Articles | Crisis Communications | Reaching Out with Swine Flu in the Air

Reaching Out with Swine Flu in the Air

Q: I see a lot of potential for the H1N1 flu to disrupt fundraising and fundraisers. How should an organization handle this situation if they are faced with having to cancel a planned event or fundraiser?

Deane R. Brengle, III, Publisher
Fund$Raiser Group

A: Great question, Deane, but there’s even a broader issue at play here — How to shape nonprofit messaging to engage, but not offend when in the midst of a crisis?

What’s particularly challenging are the multiple crises we face (the collapse of the global economy as well as the H1N1 flu), which are causing widespread anxiety and distraction.

But it’s a very different distraction than reaching out in the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami. Here’s what to do in that situation, but read on for guidance on this one.

Take Your Base’s Pulse

The first element to consider is how the current situation impacts your base and prospects. They’re likely to be more:

o Distracted
Since there’s so much on people’s minds, your messaging has to be even more focused than ever on what’s most important, and more succinct.

o Cautious and considered
People are making fewer snap decisions, even about making a relatively small donation or signing an online petition. Your org has to show its value clearly and strongly.

o Frightened or at least anxious
The world as we once knew it is changing. Emphasis on shared values and long-term interests and agendas, and showcasing reliability, stability and innovation are potent strategies right now.

o Resentful or annoyed
We have become fairly spoiled over the recent boom years, and today’s “inconveniences” make many of us cranky and cynical. The combo of a killer flu and economic downturn cramps our style.

This is the time to do some audience research. It can be expensive and take a while, or quick-and-dirty (in a good way). Both approaches can generate useful information but I recommend the quick-and-dirty for most of your orgs. Here are some ways to quickly and inexpensively gain insight on your base’s focus, habits and interests.

Respond Appropriately

First of all, keep communicating and fundraising going, albeit judiciously, during this period. And be consistent in your nonprofit’s branding, unless you’ve determined it’s wildly antithetical to your network’s world today.

Nothing raises more doubt than an organization that goes dark when times are tough. Your voice, and brand consistency, convey stability and reliability. The last thing you want is donors knocking at your door wanting to know how their gifts are being used. Be more out there than ever with stories about your nonprofit’s work and
impact…with tangible, easy-to-connect-with profiles, photos and video.

But, at the same time, re-shape your messaging, tone, marketing and fundraising outputs and campaign strategies according to these recent changes in the environment and in individual lives. When your organization does so, it shows that you are in touch, and care about, the greater world and your network. When you don’t, you risk being
perceived as out of touch.


o Be sensitive to inappropriate pitches.
Test your campaigns on your marketing advisory board (no better resource than an informal group of members of your base, called on when needed).

o Don’t harp on the negative but do acknowledge the realities at hand.
Your supporters may be so focused on navigating the changes in their own lives that they may not have thought through how those same crises effect those you serve, and your organization itself.

But as you do so, emphasize the way in which you’re proactively responding to these changes. Your nonprofit’s adaptiveness and resilience are real strengths, and likely to be valued in times like these.

o Relate your organization’s work to current crises
…even if you aren’t working on these issues. For example, if your organization is in the healthcare arena, talk about how you’re helping to avert the spread of epidemics (even if it’s not H1N1) or improve the health care communications system. Make a clear connection to that aspect of H1N1 flu, even if you’re not working directly on it.

o Make it clear why your target should devote her time or money to supporting your organization’s work.
You’ve got to make it easy for the folks you’re reaching to relate your nonprofit’s impact (make it tangible and emotional, stories are best) to their own lives, fears and hopes.

Perhaps one upside of a downturn is increased empathy for those in greater need. For example, there’s lots of opportunity for food banks to talk about increased need and relate that need to the recession.

If Your Organization Is in the Middle of the Crisis, Talk about It

o  Case Study: Operation Hope
Operation Hope aids migrant workers (many of them Mexican) in Florida’s Indian River County and has lost several of its volunteers in recent weeks due to infection fears.

In response, Director Jesse Zermeno generated this PR campaign to spread the word about what they’re doing to counteract spreading of infection, and keep up the drive for new volunteers. It would have even greater impact if this messaging was carried through to the organization’s Web site, which doesn’t mention it at all (confusing).

o Case Study: 211 San Diego
In response to the recent outbreak of H1N1 flu in San Diego County, the county has asked 211 San Diego — the county’s primary source for community, health and disaster information — to activate its call center for non-emergency information on H1N1 flu in the region.

What’s great is how 211 has capitalized on this role to emphasize how essential it is to public health in the area.

But What about the Fundraiser?

Back to your question, Deane: What to do if a local H1N1 flu outbreak surfaces just prior to your fundraiser?

Nothing to do but weigh local sentiment, evaluate the risk factor and make the right common-sense decision. That’s it. There’s no other choice but to act with the safety of the community in mind!

How is your organization reaching out in these complicated times?

Leave a comment below on your approach and I’ll share with the Getting Attention community.

Nancy Schwartz in Crisis Communications, Fundraising, Strategies and Campaigns | 0 comments

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