Ryan P. Fuller
The current COVID-19 pandemic represents something unimaginable a few months ago, except to disaster planners and infectious disease experts. Public discourse about the disaster has focused predominately on the for-profit and governmental sectors, hardly touching on how nonprofit organizations are coping with the fallout of the pandemic.
Given the disparity, I sought to find out how public charities in my region are coping, including their communication efforts. The Greater Sacramento Area is a seven-county region in Northern California that includes both urban and rural populations. The region houses the state capital (in Sacramento). Because of its diversity, the region is a good bellwether for the nonprofit sector in the state, which is also at the leading edge of the nonprofit sector.
Of 109 nonprofits in the region that I surveyed, most experienced some or complete closures (87.15%). Other research has demonstrated similar operational impacts nationally. Moreover, barring financial stabilization efforts, my research showed that most organizations would be under financial distress in 6 months. Because of their reliance on public support, charities are particularly vulnerable to economic downturns.
What differentiated this study from others urgently documenting the financial health of the sector is the focus on the communication efforts of nonprofits related to COVID-19. Nonprofit organizations appear to be adapting to the circumstances. Overall, 95.37% of organizations reported communicating with internal and external stakeholders about the crisis. However, one quarter of organizations reported difficulty communicating with hard-to-reach and under-served populations about operational changes.
The top three channels that nonprofit organizations reported using to communicate with employees and volunteers were email (95.15%), video conferencing such as Zoom (72.82%), and webpages about COVID-19 (54.37%). The primary topics were steps the organization was taking to reduce the spread of COVID-19 (74.76%), impacts on the organization’s financial well-being (66.99%), and effects on the organization’s clients due to COVID-19.
With external audiences, nonprofit respondents reported using social media (86.27%), mass emails (81.37%), and COVID-19 dedicated webpage (52.92%) as the top-three channels. The main topics covered by organizations included steps the organization took to reduce COVID-19 (62.75%), effects on the organization’s clients due to COVID-19, and actions to protect vulnerable populations at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 (47.06%).
The news about nonprofits is both distressing and heartening. It is distressing because the sector is so important to local, state, and national economies. Many people will turn to the safety-net services because of the economic and health crises – foodbanks, mental health and counseling, and community health clinics. Those of us who are stay-at-home orders may be relying on arts and culture organizations, such as museums, to alleviate boredom and to entertain and educate children whose distance learning we are managing concurrent with our own work. Many people will also turn to the nonprofit sector in the recovery – for job training or reskilling, for example – since we don’t know what the employment landscape will look like post-COVID-19.
What is heartening is that nonprofits are innovating to deliver on their missions, collaborating with other nonprofits, governments, and businesses. The sector has shown that it is robust to external shocks.
To help the sector, I want to highlight communication assets within reach. I also want to address business communication faculty and professionals can help.
First, nonprofit organizations have intangible communication assets such as stakeholder relationships and strong organizational values, two important factors identified by crisis researchers. Nonprofits enjoy broad support from the public, more so than businesses and governmental entities. In fact, in my prior research, most nonprofit leaders agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they had a reservoir of goodwill with stakeholders to help them through a negative event. When organizations have positive relationships pre-crisis, stakeholders are inclined to co-own managing the crisis. Second, the best way to manage the uncertainty crisis is to use values as a North Star. Every crisis message should be framed through organizational values. Previously, I found that nonprofit leaders agreed or strongly agreed with statements that people both knew values and lived by those values. Together, positive relationships and values provide significant assets to help organizations not only persist but also thrive post-crisis.
In addition to this, nonprofit organizations can do things to ensure that they communicate effectively – with credibility and authority – during a crisis.
One thing I found accidentally in this research is that many organizations do not have an info@ email address (I know because many of these emails bounced). They should also know the password and be able to switch on auto-responses easily with messages about operations, time-to-response, sources of information, etc.
Many organizations are communicating about COVID-19 using their websites. Consequently, they should follow recommendations from Schmalzreid and collaborators (2012) related to the provision of emergency information, including:
- posting the organization’s logo,
- address of the organization,
- a phone number,
- links to other organizations in the relief effort,
- name of the top executive,
- date the website was last modified,
- and an email address.
Since organizations are using social media to communicate about COVID-19 impacts, they may also heed Eriksson’s guidelines. His analysis of guidance that (that is applicable amid a crisis) suggests organizations should:
- Use a dialogue strategy, choose the right message for the medium, the right source, and the right timing.
- Tap into network of friends developed before the crisis.
- Use social media to listen to the public dialogue about the crisis.
- Understand that people may trust social media less than traditional media – it should complement other forms of media.
- Use social media for their strengths: speed, immediate transmission of information, reduced reliance on information gatekeepers (media organizations).
In my study, a number of organizations revealed they were increasing their fundraising appeals to donors, so the insights of Penning’s (2014) research on nonprofits’ financial communication is appropriate here. According to Penning, individual donors tend toward the following information types most frequently: mission of the organization, where contributions are spent, and impact. Supporters prefer information sources such as the website, other donors, staff, and the annual report over others. In addition to these information types and sources, in their appeals to donors organizations would do well to write brief, factual messages that are personalized, focused on the organization’s needs, geared toward specific gifts, and centered on results.
Business communication faculty and professionals can support the sector through technical support. In the short-term, faculty and professionals with expertise in crisis communication and crisis management can lend support to nonprofit organizations, through resources and training. Students, faculty, and practitioners can take trainings such as the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) or the American Red Cross’s disaster public affairs training. In the longer-term, faculty can build capacity in the sector by including problem-based learning projects such as crisis management plans, focused on organizations in the nonprofit sector. In doing so, we cultivate an appreciation among students for the sector as a place to work and volunteers. We also build the bench of future nonprofit communicators and strengthen the sector.
|What technologically mediated channels has your nonprofit used to communicate with employees and/or volunteers about COVID-19?|
|2. Video conferencing platforms (e.g., Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype)||73.08%||76|
|3. Web page/section with FAQs about COVID-19||54.81%||57|
|5. Enterprise social media – e.g., Slack, Microsoft Yammer||22.12%||23|
|For messages for internal stakeholders, what topics has your organization focused on?|
|1. Steps the organization is taking to reduce the spread of COVID19||74.04%||77|
|2. Effects on the organization’s clients due to COVID-19||66.35%||69|
|3. Impacts on the organization’s financial well-being due to COVID-19||66.35%||69|
|4. Defining essential and non-essential operations||56.73%||59|
|5. Coping with the psychological toll of the crisis||50.00%||52|
|6. Actions to protect vulnerable populations at risk of severe illness from COVID-19||45.19%||47|
|7. Paid time off or sick leave||42.31%||44|
|The organization’s long-term recovery from COVID-19||37.50%||39|
|8. Dispelling rumors, false or misleading information||32.69%||34|
|9. Applying for unemployment insurance||28.85%||30|
|10. Other information||7.69%||8|
|What technologically mediated channels has your nonprofit used to communicate with external stakeholders about COVID19?|
|1. Social media (Facebook, Twitter)||86.41%||89|
|2. Mass emails||81.55%||84|
|3. Web page/section with FAQs about COVID-19||54.37%||56|
|4. Video conferencing platforms (e.g., Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype)||36.89%||38|
|6. Articles submitted to local or state publications||18.45%||19|
|7. Public service announcements (broadcast via television or radio)||10.68%||11|
|For messages geared toward external stakeholders, what topics has your organization focused on?|
|1. Steps the organization is taking to reduce the spread of COVID19||63.11%||65|
|2. Effects on the organization’s clients due to COVID-19||61.17%||63|
|3. Actions to protect vulnerable populations at risk of severe illness from COVID-19||47.57%||49|
|4. Defining essential and non-essential operations||44.66%||46|
|5. Impacts on the organization’s financial well-being due to COVID-19||39.81%||41|
|6. Coping with the psychological toll of the crisis||29.13%||30|
|7. The organization’s long-term recovery from COVID-19||21.36%||22|
|8. Dispelling rumors, false or misleading information||21.36%||22|
|9. Other information||8.74%||9|
Ryan P. Fuller (PhD, UC Santa Barbara) is an assistant professor in the Management and Organizations Department in the Sacramento State College of Business Administration. He teaches business communication and management skills, and conducts research on crisis communication, with an interest in the nonprofit sector.
Recommended Citation: Ryan P. Fuller. (2020). How nonprofit organizations are communicating through the COVID-19 disaster. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.1.