The three most common messaging questions we’ve received – and our answers

It’s been eight months (but who’s counting?), and by all accounts, COVID-19 is still all-consuming. Add to that a contentious political climate and sensational (in all the bad ways) news cycles, and it can seem impossible to cut through the noise with a compelling message about your nonprofit’s mission.

Of course, your mission knows no day off, and your fundraising efforts cannot afford to pause – even as we continue to adjust within a new landscape of policy, politics, and donor behavior.

During these past months, we’ve received many questions from nonprofits, and many focus on messaging during a pandemic. Here, we answer three of the most common.

Q: Our audiences are very diverse in ____ (age, perspective, gender, and so on – pick one or all!). Should we change our message based on the audience?

The short answer is no: always frame your messaging around your mission, values, and purpose. These should never change, and they should be a consistent through line in all your messaging.

However, while now is very much the time to articulate your mission, it is not the time to reinvent it. At a time when everything feels unpredictable and uncertain, people are seeking and finding comfort in the familiar.

One consideration is to change who is sending the message. Can you create donor-to-donor, parent-to-parent, or patient-to-patient versions of the same message? Using peers to deliver your messages is effective because they convey credibility and relevance. Also, how you deliver the message might change. A piece of direct mail may be appropriate for the elderly, but a text message might be a better way to catch the attention of your younger constituents.

Now, here’s the rub. To accomplish this, you must know your audience and know about your audience:

  • How do they see themselves within the context of your organization?
  • Can they articulate the problem you solve for people or within the world?
  • What are their preferences and how do they engage with technology and social media?

These require investment of time and resources, and you want to be sure that you are investing them wisely. Information is power, so collect as much information about your audience as you can and use it responsibly.

Remember, it’s your duty as an organization to practice responsible data management. This is often forgotten and certainly not glamorous, but it is absolutely necessary as you seek to build and maintain trust. The most important thing to communicate to your audience – regardless of your actual “message” – is that your organization is trustworthy. Be transparent with how you are collecting, storing, and using data. Respect privacy and make it easy to opt in to (or, yes, even out of) your communications. Cybercrime is a real threat, and nonprofits are among the most targeted.

Q: Our organization is not on the “frontline” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Is it appropriate for us to ask for gifts?

The best way to answer this question is with a question: was your mission worthy of support pre-COVID? If so, your mission is still worthy today.

Rightfully so, the pandemic may shed a particularly bright light on organizations providing basic human needs and services, but that does not mean your organization is suddenly undeserving of support. The two are not mutually exclusive, and as is often the case during crisis, we have seen people increase rather than reallocate their generosity.

People still look to arts and culture as an outlet and for inspiration. Parents who were concerned about their children’s learning disability have not stopped being concerned. Conservation organizations still have important work to do. The most important thing here is conveying why you do your work, not just what you do or how you do it.

Still, you don’t want to be perceived as tone-deaf or oblivious to the urgency of current events. Frame your mission and impact through the lens of these issues. Here are some questions to ask yourself to get started:

  • How has COVID impacted your ability to deliver your mission?
  • Are you facing new challenges?
  • Are pre-existing challenges now exacerbated?

Also, consider this: while many people are reeling and facing incredible hardships, many are finding themselves with unexpected savings – no childcare payments, commutes, vacations, or eating out – and are keenly aware that in order to ensure their favorite programs, theatres, and museums can reopen post-COVID, they need to provide support during this time. In the end, remember this sage fundraising advice: never be presumptuous – either by assuming that someone can give OR by assuming that they can’t.

Last, think outside the box. Is there an opportunity for your organization to partner with a “frontline” organization? Or can you join forces with another organization that offers services or programs similar to yours? Can you offer value to your constituents in a creative and inspiring way?

Some theatres, for instance, imbued with the mission of creativity and bringing people together, have found unconventional ways to deliver on this mission despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. You may find increased visibility and new lifelong supporters as a result.

Q: Do you need to change your message due to COVID-19?

Again, we’ll answer that question with one of our own: how effective was your message before COVID?

Were you mission-aligned and was there clarity in your purpose? Were you communicating about the needs of your organization (we have a leaky roof!), or were you communicating about your mission? If the latter, keep it up! Otherwise, it’s time to reframe. While it’s tempting (and perhaps accurate) to say “we can’t meet payroll”, that is very much about your self-conception as an organization, when it should be about your mission.

Remember, you don’t have to completely change your messaging. Rather, consider how you might adapt it to the moment – connect the dots of how your mission fits “the now” or how “the now” fits your mission.

If your typical message says, “Every year we feed 200,000, children, families, and seniors,” your message today might expand to, “Every year we feed 200,000, children, families, and seniors, and because of COVID-19, this need has doubled overnight.”

One data point elevates the message to the moment and makes it relevant (and increases urgency) without changing the underlying message itself (which, it bears pointing out, is indeed focused on the mission).

In the end, most (if not all!) best practices during this unique moment in time apply even during moments of calm or normalcy. When offering counsel, we’ve often received feedback along the lines of, “You’re right – this is great, but I suppose this should apply even outside of the COVID-19 pandemic as well.”

Yes. It absolutely should. And in our next post on messaging, we’ll share the nine communication tips that, indeed, always apply.

Nicole Antil is Chief Creative Officer at Graham-Pelton.

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