Best and Worst Nonprofit Coronavirus Crisis Communication Strategies

crisis communication strategies

Now is the time to be strategic and proactive. It’s one thing to be reactive at the beginning of a crisis. It’s the normal human response. But this is no longer the beginning. And ‘busy’ is often not the most effective modus operandi. It’s like checking your email endlessly throughout the day, while avoiding the priority work that’s a bit more difficult. You were working, but were you productive?

Planning and leadership around communications and crisis communication strategies will be key to your survival. Because communication is how we build authentic relationships. And without relationships, your mission is doomed. Because no one will know enough about what you’re doing, and why, to care to engage with you.

What was relevant yesterday isn’t necessarily relevant today. Or, if you’re in the business of emergency response, it may be more relevant. The point is this: You’ve got to actively communicate your current relevance.

Now is the time to double down on your integrated marketing and fundraising communications strategy. The key reasons people stop engaging with a nonprofit all have to do with communications failures. This happens, sadly, all the time. It’s why donor retention rates are abysmal in the best of times. And we’re certainly not in those right now. 

People want to help. People need to help. If you’ve got a way for people to help, it’s your obligation to communicate this fact. This is your unique gift to those who are searching for a way, especially in crisis, to bring meaning and purpose to their lives.

Sadly, I see too many nonprofits failing at their job as ‘philanthropy facilitator.’ They’re failing to communicate appropriately with their audiences. Why? I’m not sure. But one thing I’m observing is the lack of vision, planning and leadership.

Worst Types of Crisis Communication Strategies

1. The worst is NO communication. 

Beware of assuming people don’t want to hear from you because you’re not their top concern right now. You know what folks say about the word “ass-u-me,” right? Never, ever make assumptions about when, where, what, why and how your constituents want to hear from you.  The only way you’ll know is by asking them directly. 

Would you suddenly stop talking to your family and friends because we’re in the middle of a crisis? Of course not. They loved you yesterday, they love you today, and they’ll love you tomorrow – unless you cut them off. They want to know how you’re doing. They want you to ask them how they’re doing. Relationships are a two-way street.

Figure out your supporters’ preferred methods of communication by testing (today we’re seeing a lot of email, phone calls, Zoom, Facebook Live, Google Hangout, Instagram and YouTube); then… go for it. There are plenty of communication options. If you do nothing (perhaps because you lay off your development and marketing staff), you’ll be sorry. Make those folks the last you lay off. Or hire them back first. They’re truly ‘essential workers.’ Because out of sight is out of mind.

2. The second worst is TONE-DEAF communication.

In the face of the ‘new abnormal’ in which we’re living, acting as if this is business as usual will make you look out of touch. Take a good look at your website; some of your language may need to be updated. That spring or summer fundraising appeal you’d planned to send pre-pandemic may seem completely out of touch right now. As may your pitch to purchase a membership, subscription, tickets, courses, or anything else you generally sell to generate revenue. That’s not to say you can’t still seek to generate new revenue. You can, and you should. You just must do so in an authentic, relevant and innovative manner tailored to today’s circumstances.

3. The third worst is IGNORING THE FACT YOU NEED FUNDRAISING income now (assuming you do).

If you’re staring at a deficit, it’s your responsibility to ask for specific additional help to get you through this crisis. While it’s tempting to hunker down, focus on cutting expenses, and go into hibernation mode, you do need to consider how easy it will be to wake up again. Balancing your budget and staunching the bleeding for the short term may seem sensible. But, if you do this, what will you be waking to? Will your staff have scattered to the winds? Will your donors have moved elsewhere? 

What will happen to your mission, and those who rely on you – not just today, but for the long term – if you don’t generate the income necessary to fulfill your promises? Whatever your mission, if you don’t want to let folks down you must focus on increasing revenues. 

Since many nonprofits can no longer count on earned income, contributed income will be your savior. If… you ask. When you don’t ask, you don’t get. And since other nonprofits are asking, your constituents may switch their loyalties to those who gave them a ‘feel good’ pay-off at a time they really needed one.

Best Types of Crisis Communication Strategies

1. The best communication is easy to understand. 

Get to the point right away. Don’t make the reader scroll through three paragraphs of introductory text before they know why you’re writing to them. This is a situation where facts matter. Maybe followed by a brief, illustrative, compelling story. If you’re used to leading with the story, in a crisis you probably want to lead with the realities of the situation you’re facing.

Try to resist editorial and opinion. It may make you feel good, but the fact that you’re worried or optimistic is not as meaningful to your constituents right now as the reason you’re writing to them. 

Begin with the SMIT – ‘single most important thing’). TIP: Anytime you write an appeal letter, read through your top paragraphs. Keep reading until you get to the point. The real point. Cross out the beginning paragraphs. 

2. The best communication is specific – both in terms of purpose and amount. 

Be transparent about why you need help right now, and how you’ll use that help. Make a clear case for support and/or action. This will seem timely and urgent; therefore, more compelling than “In these trying times, we need money now.” Consider, instead, establishing some type of “Coronavirus Response/Resiliency Fund.”

3. The best communication is easy to respond to. 

Be guided by the mantra of ‘user-friendly.’ Some folks won’t want to go to the mailbox now. Or they won’t have stamps in their home. So if you’re snail mailing appeals, include a URL they can use should they prefer to give online. 

Dedicated donation landing pages are important. They reassure would-be donors to your emergency appeal that they’ve landed in the right place. If you’re emailing appeals, be sure the donate link doesn’t send folks to a generic donation form with pre-crisis language. It will confuse them and stop many dead in their tracks.

If staff make phone calls make sure they’re set up to take credit card payments over the phone. This ensures you get the gift right away, and relieves donors of the obligation to go online or dig out a checkbook. 

Closing Thoughts

You are a conduit for enabling people to act on their most cherished values. As a philanthropy facilitator, your job is to offer people the opportunity to find joy, meaning, and purpose

Now is your golden moment. Donors are an integral part of your mission; you serve them as much as they serve you. If you fall short right now, you’ll short-change those who count on you to find fulfillment. 

Be transparent and authentic and reinvent your relevance. Reshape your case for support to incorporate today’s challenges. Name the elephant in the room rather than sticking your head in the sand. Show your best, not worst, self. And invite your supporters to do the same.

NOTE: These crisis communication strategies are fundraising and marketing 101 basics. They hold true in good times and bad. You cannot go wrong if you adhere to this advice. 

  • Be Clear. 
  • Be Specific. 
  • Be Relevant. 
  • Make Giving Easy

This advice just happens to be more important than ever in times folks are stressed. Don’t make people work too hard in order to understand what you’re asking of them – and how it will make them feel good.

Are you ready to enact your fully developed crisis communication strategies? You can download our free nonprofit crisis communications plan template to get started.

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad

One Comment

  1. Angie Thompson May 14, 2020 at 7:44 am - Reply

    Thank you for the reminder. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate!!

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