Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
10 min Read
August 18, 2020

Tips from nonprofit communicators to navigate the rest of 2020

In late June 2020,  I had the pleasure of hosting a conversation among seven leaders in nonprofit marketing and communications in connection with Fundraising Day in New York, hosted by the New York City Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). These leaders came together to share tips and answer questions from the sessions they presented at the 2020 virtual conference as part of the marketing and communications track that I co-produce with Chandra M. Hayslett, communications director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. In the open office hours discussion, Chandra and I were joined by Simon Chiew (Chinese-American Planning Council), Morgan Fletcher (Girls for Gender Equity), Erica Sackin (Planned Parenthood Federation of America), Pablo Toledo (Camino PR), Chris Tuttle (TuttleCo), and Alex Webster (Center for Constitutional Rights). We discussed issues ranging from inclusive branding to media relations to ways nonprofits are responding to COVID-19 and revolution for racial justice. 

Here are some of the most compelling takeaways and insights from our conversation.

Trying to get attention? Timing is everything. 

Cutting through the clutter is always a challenge–and it’s only gotten harder over the past few months. Being mindful about when and how to add your voice is critical. 

“Trying to get attention for your issue during a busy news cycle that’s dominated by the elections, COVID-19, response to racism, or other issues? Know when it’s not your time to jump into the news cycle and when to shift. Recognize when it’s your time to pitch and when you should pause or hold back. We all want to be in the news cycle, but sometimes it just makes sense to not insert yourself and potentially jeopardize your relationship with reporters.” — Chandra M. Hayslett 

“Examine your internal communications with the same care and intentionality as you would your external communications. Often, organizations want to be the first ones out with either a statement or thought pieces. I wouldn’t sacrifice care when it comes to language simply to try to be first. It’s important to examine what it is you’re saying and what those words mean. The public will hold you accountable like they never have before. It’s good to be responsive, but take care of the language that you’re using in all your internal and external media.” — Pablo Toledo

“Remember that, especially when it’s a big moment, whether it’s the election, COVID-19, the present fight against racial injustice, new cycles don’t just last a day, they last many days. And so as your organization may not fit the breaking news on day one, but there may be important things for you to talk about on day two or day five or day 10. The COVID-19 crisis is a great example of this… While Planned Parenthood Federation of America is a healthcare provider, we are not a COVID-19 frontline provider so that wasn’t our news cycle to begin with. But there are additional pieces to talk about such as how you access sexual reproductive health care in the time of a healthcare crisis. So look for ways that are relevant to the issues that you’re working on and figure out where you fit in.”  — Erica Sackin

Still struggling with how to balance proactive and reactive communications? Watch this webinar recording or read the transcript.

With so much uncertainty, avoid going completely silent.

There’s also a risk of not saying enough. Stay grounded in your mission, and the right ideas to share will surface. 

“Think about the pandemic as having relief and recovery phases. Go back to your mission and impact. You were necessary before COVID happened, so what makes it important for you to still be around after COVID? If you are necessary after COVID, you will continue to get the support from past donors. If your programs can’t operate for the near future, consider pivoting to policy and advocacy and other things you can do to highlight the impact of your work so that it’s not lost to the conversation of everything else that’s happening.” — Simon Chiew

“A lot of folks in a lot of different sectors are facing a pause on their work or might feel weird to promote your work while there’s so many other really life and death scenarios going on. Your constituency is still your constituency and they’re still being impacted by this too. Just because your issues may not feel like the most pressing as we deal with the global pandemic of COVID-19 as we’re watching police violence literally take lives across the country, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t an impact that’s worth telling a story around. What does your work look like now? Why is it still important? Because it is and looking at ways of telling that story in a more nuanced way with long-form stories, rather than just trying to do a big news push or a big campaign launch can be really helpful.” – Erica Sackin

We talked about this topic and more on a recent podcast episode about why your executive director should prioritize communications

You may also need to switch gears and try something new.

Many nonprofits are using this moment to experiment and reinvent. Can you? 

“If you can no longer provide direct services, try positioning your organization as a thought leader. Expand your aperture into related issues, and have meaningful conversations with stakeholders about the issues causing concern. Look ahead and try to anticipate which conversations are going to be most meaningful to the people who supported you up to this point and the people who rely on your services.” – Pablo Toledo

Might this be a time for innovation? Consider seeking change instead of stability.  

To get the most out of branding, make it an ongoing practice–and one that brings all voices to the table.

During tough times, it can be easy to move any work related to your brand to the back burner. These intense moments of crisis offer great opportunities to connect more closely to the values and needs of your communities–and to keep your brand alive. 

“Branding is not a one-time high impact workout, it is actually a wellness regimen. It is super important to bake branding into every aspect of your organization and every team has to have a deep understanding of what that work means for your organization and what it looks like to move your mission forward and be able to tell a story around that.” — Morgan Fletcher

“With over 5,200 staff at more than 35 different locations, having a solid brand is really important given the scale and scope of our organization. If you want to build up your brand awareness for fundraising, you have to be consistent. It’s critical that you use the same look and feel, and the same key messages.” –Simon Chiew

“Branding is more than marks and colors. We can bake inclusivity, representation, and accessibility into our brand. Question who you are reaching and more importantly, who you are not reaching with your communications and campaigns. Make it a habit to ask in planning meetings, campaign development sessions, while creating style guides, and more. For example, question color styles and whether or not they’re accessible to all people with colorblindness or whether or not your imagery and videos are accessible to people with different visual or hearing impairments.” — Chris Tuttle

“Inclusivity happens on every level—it’s something that you can’t do exclusively in one space and then neglect in another. For inclusive branding, we need to make sure that the decisions we make are reflective of the people we want to see in our space. Language accessibility is an important part of this, whether that means using plain language that people can understand so that they feel invited to take part in the discussion or providing interpretation so participants can join the discussion in their most comfortable tongue. It’s important to avoid unintentionally excluding people from participating in our organization’s mission and goals.” — Alex Webster

Communications teams can play a critical role in advancing conversations related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Some nonprofits are even incorporating DEI into their messaging and branding processes.

Reexamine the stories you are telling and sharing

Authentic representation and appreciation are key. 

“Tokenism and equitable representation is something that I think a lot about. It’s really important to use the data that you have to show who is coming to you and who is working for you. Use that data to determine if your staff are representative of all the community members that come to you. You do have to be careful about not grouping people with certain identities into monoliths and assuming that they are speaking for everyone in that group. People have different views, ideas, and opinions. Be careful that you don’t let the loudest voices represent the group.” — Simon Chiew

“If you are uplifting the voices and experiences of underrepresented groups, be sure to express your gratitude and that you value them.  It’s very important to have a level of acknowledgment, clarity, transparency, and grace with it all.  Go beyond a moment and work to continue to partner with them and build relationships. It’s critical to be in true relationships and exhibit commitment.” — Morgan Fletcher

“Your photos, videos, and stories should be real and representative of your communities. Show the diversity of race, of gender identity, of style, of political identities, and in the ways people genuinely represent themselves and speak about your issues. Start with the people who are already in your community before trying to find other people to come represent your community.  It’s important to remember that many of our organizations have been showcasing all white, able-bodied, heteronormative people for years in our photos, in our videos, and in our resources and events. Inclusivity isn’t making sure each photo has one of each type of person, but that different communities can see themselves in our work. We can do that by having more diverse representation, and by also having photos, events, and resources of, for, and/or about all Black community members, or all people of color, or all queer people, or all people with disabilities. Their stories and work are part of our community, and we should center and amplify them. So I don’t think we can have over-representation of marginalized communities because if they’ve been marginalized, then they deserve that representation.” — Chris Tuttle

“We should be representing authentically what it is that our organizations look like, what the makeup of the organization is, and what the leadership looks like. If we have a picture of all queer people, but everyone in the upper management is not queer, or if we have a picture of Black folks and then we go to the board of directors and everybody is white, what are we doing? What are the decisions that we’re making intentionally to represent the organization or to represent the movement that are not reflective of what it actually looks like?”  — Alex Webster

Listen in or read this conversation about what your team can do to apply inclusive branding

Reconsider what channels you use and how you connect the dots internally AND externally.

There are more communications channels available than ever before–each with its own nuance and set of challenges. As you reexamine your approach to participants, donors, volunteers, activists, and more, be sure to pay attention to communicating with staff and board members.

“Technology gives us benefits and can also be its own trap. It’s important to diversify our channels because first of all, not, everyone’s going to be following you on Twitter, but also you can’t always optimize those platforms in the way that would be actually ideal for communicating your message or interacting with your audiences.” — Morgan Fletcher

“In this age of technology and multiple communications channels, all we share can be public and screenshot. That goes for email, internal Gchats, Slack messages, etc. There is no such thing as private internal communications. You should be sure as an organization, what your values are, how you’re approaching an issue, and what you’re saying about it to your staff and also to external audiences. Our staff are some of our best messengers and communicating to them is really important, as important as it is communicating externally too.” — Erica Sackin

Want fresh ideas on how to engage your team? Hear some new ideas about facilitating better internal communications.  

How are you managing your brand and your communications in response to COVID-19? What questions are on your mind as your organizations more actively pursue racial justice? Let us know what’s on your mind and how we can help.