How Nonprofits Have Reframed Their Messaging in the Wake of COVID-19

Nonprofit work is essential in this country. Nonprofits make up 10% of the workforce, making them the third-largest workforce in the United States. That’s millions of people who work day-in and day-out to provide the critical services at which nonprofits excel—cultural, social, medical, and otherwise. They’re examples of what it means to be mission-driven: true helpers that provide support to some of our nation’s most vulnerable people and communities.

But, no matter how noble a cause, a nonprofit is still a business. They may not have “profit” (we would debate this), but they still have operations, budgets, realities, and real people that are affected by shifting political, economic, environmental, and social climates. And they’re certainly not exempt from a global pandemic.

In June, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies’ 2020 Nonprofit Employment Report indicated that the nonprofit sector has faced sweeping layoffs—to the tune of 1.6 million workers between March and May of this year. Closures and social distancing measures have wiped out organizations that didn’t have a rainy day fund. Others are seeing overwhelming engagement and requests for assistance from people who need their services more than ever before. Many nonprofits are struggling, and in turn, the people who depend on them are as well.

This year may have churned up the perfect storm for the sector, but nonprofits are figuring out ways to regroup and adjust to the short-term and long-term realities of our current climate. We (virtually) sat down with four nonprofit organizations to see how they’re reacting to a year they just couldn’t have seen coming.

In what ways have you altered or reframed your organization’s messaging in the midst of the pandemic?

Every nonprofit has a different focus, which means they’ve all been affected in different ways. In terms of how these organizations are communicating with their stakeholders (e.g. the people they serve, boards, donors, etc.), responding to a global pandemic is a matter of doubling-down on what they know.

50CAN is an organization that drives the creation of stronger, more equitable schools in every state and community within its national network. That network supports local leaders in improving education policy through advocacy.

“One of the essential things was for us to remember who we are and where we have expertise. When the crisis kicked off, there were a lot of people who were for education or education policy for whom education policy stopped being very important. For us, we felt that there were certainly incredible issues and basic needs at the moment, and lots of people came together around those things, like internet access, food, and essential things in schools. But the idea that we close down schools would have policy implications that would play out in the short-term in how kids learn online and the long-term in terms of how they went back to school. That was always at the center of what we were going to talk about because that’s what we knew and understood.

We looked around at the world and quickly understood that institutions overall weren’t delivering lots of solutions for parents or kids, but that neighbors were. Individual teachers and schools were. Local communities were. We wanted to share stories of that help and local support, otherwise everything would have been confounded in misery. We thought, with all the communication going on, that there was a lot of data but not much else. People needed that data distilled into something digestible and actionable. So we started a newsletter called the ‘New Reality Roundup’. Policy decisions had to be made to ensure that kids kept learning and we wanted to put the people front and center. We’d interview the head of a charter school network or a school district that was doing a great distance learning program to show people that innovators were coming up with creative and actionable solutions to the challenges of school shutdowns. Distilling it into ‘here are the simplest things you should know, and they’re all doable’ was very beneficial.”

— Derrell Bradford, Executive Vice President, 50CAN

The Boys and Girls Clubs of America has shifted focus this year to highlight how their local clubs are community-essential hubs. As a national organization, it has just over 4,700 local clubs in nearly every community across the country. As the virus’ impact has moved to a regionally-evolving place, some clubs need resources at different times.

“In March we launched a dedicated Boys and Girls Clubs COVID-19 relief fund. That effort was concentrated around raising funds and awareness for the work that our national organization and local clubs are leading. It was a surround-sound approach to make sure that all the messaging was consistent, but tailored to meet the interests and needs of our varying audiences. We had to work closely to support local clubs in navigating this. Our primary function is to serve the clubs that kids and families depend on every day. Helping to navigate that pivot in business continuity planning, resources, and funding was definitely new.

In communicating to our donors, we wanted to focus on making it easy to understand tangible needs. What we were promoting for the first couple of months was community food and meal programs, providing childcare to families of essential personal, and launching virtual programming. With virtual programming it’s not only an opportunity for the clubs to connect with youth who are sitting at home navigating the realities of virtual school, but it also helps parents. Screen time gets a bad rap, but if you use technology effectively, it can be part of the continuum of childcare that clubs provide even if they’re not serving on-site.”

— Nicole Evans, National Director, Resource Development Strategy & Communications, Boys & Girls Clubs of America

Did you release any pandemic-specific messaging to your audiences (e.g. a well-wishes email, helpful tools, special events, etc.)? If so, what did that look like?

For the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA), this pandemic has been a time to put expertise into action. IDSA focuses on supporting clinicians and providing guidelines and resources for the people and researchers on the frontlines, like Dr. Fauci and others working to find a cure, as well as universities that are hosting trials. IDSA has put a fine point on the needs of its members, and inserted themselves into conversations resulting in crucial decisions around COVID-19. They informed discussions around Major League Baseball, American Hotel Lodging Association, US Travel, and recently hosted a town hall with educators about opening up schools.

We talked to Stephen Peeler, Executive Director of the IDSA Foundation, about their shifts in messaging to more expressly support the most important work in our country today.

“We have changed our communication to be exclusively pandemic-related for the first six months of the year. At the beginning of July, we started going back to not just COVID, but other information. We changed our communications to deliver rapid guidelines on therapies, and to give out updates telling doctors specifically about different treatments and other clinical trials. We created an entire COVID section that was developed specifically for the clinicians, researchers, doctors, and public health officials on the frontlines.

Philanthropically, we sent out a notice to all of our donors and members to say ‘the Foundation is still here, we support you, we’re behind the scenes doing our work, and we’ll circle back in the fall’. We also created campaigns from a public service announcement perspective, including one for the general public saying ‘stay at home’ while we try to find the cure, and while doctors are working on the front lines with COVID patients. We’re currently working on another campaign encouraging people to wear a mask. We’ve been holding internal meetings with our board every two weeks to let them know where we are, what’s going on, and how we can support them, as well as weekly calls with Division Directors of 160 universities and school programs that have infectious disease divisions. Those are weekly calls with representatives from Massachusetts and Boston, and all the way to San Francisco and the University of Washington.”

— Stephen Peeler, Executive Director, Infectious Disease Society of America Foundation

IDSA has also launched COVID-19 resources on its website for its members with a growing emphasis on resources for the public domain as well.

What were some challenges you faced or continue to face (e.g. budget, limited resources, limited man/womanpower, etc.)?

Humanity & Inclusion (HI) is a global organization that acts on the frontlines of the world’s most pressing emergencies, promoting disability rights, providing rehabilitation, and ensuring people live safely after conflict. Responding to emergencies is part of their day-to-day, and now they’re doing it through the lens of COVID-19.

“It’s hard to break through the noise. People in our local communities are struggling. People have lost their jobs. I’m concerned that people are giving more locally than internationally. Between the election and all of the other things happening in our nation, it’s very loud. Americans are extremely distracted, but there are Americans who are extremely generous and considerate of those living in worse-off situations overseas. While things may not be ideal here in the U.S., imagine living in a refugee camp in Kenya. Imagine living amidst conflict in Yemen, or avoiding your backyard in Colombia because there may be weapons leftover from war that are contaminating your land. There are people living amongst us who are globally minded and constantly thinking about those people living in those kinds of situations. There are people who are going above and beyond to help, and those are the people we’re working to introduce to Humanity & Inclusion.”

— Michele Lunsford, U.S. Senior Digital Marketing & Communications Officer, Humanity & Inclusion

For 50CAN, there is a desire to continue bringing value to the people they advocate for. That’s a tall order when so much is uncertain month-to-month, and even week-to-week. Value may be maintained as long as needs are being uncovered and strategy can be shifted.

“If you’re a nonprofit organization right now and you’re doing something that’s essential to the world, you need your funders’ money now more than ever. But, at the same time, this feels like the worst time to ask for anything if it isn’t directly actionable on the hottest issue of the moment. That’s been hard. Humility is a core value at 50CAN. While the world is sort of ending, standing up and saying ‘Hey, trust me, you need us’ is really difficult. But, it’s actually precisely what you need to do. It’s hard to counterintuitively express your value in a time when a lot of other things seem more important.

When the world changes you want to stay relevant. We thought it was important to revisit our 2020 goals because the framework in which we do our work changed so drastically. The policy goal post moves, and we want to move with it. We need to demonstrate that we understand what the moment is about and be able to pivot. We had all of our campaigns come up with new goals, making sure all the things we care about didn’t get undone. We had people look at what the most pressing issues were in their states—maybe it was connectivity, pre-K, or assessments—and take that on. We made an assumption that money was going to be a real issue from schools and districts, and that states might go back into session again. Some of our funders were really happy about the fact that we reenvisioned the work.”

— Derrell Bradford, Executive Vice President, 50CAN

What do you think will be your most pressing challenge for the rest of this year?

Nonprofits are facing many of the same challenges, like changes in revenue or moving in-person events to virtual platforms. At the same time, they’re working to tackle challenges that are unique to them—and often unforeseeable.

“We’re expanding and positioning ourselves to expand. We don’t want to wake up at the end of the year, and realize that we didn’t capitalize on the fact that everyone knows what infectious disease work is now. We’re using this time to get our ducks in a row and align ourselves. We’re focusing on our mission and purpose, as well as who we should be reaching out to.

As someone leading a fundraising team, it’s really become about bandwidth. We’re a small department. I’ve had to assemble the team, project managers, subject matter experts, etc. as well as convince internal and external stakeholders that now is the opportune time to put all this together. A lot of people are skeptical, but short-term gain comes into play. How do we remain relevant and focused, and how do we prepare for the next pandemic? How do we tell the public that we are that one resource? How do we prepare for the tsunami of students who want to go into this as a profession? Will there be enough jobs for infectious disease doctors? How do we serve these underrepresented areas of our country?”

— Stephen Peeler, Executive Director, Infectious Disease Society of America Foundation

How has your fundraising been impacted as a result of COVID-19?

Drastic change in fundraising efforts is a looming concern for nonprofit organizations. With revenue-generating events being cancelled in addition to a potentially dwindling donor capacity to give, there is a direct short-term threat to the nonprofit sector.

“Like all NGOs, we’re waiting to see the effects on donor giving internationally. In the short-term, we’re still seeing funds coming in, and we hope it continues for the long-term. For us, we respond to emergencies. So for the people who are interested in the work that we’re doing to help victims of conflict, we’re not just helping victims of conflict right now. We’re doing it while also helping them stay safe from COVID. In some ways, we’ve strengthened and validated our work in making sure people are included. We’re hitting the numbers we need to hit up to this point. I think you’re going to see the real impact after end-of-year giving. January 1 is when all the NGOs are going to be able to see if it hit us negatively or not.”

— Michele Lunsford, U.S. Senior Digital Marketing & Communications Officer, Humanity & Inclusion

Some organizations have focused on storytelling, highlighting the good that comes from the work they do. Especially in a pandemic, stories are key for your marketing strategy. It’s a game-changer for your fundraising too.

“There’s certainly a greater focus on storytelling with our partners, and wanting to make sure we’re lifting up positive news and stories in a time where it can feel like the news cycle’s negativity is never-ending. We’re also emphasizing the need for trauma-informed care and taking care of young people’s social and emotional needs in addition to physical. That’s always been a core value, but the definition of safety has evolved throughout this process, not just for Boys and Girls Clubs, but as a country as we think about comfort and trauma and everything folks have been through. One piece that has hit really hard is understanding that the fear and uncertainty that people experience in the face of COVID, are things that the kids we serve experience every day in normal circumstances.

We’re really proud of our COVID-19 relief fund efforts. We raised over 15 million to date, the majority of which has been passed through directly to local clubs doing this work on the ground, and the rest supporting the important national work we do to help clubs pivot and respond to this crisis and whatever’s next.”

— Nicole Evans, National Director, RD Strategy & Communications, Boys & Girls Clubs of America

Do you think any of these changes to your messaging represent long-term change?

A “new normal” suggests that with a change in perspective comes new, consistent action. Nonprofit organizations and their members are experiencing challenges that they never have before, and paying attention to their needs is crucial.

“Any good leader, or organization, listens to their members. We can’t be relevant unless we’re delivering tools, products, services, and information to our members where they are and when they need it. Listening will continue to help us go to that next level. We did a member survey not just for donors but members of the society. If we can be good listeners while we’re building up this infrastructure, we can pivot and deliver on something that will bring donations, awareness, and relevance long-term.

We’re also conducting a survey and comprehensive listening to all of the people we’ve impacted over the years. Even though we’ve only had individual giving for the last two years, we’ve given away travel scholarships and grants for many years. We’ve decided to reach out to as many scholarship and grant recipients as possible so that instead of saying ‘We gave away $10,000,000 in our 20-year history,’ we can say ‘This $100,000  grant that we gave to this researcher who was studying Ahlzheimers turned into a five-year multi-million-dollar grant from NIH, and this is the impact that the foundation has’. We’re looking at sharing those stories, but we can only do that by listening to our current supporters, and the people we’ve supported philanthropically in the past. With the infrastructure and the ways of tying all those things together, we’ll be able to change the world—literally.”

— Stephen Peeler, Executive Director, Infectious Disease Society of America Foundation

A special thank you to these mighty citizens for their time, perspectives, and continued mission-driven work:

Derrell Bradford, Executive Vice President, 50CAN

Nicole Evans, National Director, RD Strategy & Communications, Boys & Girls Clubs of America

Stephen Peeler, Executive Director, Infectious Disease Society of America Foundation

Michele Lunsford, U.S. Senior Digital Marketing & Communications Officer, Humanity & Inclusion