Too Good to Fail: How Nonprofits Can Survive These Times

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Linda Descano, CFA®, Executive Vice President, Red Havas

“Stay the course.” Growing up, that’s what we were told to do when times got tough. But the COVID-19 pandemic rewrote the rules overnight, making “staying the course” during a crisis a decidedly poor choice, especially for nonprofits. 

With the potential for an extended period of “never normal” (as opposed to the “new normal” we’ve been hearing so much about), nonprofit executives face existential challenges. Fundraising events have been canceled, income streams terminated or deferred, and volunteers unable to serve in person. It’s natural for nonprofits to feel anxious about their organizations and uncertain about how to communicate with stakeholders. When the Charities Aid Foundation of America surveyed 544 global nonprofit organizations to learn how the pandemic is affecting them, almost all (94.4 percent) said they were negatively impacted. And now that the coronavirus pandemic has been so closely followed by an urgent global call to end systemic racism and social injustice, there’s concern, too, that there’s little room for competing causes right now. 

In truth, the coronavirus and the murder of George Floyd have also reminded us of the importance of helping others. The world’s needs are greater than ever, and the nonprofit sector simply cannot be allowed to fail. The stakes are too high for both nonprofits themselves and for the millions of citizens around the world who rely on their services. In the U.S., community-based charitable organizations deliver more than $200 billion in services each year, touching more than one in five Americans

My colleagues and I at Red Havas recently explored these themes in our white paper, Too Good to Fail: How Nonprofits Can Meet the Communications Challenges of a Pandemic-Altered World. Through conversations with nonprofits, among other research, we developed four key takeaways for nonprofits to inform post-COVID communications plans, strategy and planning in 2020 and beyond:

  • Throw away the blueprint. For nonprofits, 2020 has been the ultimate test of creativity and adaptability. With no playbook to follow, they have been called upon to lead by instinct as much as experience and to remember that constraints can breed innovation. And innovate they must, as they plan for a “never normal” in this fluid situation. This doesn’t mean abandoning strategy and long-term goals, but revisiting them to ensure that all messaging mirrors the current state of affairs and that nimbleness is built into any plan so that it’s easier to pivot and course-correct as the situation evolves. 
  • Plan both long-term and short-term: Nonprofits frequently operate in a reactive mode, with the energy and resources to do little more than put out fires. As a result, many were caught completely off-guard by the coronavirus pandemic. But this will not be the last crisis we face as a society. Nonprofits must do a better job of proactively preparing for all types of future emergencies. The key is to plan in sprints versus marathons. Ask “what if” along the way, and adapt the timing of the sprint based on how quickly the situation is evolving. For example, in the early days of the pandemic, things were changing daily to weekly; today, the pace has slowed marginally, but enough so that it’s sufficient to plan four to eight weeks at a time. But don’t plan in a vacuum. Evaluate the changing attitudes, behaviors and expectations of stakeholders like board members, donors, partners, beneficiaries, media and other watchdogs to guide decisions about how, when, where and what to communicate.
  • In the absence of events, don’t underestimate the power of content creation. Many nonprofits depend on events, large and small, as their content creation engines. With events deferred or cancelled outright, they struggle to drive interactions and engagement with their audiences. The same is true even for those who did have robust content libraries in place—that content likely doesn’t strike a chord in light of what’s happening now. However, going “silent” isn’t an option—especially with more people online than ever before in an effort to stay on top of news and to find help for themselves or others. This is the time to be creative across all available channels and to lean on thought leadership to contextualize existing messages in a way that highlights how the organization’s mission fits into the current environment.
  • Expect a “phyrtual” future.  The global pandemic has made people’s “virtual” lives indistinguishable from their “real” lives, making it imperative for nonprofits to consider ways to blend the two. As virtual becomes more normal than not, a digital experience will have to be part of nonprofits’ planning mix. Create hybrids, not just for remote work but for remote service delivery, incorporating a mix of experiences and engagement models. Think virtual VIP events, Instagram Live fundraisers, online auctions and more. 

Nonprofits that do not act with speed to innovate, execute and deliver what people need today risk collapse. Those left standing will use the new ideas and resources that come out of these crises to permanently improve their ways of working and communicating. Moreover, this is a chance for them to show donors, volunteers and communities served who they really are—how they’re taking care of people, changing their mission to align with the realities and constraints we now face, protecting employees and building support in new ways.


About the Author: Linda joined Red Havas in 2015 to spearhead the agency’s digital, social and measurement practice areas. With more than 15 years of experience, she specializes in providing strategic counsel and tactical implementation of integrated communications programs, incorporating PR, media relations, social media, content partnerships, influencer marketing, thought leadership and advertising. Her work includes a variety of sectors including financial services, economic development, pharma and corporate responsibility. Previously, Linda was managing director and global head of content marketing and social media at Citi, where she launched numerous digital firsts and served as president and CEO of Women & Co., the bank’s award-winning financial lifestyle community for women.

Her honors include PR News’ 2018 PR Professional of the Year, 2018 Campaign U.S. Digital 40 Over 40, 2014 Fox Information Technology Distinguished Alumni Award from the Fox School of Business at Temple University, 2014 Pinnacle in Leadership Award from the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, and 2013 Changing the Game Award from Advertising Women of New York (now known as She Runs It).  Linda also served as a judge for The Content Council Pearl Awards in 2018 and 2017. Linda serves as a capstone mentor and advisory council member for the Fox School of Business M.S. in Digital Innovation in Marketing program. She currently serves on the board of directors of New York Women in Communications (and is a past president) and Servo Annex, a digital consultancy.