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12 min Read
March 23, 2020

Tips to manage your nonprofit’s communications during the COVID-19 crisis

In times like this, it can be hard to know what to say to your loved ones, let alone your staff and board, your participants and clients, your volunteers and donors, etc. To help nonprofits navigate the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, we’ve organized a series of webinars around crisis communications, online meeting facilitation, and donor communications. As we continue to hear from our clients and friends, we’ll be sharing more helpful content through our blog, webinar platform and more. 

When crisis strikes, many nonprofits are either too quick or too slow to react. While no crisis is the same, these tips and resources we’ve compiled and crowdsourced can help. 

Don’t stop communicating.

  • “There is no one-size-fits-all solution so apply what makes sense to your organization, given your values, your audiences, and your brand strategy. And while timing is everything, avoid going absolutely silent. Tomorrow may not be the right moment to hit send on your fundraising appeal, but it’s possible next week will be. Consider various scenarios with your team and look for appropriate and mission-centric ways to hold on to the mindshare you have, particularly among those groups who already know who you are.” – Farra Trompeter, Chief Growth Officer, Big Duck
  • “These situations offer an important time for nonprofits to demonstrate their relevance and cement their relationships with their donors and friends. Donors look to these organizations as vital resources. In the past, those donors who stopped supporting specific nonprofits during or after a crisis did so primarily because they no longer felt connected to them. Consider hosting a series of teleconference briefings with stakeholders on issues pertinent to the current crisis situation. Donors and constituents are interested in knowing how a nonprofit is responding to the current situation: whether classes, events, services, or performances are being altered or canceled; how employees are being cared-for; how operations are affected; if any new services or programs are being initiated in response to current circumstances.” – Radhika Ramachandran, Digital Marketing Consultant, CyByte Inc.

Be a rock for your community.

  • “Let your constituents know that you’re here. Our first communication was that we are open albeit virtually. Be sure to establish daily touchpoints around the same time each day so that people have, not only regular communication from us, but also a regular time for that communication. The idea being that with so much uncertainty hopefully we can be a constant.” Will Nolan, SVP of Communications, Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy
  • “In the chaos of the moment, presenting your brand as consistently and professionally as possible (visually and verbally) will help reassure your audiences.” – Sandy Zimmerman, Design Director, Big Duck

Be honest and genuine.

  • “Be authentic with your audiences and communicate with integrity. If your organization is temporarily shut down and aspects of your work cannot proceed, openly let your community know the toll this is taking on the lives of the people who benefit from your programs and services, the impact on your staff, and the pressures imposed on your financial health. Let your supporters know what you need. Don’t be sensationalist by exaggerating any harm caused to your community. If possible, communicate candidly about the strengths your organization is drawing from, highlight stories of courage and hope, and demonstrate the ways your community is coming together and pivoting during these uncertain times.”  – Ally Dommu, Director of Strategy, Big Duck
  • “I worked with my team on a training in crisis comms this past fall. We worked through a dozen scenarios and this was not one of them! But it still helped us prepare for this. With this one, we have to really make swift and thoughtful business decisions, we have to streamline communications and present a united front to ensure our customers know that they are our top priority. Transparency about decisions to be made is essential as well. We won’t have all the answers right away, but constant updates for staff and customers are essential. Ensure internal and external communications are aligned.” – Dana Pungello, Senior Director, Communications, NAF
  • “Consider your tone. People are scared and uncertainty is high — this might be a good time to connect to some of the warmer and more empathetic facets of your brand personality. Also, consider the content you’re putting out there — depending on the work you do, this may be a time to step away from organization-centric content and lift up people and organizations on the frontlines of this.” – Laura Fisher, Senior Strategist, Big Duck
  • Respect your supporters as full human beings and relate to them as part of a greater collective effort. Helping donors understand their role in the historic, systemic, and structural realities of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism – the backdrop and the driver of the COVID-19 crisis – must be a crucial part of nonprofit communications. Treat them as humans who have the capacity to grow and learn through their engagement with you during this crisis.” – Jennifer Lentfer, creator of 

Balance immediate response with long-term planning.

  • “Everyone’s inboxes are flooded at the moment, and we’re all heavily inundated with news. Because of this reality, be strategic about how much, and when, to communicate to your audiences. Avoid giving “blow by blow” updates—which admittedly is difficult to avoid as things are changing so rapidly.”: – Claire Taylor Hansen, Creative Director, Big Duck
  • “While it’s hard to think beyond what’s happening today, it’s actually a smart time to plan for the future. Strategic planning, brand refinements, website changes– these are all processes that often happen on top of day-to-day work that can be distracting. If your daily work is suspended or slower, consider working ahead and collaborating with peers online to lay the foundation for a stronger tomorrow.” – Sarah Durham, CEO, Big Duck and Advomatic
  • “If your mission is relevant during these times, please double down and pivot to support action around COVID-19 with your advocacy, programs, campaigns. If there is not an immediate connection, don’t force one. Understand that it’s okay to step back right now and support other efforts can still be helpful to your brand & cause. In all cases, stay nimble and flexible. This is not a time for long processes. Decisiveness and swift but strategic thinking is key.” – Ambar Mentor-Truppa, VP Communications, Shriver Center on Poverty Law
  • “It’s going to be tough to place earned media “news” that isn’t COVID related for a little while. But the time can be used productively. It’s a good time for writing projects and content development.” – Jennifer Hahn, Managing Director, Fenton NYC

Let your mission guide your response and your appeals.

  • “Share what you are doing to directly respond and support your community and also share what your organization’s emerging needs are specifically related to COVID-19 with sensitivity.” – Tricia Blanchard, Good Shepherd Services, Director of External Relations
  • “Keep your eye on your mission. This is where your impact and expertise matters. Be innovative but focused.” – Judith Samuels, CEO, The Samuels Group
  • “As we’ve navigated through other crises, our donors have demonstrated their resiliency and commitment to the causes they support. Accordingly, don’t veer off message UNLESS the coronavirus pandemic directly affects your mission. Stick to the basics you know work — and thank, thank, thank!” – Bonnie Catena, Connector-in-Chief, Catena Connects
  • “Your staff’s well-being and health should be a nonprofit’s first priority because without them you can’t serve the greater good. Communication between staff, funders, and clients is next. Lastly, with safe staff, good communication and guidelines, you can figure out how to safely continue your mission in the best way possible!” – Joshua Sankowski, Director of Program Relations, PathStone Corporation

Question every image and word you choose.

  • “Look at all of your communications — all of them — through the lens of how they’ll land in the context of #COVID19; chances are it’ll be the “But we’ve always said it this way” stuff that can trip you up. And keep your ears open to how your audience’s attitudes are shifting as this crisis develops. Things may change very quickly, and with them your audience’s point of view.” – Rob Cottingham, Principal, Social Signal
  • “Use the term physical distancing instead of social distancing so that people know 1) they should still be social, just via text, phone or Web, and 2) when you do interact with people in person, try to maintain six feet of distance between you.” – Minal Bopaiah, Founder and Principal Consultant, Brevity & Wit
  • “If you choose to communicate about COVID-19, think critically about the images and words you use. Avoid photography that may feed harmful stereotypes or panic about the virus and steer clear of sensationalist language. Be as specific, accurate, and empathetic as possible, and think about how your images will affect your audiences. If you’re not sure, ask a colleague to review your piece and flag any concerns before it goes live.” – Lila Tublin, Copywriter, Big Duck
  • “Be emphatic. We’re all going through this together—juggling work schedules, income changes, unprecedented burdens, and health of loved ones and yourselves. Choose language from a place of understanding, flexibility, and caring.” Brian Cavanaugh, Director of Digital, Vilcek Foundation

Make it even easier for donors, the media, and others to support you.

  • “Nonprofits should help donors help them by being clear, concise, and making giving easy–ask for specific unrestricted $ amount donations (with links), share how staff, services and stakeholders are being impacted, and seek/share useful resources. Help others to see that vulnerable populations are most at risk and that nonprofits are simultaneously facing adverse impacts on their own organizations, even as the need for their services intensifies.” – Laura Bradley Davis, Nonprofit Consultant and Strategist, LBD Consulting
  • “Be clear, specific, and honest about needs and urgencies, especially with large donors- ‘We need to raise x amount by y date or z will happen.’ They are being barraged with worthy requests and they want to help, but they can’t do everything, and they will appreciate having tools to triage their giving.” – David Hoffman, Creative Director, CitizenRacecar
  • “Local media is hurting and newsroom staff are at an all-time low. Editors had a hard time getting out to cover events because now in the midst of the coronavirus we should not be out and about unless absolutely necessary, but the papers still need content. Now’s the time to reuse, repurpose and recycle information that could still be relevant. Find a way to tie it into a current condition or circumstance. For example, “Last year’s report on exercises you can do at your desk might have information that will be useful to people who can’t go to the gym now that we are practicing physical distancing.” Write it as if it were a news item so that it can easily be dropped into an issue of your local paper. Be sure to include visuals.” – Joan Grangenois-Thomas, Principal, JGT Public Relations
  • “This from the other side of working with brands who are looking to team up with nonprofits right now; help us help you! Be specific and clear as to what you need and don’t be afraid to push back on a brand to ensure there is alignment in both mission and impact.” – Laura (Noss) Sutphen, EVP, Executive Director – Global Head of Social Purpose, Golin

Create moments of connection and humanity online.

  • “Think more about developing new, shared social norms than about the technology. So many implied and assumed social cues (handshakes or hugs? Suits or jeans? Chairs in a circle or neat rows?) don’t translate when you are in a video conference. Leaders and facilitators need to pay extra attention and be explicit about the culture of each gathering. When we are all on the same page about the social norms, then we can dedicate more energy to the content of the work.” Lisa Colton, President, Darim Consulting.
  • “Meeting with the team on Zoom for a few minutes each morning to check in, keep on track, ensure everyone has the resources they need to get things done. Also, bring a little levity. Today I made a paper airplane and flew it. Everyone chuckled and it broke the tension we all feel.” – Laurie Siegel, Director Of Special Projects, Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County
  • “Think with your heart, share good news and leave persistence for another day. Now more than ever, we all need to hear and read good stories.  But if you’re wondering whether something is right, be cautious and hold it for later.” – Jacqueline Lipson, Vice President, Education Practice at Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners Company
  • “Set up your support system of other communications professionals in your area to share and assist each other.” – Hillary Ryan, Director of Marketing and Communications, Tacoma Art Museum  

Be audience-centric– not organization-centric.

  • “Be more cognizant about who’s on your email lists and where potential communications are going. While your same general message may apply on some level everywhere or to everyone, communications in harder hit locations in the U.S. (Washington, California, New York, etc.) or potentially around the world (China, Italy, etc.) will not be read or received in the same way. Places where the virus is a more immediate threat might have a quicker dismissal of your communications (unless you have expertise in the field), whereas fringe areas might still be focusing more on organizational challenges. Reassess — and possibly resegment — your lists.” – Ryan Gerhardt, Copywriter, Big Duck
  • “Does “JUST STOP” count as a tip? I’m getting so many emails from organizations about how they are addressing the COVID-19 crisis, and most of them are not relevant to me. The vast majority are just saying that they are encouraging staff to work remotely and taking other precautions along those lines. My assumption is that every organization around the world that can be doing this right now, is doing this, and I don’t need to hear about it. I guess the suggestion is to really think about what does and doesn’t need communicating, we are all being bombarded with too much info right now.” Leana Mayzlina, Senior Program Manager, NTEN
  • “By now you’ve probably received a lot of emails that begin with “by now you’ve probably received a lot of emails about COVID – 19”. So have all of the people on your lists. While it is important to acknowledge the serious time we are in, find ways to offer resources or advice to your constituents without centering the pandemic. Focus instead on the subject of the communications you are sending and how it can benefit people who may be changing their work patterns, have shifting deadlines and priorities, etc.” – Monzurat Oni, Strategist, Big Duck

As a bonus, here are some additional resources and examples: