Reassess & Re-Engage: Listening Leads

Updated April 20
Now that the manhunt for the suspect in the Boston bombings is over, it’s time to reassess when and how to re-engage with your base. Listen to them, closely and carefully, and analyze what they want in the context of your organization’s goals, personality and voice

But most importantly—make sure you have people, processes and decision-making criteria in place to you can reassess your approach the moment things change in the next unexpected situation. More to come on that.

Please share your take, questions and/or how your org is moving forward now here.


That’s my #1 recommendation for your nonprofit right now, as responders chase down the second bombing suspect.

We’re all too tense (at least now, at least the people I know) to absorb anything much right now. And if you try to spark engagement on non-related or non-essential issues right now, you’ll fail.

In fact, if you do so you’re likely to alienate folks who may otherwise support your org’s work—irrelevant messages make people feel you don’t get them at all. That’s the quickest way to chase a prospect or supporter away.

Pause, and just listen close to your network, till the manhunt is over.

That’s what folks at Feeding America  and the Environmental Defense Fund decided. They made considered decisions this morning to pause.

And they’re ready to reassess that this afternoon, as things continue to shift. Nothing stays constant in our world of constant change.

Consider doing the same to 1) respect your base (listen close, especially today) and 2) stay relevant. Nothing is more important.

But mobilize while you pause—Get people, processes and decision-making criteria in place right now so you can re-tune your communications approach the moment things change, and when the next unexpected thing comes around. That’s a must for relevancy today and always.

Please share this recommendation with your nonprofit network—we all need some help at a moment like this.

If you don’t agree, I welcome your point of view and the opportunity to discuss it with you. Please share your thoughts here.

Also—Refer to this 9-point checklist for communicating in the midst of the unexpected and the guidance added by your peers in the field.

P.S. Stay on top of time-sensitive guidance like this with our Getting Attention e-update.

Nancy Schwartz on April 19, 2013 in Relevance Rules | 30 comments

  • I completely agree with this approach. I have already seen complaints about unrelated fundraising appeals that went out this morning.

  • Amen, Nancy. Seeing dozens of tweets that would be fine on a normal day, but look oblivious and self-centered today. This is a great reason to always listen first.

  • While you’re pausing – Get poised to re-assess #communications when manhunt ends Get criteria, process & people for decision-making in place now

  • Chris Coletta

    Hi, Nancy —

    I said this to Rachel on Twitter, but I wouldn’t make a blanket statement telling people to stop. Your premise, “we’re all too tense,” simply isn’t true, at least on my own Twitter feed. People — bona fide people, not NGOs — are fixated on Boston, but they’re also tweeting about the Boy Scouts, the U.S. national ocean policy, Keystone, their broken iMac, their Friday night plans. At least a few people have told me they’re specifically NOT talking about Boston out of defiance.

    In this sort of atmosphere, NGOs must tread carefully. They must be sensitive and respectful. They certainly shouldn’t be asking for money. I think everyone would agree with that.

    But people are good at multitasking. They still care about the issues of the organizations they follow. They’re hungry, perhaps, for something OTHER than the horrific images out of the Northeast. All of that should be taken into consideration.

    I took my own organization’s feeds silent, but less because I thought it was OK and more because in the face of something like this, I don’t know what the hell to say. But clearly, that is not the only approach, and I don’t think we should say that it is.

  • Chris, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, and your org’s (what org are you with?) approach. I appreciate it.

    You’re right that we have to stay focused on making the world a better place. And that path on how is one every nonprofit should make for itself.

    This is simply my advice for most organizations, hundreds of which have contacted me since Tuesday unnerved by not knowing what to do and looking for guidance. It may well NOT be right for some organizations!

    Every situation is indeed unique, and there are no easy answers. I’m trying to learn from this, you are too and the discussion is useful.


  • Chris Coletta

    For sure, Nancy! I’m with Conservation International; am the community manager here.

    I do agree with you that the default probably should be toward a respectful silence. Just something every org should evaluate for itself. So we’re more or less in accord.

    (Incidentally, it is probable that international groups like mine are in a bit of a different situation than U.S.-centric NGOs, but my thoughts would most likely hold were CI entirely domestic.)

  • True, on the intl vs. US centric, Chris. But a great point.

    Thank you!

  • Nancy, Rather than pausing, wouldn’t this be a good time to really engage? Pausing seems that you only want to connect for the purpose of your organization whereas if you engage with your followers on social media channels at this time, you might help ease tensions or provide a voice (or shoulder) that is needed.

  • We definitely agree! Rachel W. with Upwell referenced your blog post today, and because we paused to take a moment and open it – we learned about a great resource for nonprofit marketing to share with our clients. Thanks for inspiring!

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Linda, good question (or comment). Is your organization (what is it) doing so? WOuld love to see examples if you can add links etc. here.

    I think nonprofits (and all organizations) need to 1) listen hard to their base, and see what’s their wants and focus are at the right-now point and 2) assess whether their role is to provide comfort/strength/motivation in the light of their network’s preferences and their org’s goals and voice.

    Caveat is that I mean right now–while the manhunt is wide open–if the assessment confirms that respectful silence is the right way to go.

    Most important, is that every organization must be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice—to have people, process and decision-making criteria in place and shared—so it’s ready to re-evaluate as the situation evolves or the next one surfaces.

    I’m hearing from so many orgs that have that in place and will share those approaches out as models in coming posts.

    Eager to see examples of orgs that have done it well, either way.

  • Amber

    I’m curious why people should stop today but when that explosion happened in Texas yesterday nobody was told to pause their auto tweets and explosions. I agree that what is happening in Boston is AWFUL and as a runner it hits close to home for me, however, I am confused as to why some awful things are cause for pausing social media and others aren’t that’s all?

  • Amber

    Sorry ‘auto tweets and blog posts’**

  • Amber, it sounds as if you have strong feelings on this one, and perhaps some recommendations to share. What are they?

  • Nancy

    Amber, I had the same thought. Not to mention, it’s not acknowledged in the post above. I’ve also seen a lot of “thoughts and prayers” for Boston on social media, but what about Texas?

  • Susan

    Nancy, your communications advice is always spot on. You are absolutely right on this. As an example, reporters on Twitter today were posting comments like, “Why are people sending me releases about anything other than Boston today?” and “Any PR flaks trying to promote stuff other than Boston will be black listed.”

    I also agree that social media posts not related to Boston and Texas make an organization look out of touch right now. Thanks as always for sharing your smart recommendations. Folks would be wise to listen to you.

  • nikki

    So you’ve emailed me what essentially is a tactical email about NOT engaging so you can engage all of us in a dialogue? I read your emails regularly, and, had this been something unrelated to Boston, I wouldn’t have thought twice (the world continues to turn and people ARE talking about other things, as evidenced on FB and Twitter at least). But I found it incredibly tasteless that you’re advising nonprofs to hit pause on their regular messages and wait for the dust to settle a bit, yet it’s biz as usual for you?

  • Niki, thanks for sharing your point of view. Although this isn’t useful guidance (or discussion) for you, many others are finding it useful.

    Many organizations (more than 100) have reached out to me for guidance on what to do since Tuesday. This is how I can help, and give others a platform to discuss, question and disagree.

  • Susan, how’s your organization responding? And what are you hearing from your supporters?

  • Nancy and Amber, both incidents are tragedies. How are you responding to/acknowledging both in your organizations?

  • Kate

    While I would follow your advice, it did not bother me in the least to receive run-of-the-mill fundraising and save-the-date emails from two or three nonprofits today. Upon reflection, it seems far healthier to focus on good things than to fixate on the violence and depressing news that seem to be swallowing up the news media (and, as a result, our day-to-day lives) with greater frequency.

  • Patricia Hurley

    Thank you, Nancy. I’m the director of communications for a non-profit and church based yards from the Marathon finish line. Our challenge has been communicating to our widely dispersed — and fearful — members, and providing comfort and hope to the broader community without having access to our homebase. As a PR pro and a donor/consumer, I’m both embarrassed and offended by the posts and emails from other nonprofits (and businesses) that are either acting as if nothing is going on, or are trying to force fit an exploitive connection to the tragedy (of either Boston or West, Texas, or both). Your advice — when heeded — will truly help organizations to build lifelong relationships, rather than fatally damage them through thoughtless, tone-deaf communications at times like these.

  • Joseph Klem

    Two different situations. Nancy is a consultant offering advice to clients and blog followers, not a nonprofit doing outreach to donors/supporters/volunteers.

  • Nancy

    Hi Nancy, of course. Given the topic, just making that observation. we issued Tweets and Facebook posts that acknowledged both tragedies. We stayed quiet for most of the week but I did RT and share some news-related items around our issue today, however no promotion of our own programs/initiatives, and definitely no requests for donations. It’s been a hard week.

  • Mike

    Great post, and good advice – with all the caveats that have appeared in the comments so far.

    I’m with Wisconsin Lakes, a statewide conservation organization, and we had chosen to pretty much pause at least until today. When the events of last night unfolded, I had hoped to continue that pause, but unfortunately a budget initiative we are working on will see an important committee vote much sooner than expected (next Thr rather than May), and we simply couldn’t avoid putting out an action alert for people to contact the legislators on the committee. Unfortunately, the legislature didn’t pause, but I also believe there is a difference in a message coming from a state group in a state somewhat distant from Boston, than a national organization or one closer to MA. Still I would have preferred to avoid it altogether.

    Interestingly, I’ve gotten no comments positive or negative about the message. The open rate for the email is down from what we normally see, but the click through’s to take action are higher than in previous alerts.

  • Nikki

    I respectfully disagree. She’s using her position as a consultant to offer unsolicited advice to showcase her expertise–yes, it’s a great opportunity to establish leadership and all that but as a consultant who really admires her work and thinks she’s most often spot on, I thought this a bit tasteless and was disappointed. (I would even concede a bit if she were directly speaking with orgs in Boston.) I won’t stop reading but I share this around with a few peers and clients, again thinking maybe I was being overly sensitive, and it struck the wrong tone for them as well. I’d have found it much more useful to provide case studies after the fact of what worked well, what didn’t, what resonated etc etc.

  • Sydney

    I agree with you Chris. I think that acknowledging the situation is important – as is stopping any funding requests etc as you mentioned is also important. That being said I also think it is important to acknowledge that people are resilient.

    Silence on social media in particular can leave an empty void in a place where there was once comfortable hum adding to the disquiet and ‘tense’ feelings. I also agree with Linda above who mentioned that this could be a good time to actually engage more with your audience (keeping in mind who your audience is and if this is appropriate).

    I think that totally cutting off communication & going silent can add a sense of concern & confusion to the situation instead of giving people the comfort and connectivity they crave in a scary situation. While it isn’t our jobs to console or intrude, as part of the media it is our job to recognize that life continues.

    To be frank fact I believe that allowing an awful act of violence like this to strike us into silence gives those responsible exactly what they wanted. It proves that they can in fact stop the world and draw attention to themselves through unspeakable means.

    My organization has chosen to go silent, however I worry that this gives weight and credibility to the attackers as opposed to showing respect and support for the victims.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Hi Nikki,
    Very interested to hear your perspective. Could you share your last name and your website or blog so I can get a sense of where you’re coming from please?


  • Hi Nikki,
    Thanks for sharing your perspective here. I’m interested in learning more about your work focus, experience and point of view (what’s your last name and website or blog) so I can get a sense of where you’re coming from here.

    If you’d like to continue the discussion, please do feel free to email me at nancy at


  • Thank you all for this thoughtful discussion. My reaction was more in the middle. I think making a reflection a regular practice is a a good one. Each individual/organization chooses the appropriate duration of a pause.

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