Communicating during, and following, a disaster

The immediate crisis of the Boston Marathon tragedy has passed and we are moving into a phase of trying to understand what internal and external forces influenced the bombing suspects’ thoughts and subsequent actions.

Last week, in the confusing heat of the crisis with a major U.S. city frozen in place, this is what nonprofit marketing expert Nancy Schwartz posted. It’s worth repeating even though the post is already dated in the context of our crazy fast-paced world where news coverage is virtually instantaneous (and alas, the idea of waiting for an update from tomorrow’s newspaper is becoming an anachronism).

Here is wisdom to consider for the next time you find yourself wondering how to communicate—or, in this case, whether to communicate at all—in the midst of the next local, national or international trauma.

On April 19, Nancy wrote:


That’s my #1 recommendation for your nonprofit right now, as responders chase down the second bombing suspect.

We’re all too tense (at least now, at least the people I know) to absorb anything much right now. And if you try to spark engagement on non-related or non-essential issues right now, you’ll fail.

In fact, if you do so you’re likely to alienate folks who may otherwise support your organization’s work—irrelevant messages make people feel you don’t get them at all. That’s the quickest way to chase a prospect or supporter away.

But whether you pause or not—make sure you have people, processes and decision-making criteria in place to reassess your approach the moment things change regarding the manhunt and the next unexpected situation.

Pause, and just listen close to your network, until the manhunt is over.

That’s what folks at Feeding America and the Environmental Defense Fund decided this morning, after considering what they were hearing from their base, and their own goals, role and voice. 

Consider doing the same to 1) respect your base (listen close, especially today) and 2) stay relevant. Nothing is more important.

But they’re ready to reassess that this afternoon, as things continue to shift. Nothing stays constant in our world of constant change. And you need to be ready too.

So mobilize while you pause—get your people, processes and decision-making criteria in place so you can re-tune your communications approach the moment things change this time, and when the next unexpected thing comes around.

That’s a must for relevancy today and always.

Please share this recommendation with your nonprofit network—we all need some help at times like this.

Meanwhile, back in the annals of ancient history—that is, 2005, immediately following Hurricane Katrina—we published a Rich TIP about nonprofit’s communications and fundraising strategies amid a headline-grabbing disaster.

Obviously the situation post-Katrina was quite different from the Boston bombing, although certainly this advice could also easily have fit the nonprofits affected by last fall’s “superstorm” Hurricane Sandy, and will regrettably be needed in the next natural or man-caused disaster. The recommendations still make sense today and for the future.

We wrote:

In September, we were bombarded with horrific pictures, video clips, and stories of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Hurricane Katrina has caused a dramatic wake-up call to the issues of poverty and race in America, and certainly unveiled the ineptness of our government bureaucracies.

But the outpouring of food, clothing, money, and other resources from individuals and organizations in an effort to relieve the suffering has been unprecedented. Within the first two weeks, Americans contributed over $788 million to the hurricane relief efforts. By comparison, in the 10 days after the September 11, 2001 attack in New York, Americans donated $239 million; and in the nine days after the Asian tsunamis, Americans raised over $163 million.

The great surge of philanthropic support from corporations has been equally dramatic during the first two weeks following Katrina. Wal-Mart donated $15 million, General Electric donated $6 million, Coca- Cola donated $5 million, and Michael and Susan Dell donated $5 million. In addition, the government provided over $100 billion for relief efforts.

Nonprofit leaders are concerned (and rightly so) about the impact this huge swell of giving will have on local and regional fundraising. When a disaster of this magnitude hits, you can certainly expect, and should prepare for, a dip in giving during the next three months.

What are charities to do? How can we prepare for the future? What have we learned from previous disasters that can be applied to what we’re dealing with now?

  1. Take a long-term view. In relative terms, Katrina affected nonprofit agencies for the short term. Within six months, charitable giving will recover to what it was prior to the hurricane. Just remember that there are always going to be unforeseen changes in the economy, so your best insurance policy is to have a long- term and diverse fundraising strategy in place.
  2. Government supported contract plan. After Katrina, we began to see a slowdown of public and federal dollars to nonprofits because these dollars were redirected for the efforts to help the victims of the hurricane. This caused some of the contracts and fee-for-service dollars to be delayed and did of course impact the cash flow and payroll requirements of nonprofits. Create a cash-flow contingency plan now through your bank, credit union or perhaps a community foundation.
  3. Design a contingency plan. After a disaster, make sure you have a “back-up” plan in case philanthropic giving takes longer than anticipated to turn around. Look at where you could cut expenses (and don’t necessarily jump to cutting staff). Identify some potential donors and friends who you could appeal to during an emergency and line up their potential support before you need their help.
  4. Stay the course. Revise your revenue projections and schedule, but don’t cancel direct mail appeals, fundraising events, and grant proposals entirely. If your organization is involved with programs that serve the poor and minority communities, for example, you could make the connection between the disaster in New Orleans and the critical needs in your community.
  5. Don’t spin your pitch. Unless your organization is directly involved in relief efforts or is somehow connected to the affected areas, don’t try to “spin” your organization’s mission to somehow fit with the money that’s being raised for the disaster victims. This strategy is likely to backfire.
  6. Keep your team together. A huge relief effort failure post-Katrina was in dividing families and scattering them across the country. This disunity is unhealthy for developing a strong community. The same can be said about your organization. Take great care in times of uncertainty to pull your team (staff, board, volunteers) together and spend extra time strengthening your relationships. And take time to reach out to your supporters in a personal way during the next three months.
  7. Focus on your mission and needs. Despite the emotional distraction of a disaster, your current supporters do really care about your mission and programs. When the time is right, resume communication with them.
  8. Prioritize close to home. Kim Klein, publisher of “Grassroots Fundraising Journal,” says that you already know all the people you need to know. Focus your time, energy, and resources on deepening the commitment and involvement of your existing friends and supporters rather than prospecting for new donors.
  9. Back-up your data. We learned from 9/11 and Katrina that the only certainty is uncertainty, and the only things in life that are predictable are unpredictable. Make sure you are backing up all of your databases, files, e-mails, servers, and other important information. You never know when a disaster will hit your community or neighborhood.
  10. Communication strategy. Cell phones and landline telephones were down in much of southern Louisiana during Katrina. Try to have a back-up communication strategy so you can communicate with all of your staff and board members in case disaster strikes in your neighborhood.

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