The last couple of weeks have been an emotionally draining and stressful time for so many of us who work in the nonprofit sector and are devoted to social justice and democratic values. Despite several alarming executive orders and appointees, it has been assuring to witness powerful and swift communications from nonprofit leaders of all types whose missions and values feel like they’re under attack (see Farra’s round-up of nonprofit leaders responding to the election). The fact is that the voices and actions of nonprofits are needed now more than ever, and it’s critical that organizations across all issues and areas seriously consider what role they can play in navigating through these uncertain political times.
Some nonprofits whose missions are under threat but also have powerful advocacy programs and robust communications teams appear well equipped to respond to these crises and take the lead in mobilizing supporters to take action. Within moments of a new piece of breaking news from the White House, it seems like organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood Federation of America have updated their websites with relevant content, urging their followers to take specific actions and donate.
Most nonprofits aren’t in the same position of power and capacity as the ACLU or Planned Parenthood to respond. Many nonprofits have missions that will be impacted more tangentially (or perhaps not at all) by national policies and politics. It can be hard to know how and what to communicate—what the next tweet should be, what statement to issue, how urgent to sound, what action to request. And it can be tempting—especially in such stressful and emotional times—to dial up all your communications, responding to every news announcement or headline. But such a reactive approach can spiral out of control fast, lead you to inflate your connection to a particular issue, and is just unsustainable for most communications teams running with limited staff and resources.
Staying silent on current events that impact your communities may not be an option either. You might be perceived as out of touch, miss an opportunity to make a powerful statement about what you stand for, or leverage this moment for fundraising. What's the right communications approach for your nonprofit?
Here are a few ideas to help your nonprofit make decisions now:
- Brush up on your nonprofit’s guidelines for political activity: You probably already know if your nonprofit is a 501(c)(3) or a 501(c)(4), but now is a great time to remind yourself of the rules and guidelines associated with both, especially some of the limitations of a 501(c)(3) when it comes to politics. They’re a little murky, so read carefully, and consult with knowledgeable staff or lawyers to confirm. Here’s a resource to get the basics.
- Get aligned on your stance: Figuring out how your organization responds to the political fire should be a shared decision. Hold a meeting among primary communicators, senior staff, and key board members to discuss your organization’s approach as well as roles and responsibilities.
- Review your key organizational and communications goals: Keep your organization’s primary goals in mind (fundraising? systems change? education? recruitment?), determine how communications support them,and who you need to engage most to reach those goals. Have these priorities shifted as a result of this election? Was advocacy more of a secondary goal that’s now more primary? How do the results of this election influence your ability to reach these goals?
- Consider your audience's point of view: Who are your audiences and what are their political views? Is your list made up of bleeding heart liberals? A mix of people from across the ideological spectrum? Craft your messages and actions with your audience's values and perspectives in mind.
- Know how you can uniquely contribute: What can your nonprofit contribute to the conversation that’s different from other groups (e.g. putting a spotlight on real voices, issue expertise)? Prioritize issues that are most important for you to weigh in on. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
- Keep your brand in mind: It might be tempting to shift your organization’s tone and style now. But if you’re a social services organization and suddenly sound like a radical advocacy organization, it could be alarming and confusing to your audiences. Keep your tone in check and make sure you’re staying true to what your organization is all about. If your style is shifting, consider updating your brand’s voice alongside it. (We’ve got a brand check-up process that can help.
How is your nonprofit navigating communications in the Trump era? We’d love to hear from you.