April 8, 2020

Be the Calm in the Storm: How to Communicate with Staff and Stakeholders During a Crisis

Communicating during a crisis calls for honesty, clarity, and flexibility.

Bridgespan partners Meera Chary and Preeta Nayak recently convened a virtual panel discussion to generate ideas for helping nonprofits manage through periods of rapid and unpredictable change, like the one we’re experiencing now with the COVID-19 crisis. Each leader we spoke to highlighted the important role that communication plays during these critical times.

The panelists all work in organizations in greater Seattle, which has been on the leading edge of this crisis in the United States. They include: Will Berkovitz, the CEO of Jewish Family Service (JFS), which serves the Jewish and non-Jewish communites in Seattle; Jorge Barón, the executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), providing immigration legal services; and Jody Waits, the development communications officer at YouthCare, which serves young people experiencing homelessness and housing instability.

Here they share how they've approached communicating with their staff and stakeholders during the COVID-19 crisis.

Come up with a plan

Seems obvious, but before you can communicate anything you need a plan. At YouthCare, Waits’ team quickly consolidated resources to focus primarily on shelter, housing, food, and basic emotional safety. This meant assessing their capacity and training needs and building a model that mitigated risk by suspending their volunteer program and community donations, and reducing foot traffic among the organization’s locations.
Sample Template: Capacity Planning
Will Berkovitz of Jewish Family Service (JFS) shares a template his organization is using to prepare for any further impacts of COVID-19 on his agency's operations. The template's purpose is to help JFS departments assess their capacity to meet their essential functions. Download the template [Word] >>

JFS also suspended volunteer activities and put in place opportunities for people to work from home. “It was hard for an organization used to face-to-face relationship building to go online in the space of week,” Berkovitz said. “So, I sat down with our IT team and asked, ‘What additional support do you need? This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.’” Like YouthCare, JFS scaled back services to their core. They also convened a crisis response team that included staff from facilities, human resources, and communication, as well as the COO and others as needed. “Our crisis team’s charter was to understand and track the situation and communicate what it meant for our staff and volunteers,” he said.
Of course, the plan was – and is – always changing, so revisiting and updating the plan is also critical.

Leverage both centralized and decentralized communication

“We really focused on going full-bore into constant communication with our team,” said Waits. “What are we hearing from public health? What are the directives from our government partners? Just a ton of information out to our teams.” Barón’s team created a set of “interim procedures” that outlined how NWIRP was changing its work on a daily basis. “Because it changed so frequently, we created one document and tracked changes so staff didn’t have to reread the whole memo every day.”
For the first few weeks into the coronavirus crisis, YouthCare published a company memo every day with a variety of updates from public health agencies, resources for parents, updates on community guidelines for accessing food banks, and other information. Gradually, she and her leadership team agreed that staff felt more comfortable digesting and making sense of news at a smaller team level, with team leaders sharing information through whatever channels they set up. “It might be a quick group chat or a Zoom meeting or whatever,” Waits said, “but it became important for folks to have guidance from their functional leadership."

Specific tactics for different stakeholders

Once the organization got through the initial shock waves of upheaval, emphasis shifted to providing accurate, timely, and useful information that calmed nerves without downplaying the seriousness of the situation. The panelists offered specific tactics for communicating with different groups of internal and external stakeholders.
Staff and volunteers: Understand that staff want useful information but are justifiably concerned about their own futures. The panelists agreed that during a crisis, all communications should address the first concern explicitly and the second implicitly. NWIRP designated an HR staff member to work directly with public health offices on policy for how NWIRP interacts with clients in immigration detention centers, and then communicate her findings with NWIRP staff. “It calms people’s nerves to hear a single voice rather than constantly mixed media messages,” Barón said. To further cut through the clutter, NWIRP is drafting an FAQ to guide staff and clients on safety net issues for undocumented people.
As for reassuring staff about their futures, Barón works to strike a balance between “reassuring people we don't have to make decisions suddenly, because we have healthy reserves, but not overpromising that everything is normal.” When in doubt, Berkovitz recommended over-communication and honesty as remedies for dispelling fear and anxiety. “Our goal is to keep staff calm and focused on the task at hand and to recognize we've got their backs,” he said.
Funders: The panelists concurred that funders are rallying around their organizations. “Our public dollar contract funding sources are asking what we need to stay open,” said Waits. “This means we need to communicate very clearly about how our work is changing.” But, Waits added, the crisis has presented an opportunity to tell a powerful story of the “underpaid and under-recognized people, many of whom are women, queer folk, and people of color,” who continue to work at the front lines of efforts dear to funders’ hearts.
“Private funders are deeply concerned and want to hear from us,” she said. “Not a pep talk, but an inside view of how things really stand.”

Berkovitz said JFS has focused on communicating with top tier donors, shifting to an online strategy that uses video and emails and increased web content. JFS has resisted virtual events thus far, but Berkovitz made a point that in desperate times, almost nothing ought to be left off the table.

“Now more than ever, nonprofits have an historic opportunity to 'lean in' and try novel approaches rather than default to old practices,” he said. “This is a once in a lifetime chance to try something new, get it wrong and suffer no penalties. These are forgiving times.”

Creative Commons License logo
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license are available in our Terms and Conditions.