an Ask an Astronomer, where now you can go onto Zoom live and talk to an astronomer. Which in the past you’ve had to go into their museum, sit in the planetarium and do. So again, not only saying we’re going to take the offline and bring it online, but think about where, whether we’re using Facebook or Instagram or we’re going to live stream here, or we’re going to use Zoom. What are the different channels we’re going to do both matching that channel and the content?

Farra Trompeter: One of the last examples here, this was from Brave Space Alliance in Chicago. What they’re doing here is they’re trying to feed their community and they have a wishlist on Amazon where you can go and it works similarly to a registry. You can go on and actually purchase items to send to them. And here, for a donor, this feels meaningful because I know what I’m doing. It feels like I’m directly supporting people and it’s certainly meaningful to the organization because they’re now able to provide services that maybe they have not been expecting to provide before.

Farra Trompeter: And then one of the final examples here from Make-A-Wish, one of the things they’re offering is, they have young children who obviously through the typical Make-A-Wish program, you can actually send a particular message of hope in this moment as they are obviously being impacted by this. And maybe Make-A-Wish, so much of what, we don’t work with them, but I know so much of their model is about bringing children to places to fulfill those wishes or meeting certain people which may not be able to happen in this moment of physical distancing. So the ability to virtually join them and send a message is a great example of kind of a pivot to a meaningful action that will both feel fulfilling and in fact have an impact.

Farra Trompeter: Here, Fountain House is an organization we’ve worked with in the past. They help people who are living with serious mental illness. So much of their model is about providing an in-person community where people can come every day and be part of a community working alongside the staff. They can’t have people come into the space. So now they’re having to transition their services to visiting people in their homes and being digital. And so they’re saying because of that, you can now give and when you donate very specifically, here’s what that support is going to. So this is both a very clear fundraising request that’s anchored in a programmatic need, but also a very restricted giving campaign, which many organizations are pursuing for fundraising right now that makes sense given the work they have to do.

Laura Fisher: So in a communications plan, it’s also important to be laying out who does what. And obviously in this crisis world we’re living in, roles and responsibilities are getting reallocated in different ways. You might have less time to do some of the bigger picture work and more time needs to be spent reacting to things. So one sort of structure around teams that we have been talking about at Big Duck is having what we call a Now team and a Tomorrow team. And what that might look like is having a Now team who is totally focused on what’s happening in the short term and working in more weekly iteration, shorter iteration. So focus on crisis-related goals, but also to keep in mind your bigger picture communications goals, your strategic plan, that sort of thing. That team might meet weekly to plan what happened in the news last week that we need to react to this week? What do we think is going to happen this week?

Laura Fisher: What does our team need to do this week to react to that? What do we need to do today? What messages do we need to get up today? So more of a reactive and crisis-focused team. And then perhaps a Tomorrow team so that there’s also a group to consider the future and the work that can be done today to make you stronger and ready to emerge from this crisis when it does eventually end. So that team might meet less frequently and think about more visionary questions like where should we be a year from now? What big project might need to shift? What can we work on today? Is there branding work or messaging we could write or big communications projects that we’ve been sort of hoping to do but haven’t had time to do that. Maybe today we actually might have more time to focus on.

Laura Fisher: So thinking about your team in this way to sort of give yourself the ability to react but to also have someone dedicated to thinking about the future. Of course this depends on team size. Not every team in communications has several people on it or enough people to make two separate teams. It might be that you’re a two person team and one person has to think now and one person has to think tomorrow or you’re a one person team and you might think about splitting up your time. Sometimes in the day you’re thinking now and sometimes you’re thinking tomorrow. So you have to be flexible to respond to the capacity of your team. But it’s helpful to think about how you can split the mindset so that you can focus sometimes on now and sometimes on tomorrow.

Laura Fisher: Another big piece of a communications plan is evaluation. And evaluation is really about how to use data and information to refine your approach, see what strategies are working, see what tactics are working. Maybe you’ll look and see how well emails are performing versus social media and decide how to allocate your time to different channels. That sort of thing. In this moment, while Big Duck does love data and information and evaluation, we do think it’s okay to abandon rigorous evaluation because so much of your day-to-day might need to go to responding to the crisis. That doesn’t mean that you should stop using data altogether. It’s helpful to check in, especially as you’re testing new messages, testing new channels, that sort of thing, to see how it’s working. If you’re sending a bunch of new emails and all of those emails are getting opened and clicked on, that might mean you continue to ramp up the number emails you’re sending. So we do think as you’re shifting and trying new things, look at the data, use it to inform what you do next week, but you might abandon some of the more rigorous evaluations, quarterly check ins, that sort of thing, that might take up more of your time to really reallocate your time to seeing what works, what exact tactic to work and how you can use that information in the following week.

Laura Fisher: And the last big piece of the communications plan is timeline. When is all of this going to happen? We see different plans broken down in different ways. Sometimes it’s quarterly. I think in this moment, thinking on shorter and shorter terms is helpful because things do, as Farra said, change so quickly. So maybe think about a month ahead in terms of big strategic planning, strategy setting. Think monthly instead of quarterly. Check in more frequently than that though, on what might need to shift. That might mean weekly meetings to set, sort of like week strategies, week calendars, that sort of thing. But then even having more constant daily meetings to discuss how yesterday’s news might affect what you say today. This is especially true if your organization is really on the front lines and has to respond quickly. For some whose missions are maybe more indirectly affected, daily meetings might not be necessary. But especially for those who are communicating about the crisis every day, checking in with the communications team daily to see what happened yesterday that we might need to respond to today.

Laura Fisher: So big picture, I think between Farra and I, what we have really been saying is overall your communications plan needs to strike a balance. So some big takeaways about what that means is that you shouldn’t be abandoning your plans in favor of daily reactions, but you should be flexible. You still want to have these long term plans and long term goals that you can work towards. So when you emerge from the crisis, you have some of your big communications goals on track. But, of course you have to be flexible to react quickly if you need to be. As I said, there are plenty of organizations that are working on the front lines that are directly affected by this and that are really working hard to continue reaching and helping their communities. And for those organizations, leading with crisis communications really might be the focus for the next few months.

Laura Fisher: You might lean into that and abandon a lot of the bigger picture strategies you’re working on. For those whose work is more indirectly affected, we’re all affected in some way, but for those who are not necessarily on the front lines of this work, continue with some of that general communications, things like a newsletter, your general pulse, but layer in the crisis where relevant. I think the Planned Parenthood example that Farra showed is a really good example of a previous set of communications that layers in crisis messaging as it’s relevant. And then as I just outlined, I think constant communications with your team, even beyond your communications team, obviously programs teams, leadership are going to be important in all of these conversations. So meeting with your team regularly to discuss necessary pivots as the news changes so fast, your response as an organization will also have to change.

Farra Trompeter: So we would love to hear what’s on your mind. We had some questions before the webinar and some questions are being submitted. As folks submit, we want to just share a few other things to keep in mind. We’ve gotten some some questions in about can we help you? Yes, we can. If you need help actually creating a plan, whether that’s a general communications plan or a more fundraising focused communications plan or adapt your existing plan in response to COVID, we can help you with that. For some organizations who may now have someone heading up their communications or marketing, we can provide consulting as an interim basis. We can also create a campaign, we know Giving Tuesday now is coming up on May 5th, and other things that folks need help creating, a campaign or materials. Certainly we can help you. If you need help creating a case for giving generally or particular to donors in this moment, or you want to take this time, for some reason, maybe it’s a great time to look at your brand.

Farra Trompeter: We’re here for you. Just send us an email at [email protected] and you will likely hear back from me. A lot of the ideas we touched on in today’s conversation comes from an ebook we wrote about strategy. So if you want to really get a better understanding of what we mean about strategies versus tactics or really think that through, this is a free ebook. Again, we’ll send out links to all of that available on our site at big We also have a lot of blogs. We have been writing fast and furiously related to what’s been happening, words you should avoid in your communications, how you can manage communications in virtual meetings and presentations. So if you haven’t taken a fresh look at the Insights area of our website, you may want to check that out. We’ve also been doing lots of webinars and have webinars available on our site that have been prerecorded.

Farra Trompeter: Like this one will be eventually in the next few days. If you just go to Insights and Videos, you’ll see those. And in fact, Laura and I did a more focused strategies and tactics webinar last year with our colleague Megan Finn from the Breast Cancer Research Fund. And you can listen to that recording as well. We’ve got a lot more webinars coming up. On Wednesday of this week, our colleague Sarah will be doing one on creating a nonprofit communication engine with Bloomerang. I will be back doing one with some great colleagues on how to create your own vision, mission, and messaging. So for those of you who may be getting into that work, we’ll be talking about that. Also have some panels coming up and we are virtually participating in fundraising day. Keep submitting your questions. We’re going to get to this in just one moment. Sarah will be doing an in depth workshop related to a book she just wrote, which we’ll talk about in a second.

Farra Trompeter: It’s called The Nonprofit Communications Engine. Those are more in depth webinars and instructional learning where there’ll be lots of time for chats and coaching and that’s available at Again, Sarah’s got this great new book. If you are a leader and want to take a big picture, look at your communications in this time, it’s a great read. We’ve got a free communications assessment that is also available. Again, we’ll send you links to all of this. And finally a podcast that has some related episodes coming out soon. But I’m going to go back for a moment to some questions we got in advance and really just ask you to chat your questions in. So before we even look at the questions we got in advance, we have some coming in, which are great. So submit your questions and also feel free to chat in.

Farra Trompeter: If you have a different answer you’d give to the question that gets posed, I’ll certainly love to hear it. So, I will ask the question. Laura, you can see if you want to chime in or if you want me to take a stab at it. So the first question comes from Jacques. He says, “We have the opportunity to create a free radio PSA, public service announcement. Any advice on the messaging? Can it include an ask?” Laura, do you have any thoughts? Yeah, I’m happy to jump on this one, but feel free to chime in, Farra. So I think going back to the crisis messaging that Farra spoke about earlier would be a good jumping off point in highlighting how your mission and your organization is directly affected by what’s going on with COVID-19, how you’re responding to it, how your mission is effected.

Farra Trompeter: I think the question of can it include an ask, in my personal opinion, though I’m curious to hear what Farra thinks as well, is dependent on how direct or indirect you are being affected by the crisis right now. If you are directly on the frontlines, I think an ask makes a lot of sense. I think if you are less directly affected by it, an ask might still work but it might work better in a few weeks or months from now. That’s just my personal take. I’m curious to hear what Farra thinks, but I think really go with how your mission is directly affected by this and how your organization is responding. Yeah this is a really interesting question. It’s so hard to answer without knowing a little bit more about your organization, where the PSA is going to be aired and how soon it will go on the air and how likely it will go off.

Farra Trompeter: So those are all other variations. I mean, any good, I hope, announcement comes with some call to action at the end. So it might be learn how you can get involved at or whatever the URL is. So what you might want to do is just have a clear ask or a clear call to action and then you can modify what exists on that page while the PSA airs. Some people will not air a PSA that has a direct fundraising ask. So it also depends on who you’re doing that PSA with. Again, I think just to echo with Laura, if you are having a fund, like that Brave Space Alliance example I showed, or even Fountain House, that have funds and actions that are directly related to this crisis. If you’re allowed to put an ask forward, by all means. But if it is a general PSA and it’s meant to last for the next six months and you are not necessarily working on the frontlines, I’d probably send to a general page and then you have the flexibility of what you put on that landing page.

Farra Trompeter: This is an interesting question, Laura. This is, I’m going to use the setup that’s here. Because also again, if folks have other thoughts on this question, feel free to chime in. “My nonprofit is very new and small. We are the official nonprofit of the New York City Department of Sanitation. Our mission is to get to zero waste to landfills and also highlight our sanitation workers as the heroes they are. We’re mostly doing development of programs and strategy right now, but we want to be proactive with the COVID crisis. If we were to set up a COVID fund for our workforce, but don’t know what the funds would be used for yet, is this a bad idea? Is it better if our message is broad so we can later figure out how to distribute the funds?”

Laura Fisher: My initial thought is because the mission is somewhat specific, you have a specific location and a very specific and clear mission here, and sanitation workers are some people who are still working in essential workers right now. I think you could probably go with a broad message because the mission and who you’re working with is fairly specific. That’s just my initial thought about that because it sounds like what you’ve got here is a fairly specific call to action. So you probably could go with something very broad while you figure out how to distribute the funds. Yeah, I think too, because you’ve got a part of your mission that’s about highlighting sanitation workers who are essential. So here in New York, essential services, and in many other states right now and in countries, have to continue.

Farra Trompeter: So what are happening in the lives of those sanitation workers? I think what I would want to be careful of is, I think you want to say support… your support of this fund will help sanitation workers with services such as… Right? You might include general things that you’ll be able to provide. I think if you can take the time to figure out how a fund to support your sanitation workers, what it would do for them. Maybe it’s providing funds for childcare. Maybe it’s providing extra support for food because they’re working around the clock, whatever it may be. The more specific the ask is, likely, if you can do a restricted giving campaign, likely it will actually perform better. Again, donors want to know where their support’s going. So if you could fast-track figuring out how you can help those workers and then roll out the campaign, that would likely be, I think, the way to go.

Farra Trompeter: All right. Let’s go to the next question. This one is from Isaiah. “What are your thoughts on hosting small group virtual salon discussions with key funders about our organization’s response, how their philanthropy has supported our resilience, our upcoming challenges, and how they can help us. Versus emails. I think that’s a great question and a really interesting idea. I think my immediate response is to try one out. I think having some kind of small virtual discussion and group right now is a great way to build community. I think a lot of organizations are searching for ways to gather virtually. And a lot of people have more time than they may have before. So I think ways that you can try to build that community and build that conversation in a new way might feel a little bit more authentic and collaborative than an email might.

Farra Trompeter: So my advice would be to test it, as is my advice with a lot of things. I just think when we’re living in a world where we can’t connect as much in person, having some kind of way to touch base virtually, that feels a little bit more human than an email sounds like a nice idea. The one question I would have is how many funders are we talking about and would it be better to just have one-on-one meetings with each funder and really customizing that conversation into how they’ve funded you in the past. What you’re seeing from them is an area of funding interest and where, likely, you’re going to need their support. That said, if you have funders that often work together or fund similar work and in fact you bringing them together is in part a benefit.

Farra Trompeter: So it’s not just about you and how they’re helping you, but the sort of funder response to X in this moment that could be great. So that it sort of positions you both as sort of the expert or someone who is able to deliver on that, but also a facilitator and a convener. If you did something like that, again, there’s also a question of whether you’d bring other nonprofits to that conversation. I think it can be tricky when it comes to funding or even mindshare to think about sharing the space. But I think particularly in a moment of crisis, this is a time to partner and work with others. And so I would just sort of add dimension and thinking to what you’re thinking about. But yeah, echo, emails are great, but having, the more personal the conversation with the smaller the group and that group that’s higher up on that ladder of engagement to advocates, like funders, like major donors, that chance to really talk one-on-one or in a small group is really vital.

Farra Trompeter: Laura, I want to pull up some of the questions we got ahead of time too. And again, folks feel free to send in questions. So the first one was “Should we still do a monthly newsletter?” What do you think? 

Laura Fisher: Sure. So I touched on this a little bit earlier. And I think my initial advice would be that for an organization who is not necessarily on the frontlines working on the crisis every day, a monthly newsletter, maybe with some specific blogs or a letter from the Executive Director that are layered in about how you’re responding in reaction to the crisis could be good. I think it’s great to keep your community one, keep them updated, and two, keep them having that sense of normalcy of what they’re used to hearing from you is good. So for those organizations that are less in constant crisis communications mode, a monthly newsletter can be, could still be a useful way to continue your standard pulse of communications while layering in a bit of COVID related content. For those that are more on the frontlines, I think this might be a moment to consider abandoning it if you are more in reactive mode. It doesn’t mean you couldn’t do a roundup monthly newsletter of some sort. But that also, I acknowledge, takes time. And when you are in crisis communications mode, I think that your community wants to be hearing about that and needs to be hearing about that. So this might be a time when you put that on pause. 

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. The one thing I would add, I agree with everything Laura has said, is actually just maybe an hour or two ago, I got an email from Charity: water that announced a new weekly newsletter. So I assume again, they are pivoting from a month, their periodic newsletter, to doing one weekly because there’s so much they’re working on as it’s impacted by this crisis. So again, it comes back to what is the content you have to share? How often is it changing? Who are you trying to communicate with? How often do they want to hear from you? So again, this is where that sort of strategic framework of thinking about goals, audiences, and strategies, when we’re questioning something like a tactic is an important a filter for all of this. Let’s answer these two other questions and then we have a few more coming in. And feel free to keep submitting them. We have until two o’clock Eastern to go. “How do we reframe our message to donors around need?” So Laura, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about maybe first how we think about how we message to donors and then how we might shift our overall case for giving in this moment. 

Laura Fisher: Sure. So we tend to think about messaging to donors leading with, it’s what we call and many other organizations call, values-based messaging, leading with values or motivations or beliefs that you know your donors have that connect to your mission. Then highlighting your mission and your organization as sort of a solution or a way to act on those values. Likely talking about your impact and then ending with an action and a call to action. I think right now the biggest thing that is shifting is one, the values or motivations and beliefs that your donors might be having and, two how your organization is responding. So it might be rethinking how you frame your messaging to highlight different values or beliefs. It might be that there are things that your donors are worried about that they weren’t worried about a few months ago or their solutions and activities they want to see acted upon that weren’t in the picture a few months ago. So what are the new things in the new mindsets that our donors have because of this crisis and how is our mission related to that? I think those are the good two pieces to consider, how they might shift as people’s mindsets are totally shifting given what’s happening. 

Farra Trompeter: Laura, I’m going to ask you a related question. I’ll just interview Laura for the rest of the webinar. I know we’ve talked about with one of our clients how, is now the time for donor research? So typically at Big Duck when we research how we should think about and talk to donors, we like to get to know a select group of those donors that represent different audience categories, typically done by a phone interview, sometimes done through survey or focus groups. But what do you think in terms of like doing donor research in this moment? 

Laura Fisher: Sure. And this is actually related to a question that somebody asked about the marketing tools that you can use to gauge the response of audiences, which there’s more tools beyond research we could discuss. But I think right now in terms of donor research, I’ve seen a few, I think I would shift it to be about general community research rather than just donor research right now. At least if we’re talking about a large base of donors, I have seen a number of organizations sending out short surveys about how their community is handling and responding to the crisis and how the organization can be helpful and reactive. I can try to find a few of those and we can send them as follow ups. And I think those have been really nice ways to gauge the response of an audience right now. Just to see how people are feeling and how the organization can be useful or responsive. I think now might not be the time to send out a broader non-COVID-related big communication survey. Just because there’s so many other things on your mind, you might get a smaller response rate and you might get data that’s kind of skewed based on how people are thinking and feeling these days. That said, I also think this could be a time when you do some more informal research like donor phone calls or the funder phone calls you were talking about earlier. It could be a good time to check in on people in a slightly more informal way and use that to kind of pulse-check how people are doing and feeling. So I think consider COVID-related short surveys just to see how people are feeling and maybe phone calls but perhaps abandoning some of the larger scale market research that might be better suited for a different time when this isn’t all happening.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. And just to sort of reinforce one of those points, we’ve had a few webinars we’ve focused around major donor communications and one of the points that have been made there, and I think that’s true here too, Laura, was just saying it might be nice to call some of your donors and just get a pulse check on how they’re doing. If you haven’t reached out to some of your most major donors, and that could even be your longtime, maybe they’re donors who haven’t given, may not have given over the thousand plus level, but have given to you for several years and are really at the heart of your organization. If you haven’t yet had a chance to just call them, send a quick personal email, send a handwritten note, whatever it may be, checking in to see how they’re doing. This is a time that, it’s not just the right thing to do, but it’s an important thing to do for your ongoing relationships.

Farra Trompeter: Last question on this slide: “We have a one-to-two person team, right? We have a lot of organizations we hear from that have a very small, maybe it’s been a part-time person doing communications, or maybe just a one-to-two person department. How do they think about what they need to do now versus what they need to do in the future, or that kind of today and tomorrow approach you suggested? 

Laura Fisher: Sure. So I had touched on this a little bit when I was speaking about that kind of approach and I think there are different ways to approach this. It could be if you are a two person team, you set aside times of the day where the two of you work together to think now and future. If you’re a one person team, maybe you split up your day in that way. In the morning, you’re thinking about now, afternoon, you’re thinking about future, knowing that your future thinking might be interrupted to respond to what’s happening now. And if you’re, or you could split it up by person. So one person is focusing on now and one person is focusing on future. I think it’s more about the mindset and having specific times or people to think in the moment and think in the future and not abandoning the future for the now unless it’s totally necessary, which in some cases it’s going to be to respond to the crisis. 

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. I think having one person designated, even if you’re a one person team and it’s a colleague on another department, having one person designated as the person who is always asking that question, what is the impact of this on our long term vision, positioning, who we are, how people see us, what people think about us, what we do on an ongoing basis in a non-crisis moment? Sort of running it through that filter can be really helpful. It may be, Laura was talking about where you might split your day in half. For some of you instead of 50/50, it might be 80/20. Your organization may be so impacted and so on the front lines that 80% of your work is now focused on the now and only 20% on the future. So maybe it’s just an afternoon or one day a week. You’re asking and thinking about the future and checking those plans. Again, you have to filter this all through your mission, how it’s impacted, and your community. Laura, I think we have time for one more question. Oh, we’ve got a few different ones coming in. I’m going to see if we can, maybe we’ll do some of these fast. “Is this a time to try and re-engage lapsed donors? We consider a lapsed donor to be someone who’s not donated in the last 18 months.”

Laura Fisher: Farra, I’ll let you take that one first. 

Farra Trompeter: I do think that this could be a good time to re-engage your lapsed donors. I think particularly if you had a restricted giving campaign, where if your organization is on the frontlines, so you’ve got something, or maybe you want to bring your lapsed donors back through Giving Tuesday now or some upcoming mechanism. I think asking the question why haven’t those people given again in the past year and a half, what’s been happening in their lives? What’s been happening in the life of your organization and what you’ve been communicating? And trying to see if you could come up with a campaign or a reason to come back to them. I do think, again, as we talk about who knows you best right now is the time to really hone in on the people who are your most active, most recent, most loyal, deepest supporters. Next to that are the people who, again, have supported you in the past.

Farra Trompeter: We think it’s much more time to connect with recently engaged or lapsed donors than it is necessarily for acquisition. Laura, I might sneak in one more question. “What would you recommend as a standard weekly agenda for a communications team?” Oh, I love that question. 

Laura Fisher: Oh, that’s a great question. I think a few key things to hit on, but Farra, you also do plenty of weekly marketing meetings for Big Duck. So you might have some good answers to this as well, is checking in on what happened last week and maybe doing a quick look at some of the data to see how various channels or messages performed, using that to plan for the coming week. I think maybe thinking about now as the coming week, what’s going to happen in the next five days, but also taking a quick look at the month to try to set some bigger picture strategies for the next few weeks. Obviously we recognize things might change on a day-to-day basis but try to think weekly and then monthly. Quarterly might be a little bit harder to plan for right now. But take a look at what happened last week. Plan for the week ahead and then maybe if you have time, plan for the month ahead. But Farra, I’m curious to hear what you think based on how Big Duck has done marketing. 

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, one of the things we sort of always start our meetings with quick headlines to make sure everyone on the team knows. So it might be like the last email we sent out had the biggest open rate we’ve ever had or we had a great open rate and nobody clicked on it. Maybe there’s something… Like any quick things people should know and then really try to hone in on two or three really important discussion topics. You want to make sure you advance while that team is there. Again, in this moment, you are probably talking about last week, this week, next week, with the focus on this week. So that’s just some of what to consider. I do want to respect everyone’s time. If we didn’t get to answer your question, if you have follow up questions for us, if you’re wondering how we can help, please email us at [email protected]. Again, if you’re trying to learn more about this moment, take a look at our website at We’ve got lots of blogs, podcasts, recorded webinars we’ve done. And we really wish for the best for everybody in this moment. Please stay safe. Please stay healthy and take good care. Thanks again for joining us.

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