Communicating in the Shadow of Disaster – Practical Tips for Nonprofits

What is the place of nonprofit communications in the wake of disaster, particularly when this most recent crisis of epic proportions—the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters in Japan—is rightly dominating our minds and conversations, as well as the media?

For a nonprofit, the answer lies in the way (if any) your organization is involved in the relief effort. The following guidelines derive from an analysis of news of, and fundraising for, recovery efforts around the Japanese earthquake and Pacific tsunami disasters.

For organizations providing disaster relief services in Japan

Make it clear why your organization is well-equipped to help. Be as specific as possible.

  • The Salvation Army, having worked in Japan since 1895, was well positioned to provide immediate rescue help and medical care before many other organizations could get going.The Salvation Army immediately crafted compelling messaging emphasizing the value of its long-established operations and relationships in Japan, and the breadth of its services: “The Salvation Army in Japan immediately dispersed teams following the disaster to the most severely affected areas where they are distributing basic necessities to survivors. These teams will also assess the damage to discern the next steps in their relief efforts.”

    “The Salvation Army has been at work in Japan since 1895, operating more than 80 centers there, including two hospitals and four childrens’ homes. We have nearly 200 officers, 3,000 members and nearly 1,000 employees already at work in the country. We are a part of Japan’s communities and dedicated to their recovery.

  • Save the Children’s appeal focuses on the unique role it provides in disaster relief—helping children and their parents deal with the trauma. The organization is creating “safe places” in Japan that provide the structure and routine children crave.I learned about this much-needed focus via a moving interview of a Save the Children staffer in Japan. He told a number of stories about the children and families he’s working with, which made a huge impression. Here’s one family’s story.
  • Mercy Corps stresses its close partnership with Japanese charity PeaceWinds to deliver emergency supplies. The partnership enabled MercyCorps to get the effort going within a few days, getting “tents, blankets, cooking fuel, tarps, rice and bread to families evacuated from homes in the tsunami-devastated city of Kesennuma. Your donation will be used to meet immediate and longer-term needs of earthquake survivors.”

Communicate broadly, clearly and visually (if possible) about how donations are managed, where they are going and what your organization’s relief effort is achieving.

That comes after thanking donors immediately (and often) and adding them to your donor database for follow-up. Donor behavior in giving to the Haitian earthquake relief effort showed that interest in the relief effort fades much more quickly than your organization’s need for support.

More immediately, you’ll need reliable, timely reporting out, even though you’re frequently working with technological and logistical constraints. This is the time to put social media tools, from Skype to Twitter, to work for all they’re worth. Communicating on disaster relief work is where these tools make a huge difference in sharing the focus and impact of your work on the ground in real time via podcast, photos and/or video.

  • The American Red Cross’ home page features the many ways it’s communicating to donors, prospects and others right on its home page. Channels include video, blog posts and press releases. Its report-out on aid and impact is outstanding, as it has been with previous relief efforts.
  • U.K. charity ShelterBox is documenting the progress it’s making in delivering its trademark shelters in a box via this blog, supplemented by photos that do a great job of telling the story. The posts are thorough and specific, a style that conveys the organization’s expertise and value and builds trust on the part of prospective donors and other supporters.In addition, Shelterbox is keeping its community up to date (and enabling them to spread the word) via its twitter feed.

Be thoughtful in your use of graphic photos of the disaster.

  • The press is working for you by publicizing shocking photos of the disaster (not to mention the videos floating around YouTube, and the tens of thousands of photos on Flickr).
  • Some journalists argue that graphic photos (such as those of dead children) are too much. Others assert that the seriousness of disasters like this one necessitates the use of photos to convey the gravity of the situations, especially to a jaded U.S. audience in the midst of an economic downturn.

Follow-up to transition disaster donors into loyal donors.

  • Giselle Holloway, IRC’s Director of Direct Response, reminds us that “a person doesn’t truly become a donor until they make their second gift. When donors join your organization through an emergency, you need to start cultivating them immediately so you can retain them after the crisis is over. Send them an e-mail or letter that thanks them for their support, welcomes them to your organization and educates them about your broader mission. You also might want to make welcome phone calls to new donors at higher giving levels or try to convert them to monthly giving. And don’t forget to send all your new donors updates on a regular basis that show how their gift is making a difference.”

For organizations fundraising for relief efforts, but not directly providing help

Be proactive and specific in conveying the process for distributing donations and where/how/when the money will be spent.

  • Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) launched a Japan Earthquake Relief Fund to solicit donations for nonsectarian earthquake relief efforts, carried out through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a 94-year-old humanitarian aid organization that works in over 60 countries worldwide. JDC is “partnering with the Japanese Jewish community to provide funding to a local NGO for emergency needs including food, water, and shelter in the disaster region. JDC acquired substantial expertise in earthquake and tsunami-related response in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Maldives, and India following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.”

Explain why your organization has chosen to get involved as a pass through for donations.

  • This role, which is probably an unusual one for your organization, has the potential to confuse your established audiences. Help them understand what you are doing, and why.
  • JFNA does a great job of explaining why it’s getting involved in raising money for relief work. Several reasons are cited including its ability to reach out to its national network of regional Federations to encourage them to raise money for JDC’s relief work (a fundraising machine, already in place).

For other nonprofits continuing with fundraising and communications outreach

Be sensitive to inappropriate pitches.

  • You may actually go as far as to acknowledge the magnitude of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disasters, and the contributions your donors and prospects are likely to have made. In doing so, you craft the opportunity to talk about your issues (the environment, shelter and health are directly related) and/or service recipients and the fact that these needs persist in the face of these tragedies.Fundraiser Jeff Brooks characterizes disaster giving as “above-and-beyond giving,” and cautions, “There’s no need to take away from the need in [Japan]. Relief giving is not taking gifts away from you.”
  • Remember that your audiences have been immersed, whether they have wanted to be or not, in disaster coverage.

Relate your work to relief work when relevant—but don’t overstate.

  • Make sure you don’t overstate a connection between your organization, services or programs and the disaster.
  • At the same time, acknowledge the earthquake. Pretending the disaster didn’t happen is the worst mistake your organization can make. And homelessness is homelessness, be it among survivors in Sendai or Philadelphians living in poverty.

Continue with your planned communications and fundraising campaigns.

  • Don’t get nervous and pull the plug on carefully designed plans. Yep, many journalists are focused on the Japanese relief effort and other front-page news. But if you have a timely pitch, make it.
  • However, if you are planning a once-a-year bash or fundraising campaign and it coincides with the week of a disaster, consider delaying it. Otherwise, move full steam ahead.

Plan to communicate even more effectively around the next crisis.

  • If your organization isn’t focused on relief, or passing through contributions, it’s likely that you’ll be on the sidelines next time round.
  • While this experience is still fresh, sketch out a one-page plan of what you’ll do next time round. This approach will help you avoid panic at that point, and stay as productive as possible with marketing and fundraising communications.

I recommend you continue to track how these organizations, and others, are communicating on their relief efforts or in the shadow of the disaster in Japan. There’s lots to learn about how your organization can improve its outreach, in times of disaster or, better yet, days of calm.