Do you know what messages to share during a crisis? As a nonprofit marketer and communicator, how you communicate in difficult times can make or break your organization’s future success.

If your messages are shared quickly yet thoughtfully, you can rally your donors and dissuade your skeptics. Conversely, a response that’s overdue or disjointed may cause your supporters to scatter.

There are many issues to navigate during a crisis. However, if you follow the steps below, you’ll be able to update your nonprofit’s messaging to respond to any catastrophe effectively.

I’ve served on nonprofit crisis response teams during a number of disasters—including the triple-threat of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017. These experiences taught me that even though you can’t plan for all of the challenges that catastrophes bring, you absolutely need a crisis communication plan and team. And then, crucially, you need to develop well-considered language that addresses the disaster in light of your unique audiences and goals.

Organizations that prioritize crisis communications will be best-equipped to weather the storms that come. So if you aren’t in crisis mode at the moment, be proactive now to avoid stress later. If you’re in the middle of a disaster, take a deep breath. You can figure out what needs to be said. But first, you need to do some quick reflecting, planning, and decision-making. Keep reading to find out more.

Key steps for updating your nonprofit’s messaging during a disaster #NPMC Share on X

1. Listen and learn from others

Listen to the people and organizations most connected to your cause. What are they saying about the catastrophe?

Scan the websites, social channels and email communications of nonprofits in your community and sector. Monitoring the situation online is a key part of issues management that will help you stay one step ahead. Note whether and how others are talking about the crisis. Think about whether it would be appropriate for you to use similar themes and verbiage.

Supplement desktop research with individual feedback. Make time for conversations with your nonprofit’s top stakeholders, including your clients, employees, donors, and partners. If possible, host listening sessions, focus groups or surveys.

Seeking out other voices will provide you with food for thought as you determine your messaging. Look for patterns and pay special attention to people’s concerns and hopes for your organization’s crisis response. As you collect input, notice which groups are most affected and most concerned about the situation. Unexpected themes or unanticipated responses will widen your perspective and challenge your assumptions.

By listening to others, you will build trust with those most crucial to your mission—which is more valuable than ever during an emergency.

2. Identify your goals and audiences

It’s too time-consuming for a nonprofit to address an emergency from every angle. It’s also too expensive to try to reach the entire public with your message. By evaluating what people around you are sharing about the emergency, you can pinpoint:

  • Your crisis communication goals—what you want to communicate, and
  • Your primary audiences—who you want to communicate with.

After reflecting on what others have to say and prioritizing accordingly, you may decide that your goal is simply to show that your nonprofit is rapidly responding to the disaster in a few specific ways. Other times, your goals will be more complex—like addressing several sensitive questions and problems.

After thinking about which audiences you need to reach, you may determine that one or two key groups are most relevant and important. More complex situations will call for a more comprehensive response where you communicate tailored messages to several audiences using a variety of channels.

Identifying your crisis communication goals and audiences will help you zero in on the most important messages for maximum impact.  Crises are stressful, so being explicit about these foundational points will keep you on course even if the situation gets hectic.

3. Communicate both challenges and strengths

The details of your crisis messaging will depend on the emergency. In many cases, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, two of the most important things to convey are competency and compassion.

Keep the most impacted people at the center of your communications. If applicable, tell stories of the hardship that individuals have experienced, and how your nonprofit has helped them move forward. Alternatively, if the crisis stems from a misstep made by your organization, show thoughtful consideration for the people affected by your error.

At the same time, be straightforward about the crisis’ impact on your work. Tell your audiences if you’ve seen elevated levels of need for your services, decreases in donations, or both. In some of your messages, it may be important to remind key donors of the importance of every donation in your ability to overcome the disaster and achieve your mission. Supporters will be confused or upset if your nonprofit doesn’t weather the storm but you didn’t ask them for help first.

Balance stories of the challenges you and other groups are facing with evidence of your professionalism and strength. Encourage donors to give because of the crisis without diminishing their confidence in your aptitude.

Your crisis messaging will depend on the emergency. In many cases, two of the most important things to convey are competency and compassion. #NPMC Share on X

4. Provide guidance and messaging

Next, you need to give your coworkers guidance and language so they can connect with your target audiences. Providing clear directions and easy-to-use messaging will encourage a cohesive response across your organization.

Update the messaging tools your organization already uses, such as your style guide or editorial guidelines, with crisis information. Add verbiage explaining how your organization approaches crisis communications. Include links or instructions on where they can find updated crisis messaging when an emergency happens.

Consider which channels are best suited to reaching your target audiences, and from there, decide what other crisis messaging materials you will need. Examples include:

  • Talking points
  • Email messaging
  • Social media posts
  • Press releases
  • Public statements
  • Phone scripts
  • Internal memos
  • One pagers
  • Web copy for FAQs, banners, lightboxes, or donation pages

For the messages you share internally, upload them in an easy-to-find location that all your colleagues can access instead of sharing them via email. This will help you avoid sending and responding to many emails about where they can find the latest verbiage. Additionally, include dates on all materials so your colleagues can more easily determine whether they’re using updated messaging.

Updating your nonprofit's messaging during a disaster: 4 key steps #NPMC Share on X

Be prepared for crisis messaging updates

Everyone knows that catastrophes happen when you least expect them. The good news is that your nonprofit can update its messaging to effectively respond to any crisis—even if it’s happening right now.

In collaboration with your crisis team and in line with your communication plan, use the steps I’ve outlined above to update your messaging during a disaster: make time to listen to other voices, identify your goals and audiences, share stories of need and strength and provide clear guidance and language. These steps will allow you to narrow your focus on what’s most important and make a meaningful impact.

Allison Weber

Allison Weber

Freelance Professional Writer and Storyteller at Allison Weber Consulting
Allison Weber is passionate about helping mission-driven organizations to improve their storytelling so they can build a better world. Before launching Allison Weber Consulting, she spent nearly ten years helping nonprofit organizations raise millions and reach more people. Through working at Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the United States, and Opportunity International, one of the first nonprofits focused on providing banking services in developing countries, she has developed the skills to write for a variety of audiences and channels.
Allison Weber

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