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So You Did Your COVID-19 Crisis Communications. Now What?


The state of the world has made us want to connect with more of you, more often. For the rest of 2020, the Campbell & Company Communications team is sharing a new article every week that explores a topic in case development and fundraising communications, drawn from our work.

Whether it’s thinking about how to approach fundraising communications against the backdrop of current events or tackling an evergreen challenge we see time and time again in nonprofits across the sector, these articles focus on practical tips to empower fundraising leaders in their day-to-day work. Subscribe to the series here.

If you’re a fundraiser anywhere on earth right now, COVID-19 has transformed your work: from taking cultivation calls from the one room in your house with a locked door to shifting 300-person events to the internet.

But as the dust begins to settle and we actually figure out how to mute ourselves on Zoom, many of us are beginning to remember what it feels like to plan out our work in weeks and months, not days and hours.

As we venture into the wilderness of donor communications in a global pandemic, we put together a few tips for how to take the long view while continuing to be mindful of the current context.

Assess the impact on your case and vision.

Crisis fundraising is often necessary in the moment, but the long-term vision you share is what cultivates meaningful relationships, inspires giving, and makes a long-term impact. It can be difficult to look forward when the future seems so unknowable, and you won’t have all the answers. That’s okay. But you can ask a few important questions to begin making a broader case:

Is our organizational/campaign vision fundamentally changed because of the pandemic? Do you need to make a different change in the community? If yes, it may be a good time to step back and do some visioning or planning around these changes. If not, stay the course.

What does the community especially need in the coming year(s), and why are we best positioned to offer it? What big, visionary, systemic issues has the pandemic shined a light on that you can address? Think beyond the next month or two.

What does your response to COVID-19 say about your organization? Are you a human services organization that’s built to help families through a crisis like this one? Are you an arts organization that has always inspired people to make meaning from challenging times? Use your current activity to highlight a bigger value proposition at the heart of your case

Update your case, but don’t go back to the drawing board.

The fundraising landscape has changed, but the inherent value of your fundraising effort probably hasn’t. A pandemic doesn’t mean your case needs a rewrite or it’s not okay to ask for money for something other than emergency response. (Quite the opposite—new research shows that 71% of people who already donate think nonprofits should continue to ask, even if the cause is not directly related to COVID-19.[1])

If you do make updates, focus them on:

  • A changing context and environment for your work
  • A stronger call to action around increased need
  • An invitation for donors less affected by the pandemic to give
  • Specific projects or programs that feel especially relevant over the next few years
  • A longer timeline for your work (several years)

Bring the focus back to your mission—and beyond COVID-19.

It’s okay to start talking about your mission in a broader way—and whatever specific projects, programs, or vision you are focusing on. Until now, most of us have been talking about how COVID-19 impacts our mission and how we’ve responded. It’s probably time to use COVID-19 and its aftermath as a bridge to talking about your mission, period.

Plus, if your personal inbox has become a forgotten wasteland of petitions, depressing news briefs, and coronavirus-related fundraising appeals—the same is probably true of your donors. The ubiquity of coronavirus communications and media means that a positive vision for the future is, for most, a welcome message.

As we move out of the immediate impacts of the pandemic, focus on how your mission will offer real solutions for longer-term issues of economic distress, the hunger for togetherness, the glaring inequities of our social safety net, and the primordial need for hope.

Lean on flexible materials and tools.

There is a lot we don’t know about how our work will change, and a lot of donors don’t know how their lives will look. Now is a good time to create communications tools that are built for flexibility and mindful of your post-pandemic budget. Some ideas include:

  • Internal talking points, FAQs, and cheat sheets that support one-on-one conversations so you can keep deepening relationships over distance. These can be short, simple, and created in Word—they just need to summarize the most essential talking points in language people can understand and repeat.  
  • PowerPoint decks that can be easily updated and shared via screen. Great for Zoom calls, easy to tailor to different audiences and situations, and a lot cheaper than printing a full run of a glossy brochure.
  • Digital annual reports that are not subject to a three-months-in-advance print calendar may be useful to organizations worried about materials going out of date and can be less expensive to produce.

Ask for what you need, and show why philanthropy matters.

If you knew the precise value of philanthropy at your organization in the Before Times, now you can bump that up a few notches. If you couldn’t articulate the value of philanthropy in the Before Times, now is a great time to clarify that message.

The stakes are higher for everyone: your organization, your mission, your donors, the world. Some donors may have less capacity, but they may also be inspired by a greater urgency or a newfound appreciation for the work you do. It’s okay to ask for what you need, as long as you say why it matters.

Start with your closest supporters—the ones likely to be the most motivated to see your work move forward under new circumstances. At the same time, leverage every broad-based communication to highlight the role of giving at your organization. The more people who understand your mission and think of you beyond this crisis, the better.  

For many organizations, the immediacy of the pandemic’s emergency fundraising and initial outreach may soon be over. But the task of engaging donors around our missions in a fundamentally changed social landscape is not going anywhere. The community needs your work, and donors want to be part of it. You got this.

For more advice, visit our COVID-19 resource page.

[1] Taking the Pulse of Donors in a Time of Crisis: Attitudes Toward Charitable Giving in Canada and the U.S., Blakely & the Aber Group, April 2020

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Anna Goren
About Anna Goren Anna offers balanced and collaborative solutions to complex communications challenges in the nonprofit sector, where she shares a passion for her clients’ missions and is motivated by...
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