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How to Adjust Your Nonprofit’s Communication and Events During the Spread of Coronavirus

This has been quite a week, with governments and organizations closing and cancelling events left and right and almost all word-of-mouth and media attention being directed to the coronavirus. 

For nonprofits whose operating budgets rely on a mix of events, from fundraising dinners to 5Ks, ticket sales and tuition to their museums and classes, and donations from people and corporations who have so many different things vying for their attention, this is clearly challenging on a number of fronts. It also means a major interruption in building awareness around a number of different causes, all of which are important and need our attention, pandemic or no pandemic. 

While the first priority is obviously ensuring the health and safety of staff and constituents and there is a lot of great guidance on steps nonprofits should take, we’ve been talking with clients and thinking through when and how to continue and adjust your strategy and execution across marketing, fundraising, and advocacy. We’re still working through it moment-by-moment but wanted to share some of our thoughts in the hopes that they can help.

There are a lot of ways to slice and dice this, but we’ve broken it down into:

  1. Adjusting your communications strategy
  2. Handling event cancellations & location closures
  3. Asking for support to offset funding challenges

Adjusting your communications strategy

A common question that keeps coming up is: “Is it insensitive of us to continue to push our own communications agenda in the current landscape?” 

This is a very valid concern, and the first step is getting really clear as an organization on whether there is any correlation between your work and the virus, then pass that through a filter of whether or not you could talk about it and/or should talk about it, before getting into the how much, where and when.


Thinking about how to integrate the virus into your messaging is OK, as long as you’re able to make an authentic connection between the virus and your organization’s focus without looking opportunistic. It’s important to continue to stay engaged with your supporters, and given the nature of the global dialogue right now, correlating your issue areas with the virus in a way that’s informative and helpful could make sense, and is likely better than going silent.

It’s also important to decide, especially if your organization’s work is affected, whether you have a point of view that could be helpful in protecting people from the virus or recovery efforts. This is going to affect us all in so many ways, in both the short and long term, and being a thought leader and providing guidance is a role to consider. 

Keep in mind, though, that nuance is key; thinking through how to talk about the virus and its impacts in a delicate way is important. For example, reports are coming out on how the virus is indirectly helping to lower our carbon emissions. That could be great for climate change advocates and may provide some helpful longer-term data and inspiration for climate change discussion around the impact of reducing commuting and “unnecessary” travel, but be cautious about anything becoming a “celebratory” moment considering the gravity of the pandemic. 


In the short-term, slowing down your media schedule could be a good idea, especially considering how hard it may be to get significant coverage of anything other than COVID-19 right now. Slowing down other external communications, such as emails and social posts, is worth considering too, as people’s focus is on keeping their families and communities safe. Think through each message on a case-by-case basis, and if it feels like it could be tone-deaf to the situation and potentially offensive, don’t post it.

This applies to advertising as well: evaluate your message and goal, and how it fits into the current landscape. It may make sense to postpone or pause campaigns in the short-term, especially if acquisition costs begin to creep up with fewer people willing to make commitments during a heightened state of fear. However, if your campaign is fundraising-focused, you may benefit from keeping it running or ramping up efforts, as so many industries will be severely impacted, and many people are more willing to help in times of crisis. 

It’s also not too early to be planning for ramping your communications back up after we get through this initial phase of the crisis. With all of the events, entertainment, and sports cancellations, and companies moving to f employees working from home, many people will have more time and attention to think about your issues and may have a willingness to help organizations as we move into recovery.

Handling event cancellations & location closures

Spring is a popular time for nonprofits to host fundraising events, galas and more events help fund annual programs and garner support. However, the past two weeks have resulted in the cancellation of most larger gatherings, and the nonprofit industry is no exception.  

Many nonprofits also have in-person locations (i.e. museums, trade schools) that are reliant on visitors and visitor revenue but have had to shut their doors to protect themselves and the public from getting sick.

If you’ve made the decision to cancel an important event, or close your public location, it’s worth considering a few different avenues for staying engaged with your community and helping weather financial impacts.

Virtual Events

If you already have an event planned that you need to cancel, how can you leverage your relationships and content to still provide value to your attendees and other constituents? One of our clients, Ceres, made the decision last week to cancel their annual conference in NYC, but is finding ways to bring it online — they’re developing a new digital program to deliver key elements of Ceres 2020 that will be made available in the weeks and months to follow. 

If you were hosting speakers, would they be willing to participate in a webinar with a live Q+A element? If you were providing entertainment, would the artist be willing to do a live-streamed intimate concert, maybe even from their home or studio? If you had an auction component, can you move it fully online? 

At the same time, if you have unused event budgets, it might make sense to repurpose some of those funds into your existing or a new digital fundraising campaign. As with all of this, though, it depends on how containment and recovery is proceeding with the coronavirus and the surrounding media coverage and public discourse, and your mission and its perceived relevance to people at this time.

Digital Content & Engagement

Even if you weren’t planning an event, you may want to consider hosting some virtual events or providing content to help people both stay connected with you and give them things to do during this time of reduced in-person events. For example, museums could offer online chats or webinars with experts in their field, or educational institutions could encourage people to learn something new by opening up some of their online course content to people for free or a reduced rate. While, again, you don’t want to be insensitive and certainly don’t want to capitalize on the situation, providing valuable experiences and content for people could be helpful for them and build more awareness of and connection to your organization.

Asking for Support to Offset Funding Challenges

NTEN made the decision this week to cancel their late March conference and did a great job on their website of gently asking for financial support (i.e. folks donating their registration fees) to help them recover from the cancellation.

Before going out and asking for money to help offset current and possible future funding challenges, you obviously want to think through how you communicate it and what value you can provide. In the case of NTEN, they had to make the decision fairly quickly, and they clearly lay out the situation, along with a personal video, and strike a great balance of letting people know they can have a refund but would appreciate it as a donation. If you have more time and are able to leverage some of your conference assets as we mentioned before, that would also be great to highlight at the time of your cancellation notice.

If you are looking to offset funding challenges in other ways, though, make sure you’re considering the value you’re providing. Just because someone has enjoyed going to your museum or attending your theater or classes and you now have to close your doors for a period of time doesn’t mean that they’re automatically going to want to start becoming donors beyond their membership or patronage. You’re essentially moving them into a different funnel and have to think about the value exchange. That’s where you can leverage things like the content and experiences we discussed above.

This is all a lot to think about at a time when there’s already a lot to process, and we know we’re only scratching the surface here. We’ll obviously be keeping a close eye on this and doing our best to help our clients continue to do the incredibly important work they do through this trying time. 

Meanwhile, if you need a momentary mental break, maybe pop over here to turn your favorite song into a handwashing infographic.

Keep caring for yourself and others around you. We’ll get through this. Please reach out if there’s anything we can do for you.

If you need any help navigating this global pandemic, we are here to help. Media Cause is offering free office hours with our team: Request office hours here.

**This post was co-written by Brad Blake, Chief Client Officer, & Katey Parker, VP of Marketing Services. 


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