Crisis Communication Tips for Nonprofits Dealing with COVID-19

I love nonprofit organizations and the people who power them. 

Early in my career, I pivoted into the nonprofit sector because I was so inspired by the work people were doing to help their communities and I needed to be a part of it. As a communications and marketing professional, I thought it would be a dream to “sell” the idea of improving communities to potential donors, drum up support, and use my skills to improve the world around me.

In reality, while I did find being a nonprofit communications director extremely rewarding, it was also very high-pressure and it pushed me to work harder than I ever had before. And that was before dealing with any crises. 

As the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis continues to unfold, I think about my time directing communications for a nonprofit and I’m filled with empathy and respect for those who find themselves taking that role on now. 

There’s a reason you’re in your role, even if you’re “just” a volunteer, and you have an opportunity to make a valuable contribution to your cause right now by helping to pilot your organization’s response to this crisis.

TIP: Are you considering reopening as coronavirus restrictions begin to ease? Check out our Marketing Guide for Businesses Reopening After Coronavirus.

I’ve had the opportunity and responsibility to conduct crisis communications for nonprofits, and while I didn’t do it perfectly, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. In this article, I’m going to share some guidelines that will help you steer your nonprofit’s communication through this crisis, based on my experience leading marketing and communications for a community services nonprofit in Manhattan.

1. Take time to think about your audiences and what they need to know

A unique challenge that nonprofit communicators have is that they have several different audiences to communicate to. Clients, board members, donors, volunteers, and even staff need to be updated and informed about how your organization is responding to this crisis.

And if you’re reading this post, I’ll bet that you’re the person at your organization responsible for coordinating all of that communication.

I get it — it’s overwhelming and there’s a lot of pressure on nonprofits to to communicate quickly during a crisis, but you know it’s also important to communicate sensitively in a time like this. A good place to start is to simply list out your key stakeholders and some of the main questions you need to address with each of them.

TIP: This doesn’t need to rest entirely on your shoulders — and it shouldn’t. Set up a time to go through this exercise with your organization’s leadership team ASAP. Then, you can develop the messaging yourself and circle back to the team for their review.

I’ve started a list below that you can work off of, but be sure to consider if there are additional audiences and/or questions unique to your nonprofit.

Staff and volunteers

  • What new guidelines are staff and volunteers being asked to follow to keep themselves and clients safe?
  • How will this situation impact programs and services immediately? What about later on?
  • Are there any resources available for staff experiencing added stress during this time?
  • Who should staff and volunteers contact if they have a question or concern?
  • What would you like for staff and volunteers to do if they are contacted by a journalist or media outlet?

Clients

  • How will programs and service offerings change during this crisis? What would you like for your clients to do to continue participating in your programs?
  • What steps are being taken to protect client safety?
  • Are there additional programs and resources available to help clients coping with additional challenges caused by this crisis?
  • Who should clients contact if they have a question or concern?

Donors

  • Do you need additional funding to support your organization through this crisis? Explain exactly where the new costs are coming from and the urgency of the need.
  • What ways are you currently accepting donations? Do you still have someone processing donations on the phone? What about checks? Would you prefer people only donate online right now?
  • If a donor has had their income affected by this crisis, how can they pause monthly donations?
  • If a donor needs to pause donations, are there other ways they can support your mission?

Board members

  • How can board members support your organization’s efforts to respond to this crisis?
  • How are you ensuring the safety of everyone involved in your organization’s programs and services?
  • Is your gala canceled or postponed? Do you have a plan for an alternate fundraiser?

The general public

  • Is there anything that people in your community can do to support you right now? Are there any supplies you are especially in need of? How can they donate those safely?
  • Will changes to your programs and services impact the community at large? How so?

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2. Develop a central message set and always work off of that

Once you’ve thought about the various audiences, identify the most important things they need to know and develop one central message — or set of messages — that you can use, reuse, and build off of as you conduct your nonprofit’s crisis communications. 

I recommend storing and sharing these messages in a Google doc. Why? Because things will likely evolve and change as you continue dealing with this situation. Sharing a “live” document, like a Google doc, ensures that everyone in your organization who uses it is looking at the latest, most useful information. It’s a good way to keep your staff, volunteers, and leaders in sync and saves you the time and energy it takes to email updated attachments over and over again.

TIP: Nonprofits can get Google’s suite of services for free through the Google for Nonprofits program.

The content of these messages will vary based on the type of organization you have. Go through your audiences and provide all the information that you want them to know right now, using the questions above as a guideline. 

In your messaging, in addition to communicating the essential information above, make sure to reaffirm your organization’s commitment to the mission in the context of this current crisis. People look to nonprofits for encouragement and inspiration during times like these. Things can often feel so chaotic and all of your stakeholders  — both internal and external — will appreciate the reassurance that your organization is addressing our current situation head-on.

3. Get the message out

Once you’ve gone through the questions above and had the answers reviewed by your organization’s leadership, it’s time to get the message out to your community.

Start internally with leadership, staff, and volunteers

Make sure that everyone in your organization — especially your CEO and leadership team — has access to this messaging and is familiar with it. I’ve found that in order for these efforts to be effective, messaging needs to be reinforced from the “top” down. Your CEO should be empowered to guide your leadership team who can guide senior program staff, who can guide volunteers, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

TIP: When sharing the messaging, include text that staff can copy/paste into their social media posts and emails to get started on getting the word out to partners and clients.

Getting the word out to clients quickly

For the nonprofit professionals I know, their first priority is the clients they serve. The reason I recommend starting your communications internally is that it’s often the fastest way to get information to clients as well. 

Think about it — when your organization’s clients have a question or concern, they don’t typically call up your main office line or the communication director’s phone (I hope). In my experience, they are a lot more likely to go to the program staff they are used to interacting with on a regular basis. Plus, starting internally helps keep everyone in your organization aligned so you can avoid confusion.

Next, communicate publicly to your community and supporters

The best way to get the word out will vary depending on your client population, your donor base, and the communications channels you use, but at a minimum, you should:

  • Post an update to your website, right on the homepage where it’s front and center
  • Send an email out to your entire email list
    • You might want to segment this email to prioritize information based on who is receiving it. Maybe you want to send an informational email to clients, but a call-for-donations to supporters and volunteers.
  • Post an update to all of your social media channels
  • Make sure your details are updated on all listing sites. At the least, make sure your hours and information are up-to-date on Google.

The form these messages take in your public-facing communications is up to you, but when in doubt, frame it as a message from the CEO, and have them write a special message of reassurance and encouragement to the community. 

When possible, it also helps to communicate visually. Use free crisis communication infographic templates to communicate updates and policies in a visually engaging and share-able way.

4. Keep your audiences updated proactively

As new challenges and questions arise, update your crisis messaging document and re-circulate it to key stakeholders.

In a situation like this, where things are developing so quickly, I recommend setting some time — even just 15 or 20 minutes each day or every other day — to synchronize with your CEO and/or leadership team. Use this time to update them on new questions and concerns you see on social media and in your email replies, and get their help with updating your responsive messaging.

As you solve new challenges and implement new guidelines, continue to keep your audiences informed about how it’s going. Answer questions before they arise when possible and show that you’re putting in the effort to keep everyone updated.

And remember — just because we are dealing with a difficult situation right now doesn’t mean your content needs to be all doom and gloom. Consider sharing inspirational updates through email and social media. Show how you continue to serve your community, or how your community has stepped up to have your back during this crisis. People can always use some good news.

Additional resources for nonprofits

COVID-19 Nonprofit Action Plan
Download our Nonprofit Action Plan and learn more specific steps you can take to find solutions and continue to serve your community.

COVID-19 Response and Recovery Resources
We’ll be updating this page continuously as we develop and find additional guidance for small businesses dealing with this situation.

Nonprofits and Coronavirus, COVID-19
Guidance from the National Council of Nonprofits, with steps that nonprofits can take to protect their clients, staff, and volunteers.

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