Most non-profit organizational leaders I am in contact with are expressing their search for solid ground in the middle of a health and economic crisis, brought on by COVID-19, that feels unpredictable and stressful. 

Last week a non-profit manager told me that she tried, a few times, to compose the spring newsletter for her organization. She struggled to find the right words and tone. She is not alone. Many organizations are contemplating the best way to communicate to different stakeholders that matter to their organization.

To help you take a first step with communications, here are some things to get you started.

A PRE-COVID CLEAN UP EVENT ON THE WELLS RIVER IN GROTON, VT IN 2019, FOLLOWING A DAM REMOVAL ORGANIZED BY THE CONNECTICUT RIVER CONSERVANCY. PHOTO BY ROY SCHIFF.

Mission and values lead

Let your organization’s values and mission guide your communication. People will understand your commitment to addressing problems, and finding solutions, even within the context of the pandemic. Share what you are doing and how you are safely continuing your mission.

Do not reach outside your mission. Stick to your values and expertise. You are still relevant.

A mission-based message goes something like this:

We are a community-based organization. Our organization’s local impact matters to you. Right now, we are (provide some examples). This work helps keep our communities prepared, safe, and strong. In practice it means we are working on things that are important to you such as having clean, healthy water, producing locally grown food, and creating places to explore and recreate close to home.

Examples of leading with mission:

Understand your audience and the context, use tone of empathy and hope

Without sure footing, it is hard to find the right words and tone. What do I tell our board, donors, volunteers, and other stakeholders?

The best approach is to be honest, genuine, and empathetic. You do not have to hide that the health situation and social distancing are taking a toll on you, your organization, and your community. To build trust, organizations should be clear. Be candid about suspension of events and programs. Make sure your updates are consistent with state and CDC guidelines.

Do not be over the top in terms of financial distress but you can explain what your organization is experiencing. Then shift, in your communication, to what is ahead for your work. How will your organization show resilience in the face of the impacts? What have you learned? If you are ready to discuss it, you can share what the future looks like for your organization as we shift to recovery.

It may be comforting for community-based organizations leaders to learn that people want to hear from you. Research shows that people are looking for ways to create community and feel useful. The usual opportunities for volunteering are not available, events are cancelled, and libraries, places of worship and community centers are closed. If we truly are “all in this together” people want to know how they can be of service, with social distancing. Look for ways to connect.

The tone of the message may sound something like this:

Like each of you, in your own lives, we have had some disruptions and uncertainty in our work. Our priority is the safety and wellness of our staff, our community, and their loved ones and we continue to monitor and will share any new guidance from the CDC and the state of Vermont.

With the arrival of spring (finally!) we are adapting to the new normal and continuing with our work. (Specifics here.) 

We also know that it is not business as usual. Our events for the spring and summer are cancelled. We are disappointed by not being able to see you in person. We will be in touch as soon as we know about when we can reschedule.

We know that our work is important to our community, we have learned it is important to be both prepared and resilient. We are plowing ahead with these lessons learned.

Examples of empathetic tone:

How your organization can respond to this moment of generosity, local-focus, and opening-up of minds to solutions

Draw parallels to your organization’s work, right in their backyard, to make sure your community feels prepared for other unexpected circumstances.

Share stories of hope, individuals making a difference, and looking ahead to a stronger community after we get past this difficult time.

Make suggestions for individuals and families to do something close to home such as going for a walk on the river, using food budgets to buy from a local farm, or home projects this spring that can make a difference in stormwater runoff.

Screen time is up, dramatically. This means that social media, email newsletters and photos on Instagram will likely be more successful than in the past. Post a photo or write a short article. You’d be surprised how many likes a photo of spring beauty or trillium will get! NOFA – VT often includes a link to an inspiring song with their newsletters.

Examples of creative communication and outreach ideas:

Figure out what is doable, do not beat yourself up about what you haven’t done or can’t do.

When you feel stuck with reaching out to stakeholders and feel overwhelmed by project and program work at the same time, pick just one way to communicate.

Let me offer you a single idea for communication if you have just a few hours. Start by creating a list of the five people that are closest to your organization. Pick up the phone and call them. Tell them about what is going on at your organization and your plans for the next few months. Try out some language with those that care about your organization. These calls may be to people on your board, donors, or partners.

As American fiction author Stephen King once said: “The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”

Post by Elise first published in Meadow Muffin Blog of the High Meadows Fund