How Nonprofits Are Evolving Their Communications Strategies During COVID-19

Aug 19, 2020 | By WaterStreet Creative

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many significant new challenges for businesses to navigate. For nonprofit organizations, it is especially difficult, as much of their funding is generated from donations and face-to-face events and activities. On Friday, August 14, 2020, WaterStreet Creative’s Director of Public Relations and PRSA SE WI Board Member, Michael Pflughoeft, moderated SE Wisconsin PRSA’s latest webinar discussing “How Nonprofits Evolved Their Communications Strategies During COVID-19.”

The one-hour webinar included three business leaders who work directly within the nonprofit sector in Milwaukee discussing how they have evolved their communication strategies during these unprecedented times. Panelists included Héctor Colón, President and CEO of Lutheran Social Services, Don Klein, Senior Director of Public Affairs for Bethesda Lutheran Communities, and Anne Metcalf, Managing Director for the Milwaukee Ballet.

We’ve collected a few tips and tactics these nonprofits are executing in their own communication strategies to assist your business, nonprofit or not, with evolving your own communication strategy. Keep reading to learn more or you can watch the full, free, webinar here!

Tip #1 – Keep communication with your internal team transparent and frequent:

    • “We made sure that we were fielding questions from our staff and providing them with the most up to date, factual information on a daily basis. But also, just being there to support them. To understand how they were doing personally as well as professionally.” - Héctor Colón

    • “I made an effort to call those who were permanently laid off just to thank them and show appreciation…We felt compelled to reach out to them, even if they aren’t coming back to the organization.” - Héctor Colón

    • “Using technology, finding ways to adapt to your audience and then leveraging that technology has seemed to be the thing that has worked for all of you.” - Michael Pflughoeft

Tip #2 –Make decisions mindfully -- allow your strategies the room to pivot during a time of constant change.

    • “The governance around a nonprofit is sometimes slow with committee structures and a board that needs to make a lot of final decisions. For me at the beginning, it was very much a case of trying to make decisions to make pace with what was happening. The reality of leaving it as long as you can before making that final decision has almost always paid off to our benefit in this crisis.” - Anne Metcalf

Tip #3 – Communicate, Engage and Empathize with your donors. Thank your donors and let them know their voice is important.

    • “We made a conscious effort from the get go not to kind of do dark abyss kind of asks and to retain what we as a company believe to be our brand values of being uplifting and inspirational. So we were very much about retaining optimism in the way we wrote to our donors. Optimistic but realistic. But definitely not coming from a place of panic.” - Anne Metcalf

    • “We were reluctant at first to approach our donors because we were worried about them. Maybe they have been impacted by the virus personally or their businesses have been affected. We led with that in mind. Really looking out for our donors.,, asking them if they were ok and if they needed us, we were here for them.” - Héctor Colón

    • “When we began thinking about all the audiences we needed to talk to, donors were right there at the top of the list. We made sure to do a few town halls with them to make sure they had an opportunity to hear directly from us about what was happening with the organization, the financial challenges we were facing because of what was happening with COVID and what would be in jeopardy potentially if we were not able to secure enough funds from them. It was sort of threading the needle. It was not all doom and gloom, it was very realistic. But it was not too optimistic either. It was saying this is the situation here are the facts and the numbers and why we need your support.” - Don Klein

    • “We did a phone tree and we called all of our donors list at some point in the last couple months. Everyone got 10 to 20 names and called just to check in on them. And these could be people who gave at little as $10 or $20 dollars. Just to say we are still here, we appreciate what you have done for us in the past, if there is anything we can do for you and your loved ones let us know. That was really well received.” - Don Klein

Tip #4 – Communicate with your board frequently to keep momentum moving forward.

    • “From our perspective our board is right there. We have been [in regular contact], if not daily, it’s several times a week. Keeping them up to speed certainly the financial and operations thing, but also the people. How many people have maybe tested positive or been in the hospital. Our board has been very much into learning those facts.” – Don Klein

    • “We did keep in frequent contact with our board chair and several members of the executive committee and that is still ongoing.” - Héctor Colón

Tip #5 – Approach delivery of tough messages with heart and compassion.

    • “For us it’s leading with a servant’s heart and authentic compassion… A lot of it is how you approach things. It’s not the what you do but how you do it.” - Héctor Colón
    • “We come at it from a place of compassion. We ground it in the fact that if we allow this, we are putting other people in jeopardy. By and large people understand that.” – Don Klein

The bottom line for nonprofits when it comes to handling communication during this time is to remain flexible where you can and keep communication transparent with your key stakeholders.

In a time of social distancing, finding ways to continue to build community through empathy and heart will ultimately lead to success as time moves on to, hopefully, a pandemic-less world.

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