Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash
11 min Read
March 31, 2021

Managing your nonprofit’s communications as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis

For over a year, we’ve all been navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic. This year has been punctuated by the loss of too many lives, a surge in hate crimes and violence at the hands of the police and white supremacists, and economic and financial insecurity. Amidst the anxiety and exhaustion, life in late 2019/early 2020 (aka “the Before Times”), feels like a distant memory.

It’s also been a year of rallies and solidarity. Many of us have come together to examine, confront, and speak out against centuries of racism, colonialism, and imperialism in our lives, in our organizations, and in the nonprofit sector. The push for justice and becoming antiracist is causing many to question and change long-standing practices that have caused harm. We can’t go back to how things were.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout progresses and Spring emerges here in Brooklyn, I’m heartened by what seems to be the beginning of the end of this phase of the crisis. Heading into the recovery/reentry/rebuild phase of COVID-19, I’m often asked how best to communicate with staff and board members, participants and clients, volunteers and donors, and other members of a nonprofit’s community. To help guide an approach to communicating at this moment, I reached out to people who contributed to the roundup of tips I gathered last year and invited them to reflect and share new insights. If you have tips you’d like to add or resources to share, please let us know and we’ll update this post.

Keep equity at the forefront of everything.

  • “2020 laid bare the inequities in all of our institutions. We can’t go back to the way things used to be. As we move forward, organizations must lead with equity and build a path to be antiracist and inclusive. Evaluate your practices, redirect your investments, and take the time to connect and learn from your audiences. Your strategic communications must be values-driven and action-driven.” – Ambar Mentor-Truppa, Vice President of Communications, Shriver Center on Poverty Law

Hold on to what you learned and what’s worked.

  • “Now is a good time to review an organization’s overall crisis communications strategy and embed any lessons learned. It’s also important to understand that the recovery is ongoing and comfort levels are uneven. We must continue to be sensitive to local and individual needs in this recovery. Very often crisis strategies don’t include long-term actions and ongoing reviews. When I think of the Parkland shooting or even Sandy Hook, I think of communities that are forever changed, whether the media is still there to cover it. We are all forever changed from the pandemic and we can’t ever lose sight of that.”- Dana Pungello, Senior Director, Communications, NAF
  • “Help people offline before online meetings or events. Make sure those who aren’t computer literate know what to do, with kindness and patience. Zoom is here to stay. For the seniors who can’t get out of their house, for those with young children, and everybody else who doesn’t want to commit to a subway ride or parking fee or a commute. We are going to have to accommodate hybrid meetings. When we hold classes or events online people can participate from all over–they are no longer local or regional. So figure out who your audience is, and welcome them from whatever time zone they are in. Film festivals have gone online. So have events. Speakers no longer need to fly in. It’s a new world. Let’s welcome it.” – Laurie Siegel, Director Of Special Projects, Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County

Be human first.

  • “Tone will still be important as we begin to recover from the pandemic. We’ve all been collectively experiencing the trauma of the pandemic, with some communities like healthcare workers and communities of color bearing the weight of that trauma more than others. As we take a step back from the pandemic, this trauma is likely to weigh heavy. While there may be a rush to get back to “normal”, it will be important to acknowledge the trauma and strike a tone of warmth, healing, and support as we begin to rebuild. – Laura Fisher, Senior Strategist, Big Duck

Center your community in your programs and your communications.

  • When I reread our recommendations from early 2020 they still ring true. After all, when is it not a good time to communicate, be a rock for your community, and be honest and genuine? Still, a year has passed–and it’s been a year that has taken its toll in very different ways for different people. We must remember that everyone’s struggled and been challenged this past year– but not everyone has had comparable experiences. As your organization emerges into this new world, communicate proactively and transparently about what you’re doing, how you’re working, and what’s changed. Have you shifted some programs to be permanently online? Are you reopening all of your facilities? Have you downsized your team or programs in ways that will have a lasting impact? Keep those who care about you up-to-date about these changes, their impact, and how they can connect with you. Grounding these updates about your work in a community-centered context will be key.” – Sarah Durham, CEO, Big Duck and Advomatic
  • “Over the next many months there will be no “normal”. Thus, you can’t effectively design in a “one size fits all” kind of way. Design with care and intention, thinking about where your audience is “at” — physically and emotionally. For example, if you have in-person events and stream them, do the people online feel like second-class citizens? How can you either run a parallel event specifically for a virtual audience or acknowledge those online and help produce for the quality of their experience (multiple camera angles, views of the room, etc?) How can your communications about in-person and online options help people feel included, respected, and valued? Be sure to also make social norms and expectations explicit, especially if you are doing anything in-person. This includes communications in advance as well as during the event, for example, different color bracelets for “no contact”, “elbows only” and “high fives and handshakes!” so everyone knows what’s expected and okay.” – Lisa Colton, President, Darim Consulting
  • “Understand what your community is comfortable with and how the pandemic has changed their preferences. Are people ready to re-enter a shared space? Does the idea of an in-person fundraising event, when it is safe, excite people? Are people interested in more virtual events moving forward? Many organizations are having these conversations with staff about re-entering an office space, but consider expanding beyond to your whole community to sense how communications preferences may have changed over the last year.” – Laura Fisher, Senior Strategist, Big Duck

Question urgency.

  • “Communicate urgency when absolutely necessary. We’ve all been through a lot. We’ve been worried about our health and the health of loved ones. We’ve been fighting to protect Black lives. We’ve been grieving and bombarded with news about death, unemployment, and so much more. As you craft your nonprofit’s communications, question how and why you’re using urgent language. If your ask truly requires immediate action, be clear about what’s needed and why so that your audiences can easily determine if they’re able to help.” – Lila Tublin, Senior Copywriter, Big Duck

Lead with transparency and accuracy.

  • “Nonprofits are a hub for information and connecting those in their community with resources. We need to be truthful, mindful, and also be consistently fact-checking. Today’s world, a year out from the pandemic, is full of misinformation and confusion. We should be at the forefront of connecting those we serve with accurate information and assistance. As we rebuild (or strengthen) how we manage internal and external communications, mindfulness should be a focus. Everyone is going through this and we don’t want to add stress, but rather: let’s be a source of empowerment for our communities!” – Joshua Sankowski, Director of Program Relations, PathStone Corporation

Apply segmentation and avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

  • “While your same general message may apply on some level to everyone, communications may not be read or received in the same way everywhere depending on vaccination rates, recovery efforts, economic challenges, etc. It’s also important to balance and consider the level of seriousness or optimism for each audience. Many people are fatigued by and ignore messages they perceive as “doom and gloom” at this point, but you also want to avoid being flippant or out of touch. Assess — and possibly further segment — your lists.” – Ryan Gerhardt, Copywriter, Big Duck

Be bold.

  • “It is hard to picture precisely what the post-pandemic environment for communications will look like, but for sure it won’t be a simple return to the Before Times. The organizations that have thrived during this impossible time are ones that were nimble and bold. The pandemic laid bare whatever illusions persisted around racial, economic, and gender inequality. This recognition, combined with the biggest federal investment for generations in workers, families, and children, can reset norms and expectations. At the same time, competition for attention, dollars, and media coverage has never been more intense. So go big; we’ve already all been home!” – Jennifer Hahn, Managing Director, Fenton NYC

Make space for reflection and experimentation.

  • “As much harm and suffering as it caused, perhaps a bright stop from the COVID-19 pandemic is that it encouraged nonprofits to throw out some old ways of working that weren’t driving the mission to its fullest or were unhealthy for staff. More nonprofits embraced flex time, devoted energy to equity and antiracism work, rethought their approach to fundraising events, and more. New tactics were tried, new approaches were tested, and new ideas to navigate the uncertainty weren’t just nice-to-haves, but were necessary. As we enter into the next chapter, look for ways to maintain the questioning, responsive, and experimental mindset that may have been fostered, rather than reverting back to default ways of working. I would also encourage all nonprofit staff and leadership to be intentional about supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their staff as a critical strategic priority, communications folks included. Communications staff often are juggling a thousand projects with limited resources, while also being highly reactive to the news cycle and context around them. It can be a stressful and isolating spot to be. Focusing on fewer priorities, protecting space for strategic, proactive work (not just reactive work), and fostering a supportive, inclusive culture all can help.” – Ally Dommu, Director of Strategy, Big Duck

Set new norms.

  • “Zoom fatigue is real. As we enter into a rebuilding year, we recommend reviewing your video call norms and ensuring they’re healthy for everyone on your team. Question if meetings need to include video and to, at the very least, let staff members at all levels know that they can turn their cameras off for any reason. Here’s to more phone calls and in-person conversations in 2021 (after everyone is fully vaccinated)!” – Lila Tublin, Senior Copywriter, Big Duck

Acknowledge inequities and put the most marginalized in the center of your communications and processes.

  • “Many organizations are considering hybrid arrangements where employees are given a choice to continue to work from home or come into the office. If we’re not careful, the resulting different levels of contact and visibility can affect rewards (promotions, salary increases, etc.) down the road. Unequal allocation of childcare and eldercare responsibilities lead to large gender differences in eagerness and ability to return to the office, with an adverse impact on women. In metropolitan areas where lower-paid employees are often forced to live in more affordable neighborhoods that require longer commutes, those employees may opt to come in less frequently under a hybrid model. In this case, lower-paid staff may have a harder time being “recognized” (literally and figuratively), potentially hampering their career advancement. Expectations around physical presence in the office must be communicated clearly. Statements like “not required” often imply “… but highly preferred.” If physical presence is indeed preferred, say so, and try to accommodate the schedules of caregivers and employees with particularly long commutes. To avoid the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon, you should put processes in place that ensure everyone has equal access to their managers and leadership and that those working remotely are able to actively participate in meetings.” – Sabine Marx, Communications Strategist and Minal Bopaiah, Founder and Principal Consultant, Brevity & Wit
  • “For many people, this last year was the first time the reality of being a whole person was truly acknowledged in their working lives. Whether constant Zoom calls felt invasive or liberating, we can no longer pretend that our colleagues, bosses, and employees will leave their personal lives at home. Mental health, caretaking responsibilities, and household obligations are all part of life and must no longer be tucked away and compartmentalized for politeness from 9 to 5. Let’s keep checking in, respecting privacy, offering additional grace, and having compassion for each other’s whole selves. We are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandchildren, neighbors, survivors, volunteers, advocates, voters, and most certainly, essential. Let us never forget how hard this year has been. For too many, life was irreversibly changed. In their honor and in memory of all those we lost, let’s never go backward.” – Jacqui Lipson, Partner, Widmeyer Finn

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