COVID Disruption is an Existential Threat to Non-Profits: This Unconventional Approach May Save Them from Extinction

The paraphrased quote, “desperate times breed desperate measures,” from William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is applicable now more than ever.

Not-for-profit groups like trade associations and foundations have been hit hard. With so many individuals, member companies and donors struggling with their own health and financial problems, many of these organizations are fighting for their very survival.

Instinct and habit will drive many of these shaken groups and their leaders to turn to senior leadership retreats or management consultants for answers. That is fine.  But just down your organization’s virtual hallway is a strong asset that can help you develop the solutions you seek. It’s your communications team.

Communications and marketing sit at the hub of your organization. Just about everything that happens flows through this vital function.  Strategic planning. Check. Crisis management. Check. Appeals to donors. Check. Government affairs & lobbying. Check. Membership communication. Check. Personnel and organizational changes. Check. Promotion of revenue generating events. Check.  Digital and social media.  Check.  Media relations. Check.

In most organizations, top communications and marketing folks know more about a trade group or foundation than anyone other than the CEO or executive director.  They know your key messages inside and out. They know your core Value Proposition.  They know how to use technology to communicate and promote.  They know your initiates and programs because they have to distill and promote.  They have broad and deep relationships with public relations, advertising, fundraising and event planning vendors.

All this is not to diminish lobbyists, lawyers, scientists, policy professionals, fundraisers, event planners, accountants, IT professionals or others that make these groups go.  It’s just that communications and marketing touch virtually everything your non-profit group does.  They also have their fingers on the pulse of consumers, patients and marketplace and public policy trends. And their work is widely read by judgmental external audiences, so they have to get it right or suffer dire consequences.

I call it the Sherpa effect.  When important impact events happen to these organizations, executives from every discipline naturally gravitate to skilled communicators for answers, direction, ideas and execution.  They are not obligated to do so by the organizational chart, but they do it because communications and marketing is a natural incubator for problem solving.

Of course, critical organizational issues originating from COVID transcend messaging and social media.  COVID has decimated the financial bottom line of non-profits that rely on meetings, conventions and trade shows for a significant portion of their annual revenue.  As the Coronavirus pandemic stretches into its third month of full or partial shutdowns, it is likely that widely attended events may not return until well into 2021 or beyond.

Separately, the news media is overwhelmed with minute-by-minute coverage of COVID stories, making it more difficult to successfully generate the positive media impressions you need to show value to your members or donors and advance your programs and public policy positions.

Finally, core programs championed by trade groups and foundations may now be outdated and off the mark in the pandemic era.

But smart and effective communications experts within your organization can help chart the path forward.  Struggling not-for-profit groups can and should turn to their communications and marketing professionals for the following:

  • Facilitate an internal review to catalog what is not working during these strange times and why and document their impact on organizational finances.
  • Determine how technology and content can generate revenue for the organization for 2020-21 and beyond.
  • Conduct a message review to ensure your organization is hitting the right notes with donors, member companies, policymakers and the media. Communications need to be retooled to ensure proper sensitivity and effectiveness in these unique times.
  • Analyze whether or not your organization or industry’s “beat reporters” are ready to cover non-COVID news and why.
  • Work with subject matter experts to idea new programs and content that provides value to donors and members.

We are all desperate to get things back to normal, but it looks like that could take many, many months at a minimum.  So, as Shakespeare opined, “desperate times breed desperate measures.”  Trade groups and foundations that fully tap into the talents of their communications and marketing gurus have a better chance to change course and develop a successful operating blueprint for 2021 and beyond than those that don’t.

Sean McBride, Founder & Principal of DSM Strategic Communications, is the former Executive Vice President of Communication & Membership for the Consumer Brands Association and former Vice President of Communications for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform