Communication in the Time of Coronavirus

Drawing of a purple coronavirus on a green background

By Joy Portella


Let’s face it: We weren’t prepared for this. The rapid onset of a worldwide health crisis has all of us flummoxed. How do nonprofits talk about their work when news headlines are dominated by coronavirus, people are weighing whether it’s safe to go into the office, and families are preoccupied with protecting elderly loved ones? 

As a team of communicators who are well-versed in global health issues and crisis communications, we have several suggestions: 

Know when and how to link to the news. If your organization is either directly participating in the public health response to COVID-19 or assisting people who are impacted by the virus, communicate about this work with the audiences that matter to you. That could be donors, media, or the people you serve. Be ready to communicate in a clear, compelling manner as quickly as possible. For example, if you’re running a food bank that ramps up delivery of groceries and meals to self-quarantined people or the elderly in response to coronavirus, you should communicate about those activities. 

But do not create false or contrived connections. When there’s an emergency that dominates public attention, many nonprofits want to connect it to their work to leverage that attention. The unkind way to describe this behavior is “ambulance chasing” and it’s easy for even remotely sophisticated donors to see through itWhile this may immediately capture some eyeballs, it will ultimately create confusion about your programming and sew distrust with your supporters.  

If your organization needs to communicate directly about the virus, do not assume the mantle of subject-matter experts. Talk about issues that are top-of-mind for your organization and audience. Leave baseline education—like when and how to wash hands—to the CDC and others.  

Re-evaluate events. We’re headed into the spring fundraiser/gala season and many nonprofits are reliant on large-scale events to raise a substantial proportion of their funds. Cancelling or postponing these events can be painful and result in a major dip in contributions. But in certain places where coronavirus is a direct threat to health and authorities are working hard to contain it—like in my hometown of Seattle—this step is necessary.  

Opting not to cancel or postpone can make your organization look tone deaf and, more important, it could put people at riskThe reality is those organizations that decide to plow forward likely experience low attendance, compounding a poor decision.  

It’s critical to make a call on events sooner rather than later and communicate clearly to attendees how you’re going to move forward—whether you’re going to postpone, create some kind of virtual event, or another solution.  

In the long term, think about diversifying away from an event-dependent model of fundraising. For many reasons—coronavirus is just one of them—putting all of your fundraising eggs into an events basket is a risky way of doing business.  

Double down on digital. Digital communications provide ways to engage people without requiring physical contact and creating a health risk. Now is the time to ramp up your online storytelling, social media efforts, and virtual events. When creating calls to action, think about things that people can do virtually, whether that’s sharing information, donating, or attending a webinar. Some audiences may be too preoccupied with the virus to pay attention but others may welcome a distraction and take comfort in the efforts of an organization they trust.  

Appeal to your strongest supporters. We know that this will be a tough several months for fundraisers because donors are distracted and the stock market is sinking. This publication recently reported on a Nonprofit Alliance survey that revealed more than half of [a limited sample of] fundraising consultants expect coronavirus to hurt fundraising over the next three to six monthsTake this opportunity to reach out to your major donors and most trusted supporters with special asks to cushion any shortfalls.  

Keep talking. When a crisis that dominates the news and public debate hits, it’s common for nonprofits that are not directly addressing it to clamp down on their communications for fear of getting lost in the chaos. This is a mistake. You should certainly track fluid situations like coronavirus and respond accordingly—pumping the communication breaks when needed—but going black risks losing touch with your supporters. Keep communicating in a cadence and tone that shows you’re cognizant of the evolving crisis but continuing to do your good work. 

Above all else, the most important lesson is to have a plan for how to move forward in a crisis and to make smart calls as things change. This will show your key audiences that you’re aware of and in step with their concerns and will build loyalty once the time of coronavirus has passed. 

About The Author

Joy Portella

Joy Portella

Founder and President

Joy leads the Minerva Strategies team, providing senior-level direction to every client. Her skills have been honed through more than two decades of experience helping organizations more effectively communicate with media, donors, policymakers and other key audiences.

Prior to establishing Minerva, Joy spent five years as director of communications at the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. She guided Mercy Corps’ messaging, media relations, and crisis communications, and traveled extensively to document work in global hotspots including the Horn of Africa, the Gaza Strip, and North Korea. Previously, Joy worked for a decade at leading communication firms – Burson-Marsteller, Ruder Finn and SS+K – in New York and Washington DC.