Communicating with Donors During a Maelstrom

by Cheryl A. Clark and Karen Topakian

The Covid-19 virus has upended every facet of our lives. For those of us in the nonprofit community, that has meant closing our facilities and offices, disrupting our delivery of services, and ceasing our communications with donors-

Wait a minute!  While those first two are true, the third is decidedly not. If your nonprofit organization hopes to survive during this crisis and beyond, you must communicate, strategically with your supporters! In this article, we’ve compiled the main questions you, your executive director, and your board members are likely to ask at this time to offer guidance on how to answer them. At the end of the article, we’ve provided a useful checklist to make sure your communications to donors and supporters are ticking all the boxes.

Our donors don’t want to hear from us now. Shouldn’t we wait until later? 

No!  Your donors (as well as other key constituents like your clients, staff, and community partners) want to hear from you. As mental health experts advise, social distancing does not mean social separation. We need-and expect-to hear from others we care about during uncertain times. Your donors care about your organization. Communicate!

We acknowledge that it can be challenging to overcome an organization’s communications fears. Since the Covid-19 crisis started, we’ve encountered several nonprofit professionals (and some board members) who hesitate to contact their supporters. Early on, one seasoned executive director asserted that “most people are in shock” and, therefore, not able to take in any further communications. In reality, this was not the case.

What do our donors want to hear or know?

Trust your instincts. You know your organization, clients, and supporters best. They want to know you’re focused on the work, but also thinking about them. Your donors are people, and people want to hear from a friendly, trusting, and calm voice. Your agency can reach out, let supporters know you care about them and their families, and ideally provide news or a special and uplifting message.

What should we say?

You’ve determined what your donors want to know, which will change over the time of a prolonged crisis. Now, speak the truth. Share your expertise. Communicate only what you know. Be specific, if you can. Acknowledge what you don’t know.

Each nonprofit is different. Therefore, tailor your communications to best meet the information needs of your donors and supporters. For example, if your agency is a healthcare clinic and directly involved in meeting community health care needs, you’ll want to share the steps you’re taking to protect your clients and your staff. Since your agency has the expertise, consider providing your audience with tips on how they can stay healthy. Let them know if you are still serving clients.

If you work for a performing arts organization that has cancelled or postponed its performances, you’ve probably already notified ticket holders. If you don’t yet know the date when bans on public gatherings will be lifted in your area, it’s best not to make promises or representations about reopening until absolutely certain!

If you work for a social justice or advocacy organization, let your supporters know you are still advocating for the same issues, for the same reasons, while doing so safely from home. If closing your physical doors means you need to switch your approach from in-person meetings with allies to online, let your donors know you’ve had to change strategies but not goals.

You get the idea.

Make your communications personal. Find a way to include something you’re feeling or how you’re coping. Your recipients will benefit from knowing you too don’t know what’s ahead and are concerned about family members and friends. Don’t be afraid to say, I’m concerned about my aging mother who lives alone or my daughter who is an ER nurse. Let them see your humanity. Keep it short while humanizing your message.

Acknowledge the support your organization has received, from staff, volunteers, and donors. Thank the donors who have already reached out to support your organization, not by name but collectively. Urge them to drop you a line by email if they would like.

How frequently should we communicate? 

The lingering effects of this public health crisis will last. We do not foresee a return to “business as usual” for a long time. No one knows how long we will need to shelter in place and when we can return to our offices and again gather in groups. Yet you will want to…READ MORE