Maintaining Your Nonprofit Identity in a Crisis
One of the most quoted Shakespeare lines — “To thine own self be true” — comes at the beginning of one the great writer’s plays, “Hamlet,” as Polonius sends his son off to university with some parting words of parental wisdom. This age-old advice, while more than 400 years old, still rings true today, particularly when it comes to crisis communications and fundraising.
Whether you find yourself in the midst of your own organizational crisis or are simply witnessing the many cultural crises we’re experiencing right now, it is critical to point your organization back to your mission, vision and values. Maintaining your identity in the middle of a crisis enables your audiences — staff, donors and partners — to clearly understand who you are and what you stand for as an organization.
We had the unexpected opportunity to test this out earlier this summer. The COVID-19 global pandemic continued to strain health systems, racial tensions flared in communities across the country, and the many unknowns about the future swirled around all of us as we tried to sort out new challenges within our jobs, our families and our communities.
At the same time, we had planned for our annual summer fundraising campaign to roll out in June. The campaign was planned back in February, and my team was excited to try some new tactics for this campaign after a failed fundraising effort last June. We learned that our previous campaign had dragged on for far too long, it didn’t pose a clear call-to-action to donors, and our online donation platform was technically complicated. We took the learnings from that campaign to improve this summer’s outreach.
When the tragic death of George Floyd started to make headlines in late May, many nonprofit organizations started to shift their messaging, focusing more heavily on their social justice work or the civil unrest happening across the country. While that worked for organizations directly involved in that important work, many faced backlash online and from their donors for trying to capitalize on the tragedy and gain a few brand points.
One of the biggest faux paus a nonprofit organization can make is mission drift. Our explicit mission at Healing Transitions is to offer innovative, peer-based, recovery-oriented services to homeless, uninsured and underserved individuals with alcoholism and other drug addictions. However, while our mission does not use the words “social justice,” that ethos is embedded in the work we do with those seeking recovery. Discrimination has a long and evolving history for those with addiction. For some people we serve — particularly people of color or those with a history of criminal or legal involvement — issues of inequity loom larger than for others. Helping someone on their recovery journey frequently involves advocacy to address issues of access and equity.
We wrestled with how to best position ourselves, in light of the cultural conversations happening in May and June, while also moving forward with our planned summer fundraising campaign. We considered cancelling the campaign altogether. We discussed incorporating social justice messaging more heavily into some of our digital materials in order to be more timely. Our team expressed concern about appearing tone deaf if we didn’t say something — but we also worried about experiencing that same criticism others had received if we jumped on the bandwagon without anything of substance to say or do.
We asked ourselves: “How does racism or the current civil unrest in our country relate to what we do? How does it change what we do?” Similarly, as we continued to walk through the pandemic together, we asked ourselves those same questions about COVID-19. Where can we bring value to this conversation? How can we connect our donors to what’s happening in the world — and help them experience with greater understanding our impact in the community?
In the end, we agreed to stick to our mission — and communicate that in our messaging. We didn’t cancel or even change our fundraising campaign. We simply couldn’t afford to. Both of our campuses are frequently overcrowded, with people sleeping on floors. And because of the social distancing requirements around the COVID-19 virus, we’re now even more limited in how many people we can safely serve. Men and women are still struggling with substance use disorder in our neighborhood. Just because there were other crises swirling around us, that didn’t mean we could throw in the towel. None of the issues we work on every day have gone away.
We did spend some significant time in May and June processing current events with our staff and participants internally. We talked about these issues at a deep level because so many individuals in our community had shared similar experiences of racism, injustice and inequality. We wanted to provide a space for those feelings to be heard and shared.
However, publicly, we moved forward with the June campaign as we had crafted it back in the winter. We set a goal of $75,000 over the course of the month. And by the end of the month, we exceed our goal, raising more than $86,000! This year has been so difficult in so many ways; I think our campaign offered something positive in what feels like a very dark time in our history, and I think donors needed that. I think they craved it. We’re all hungry for something hopeful and uplifting right now.
COVID-19 forced us to temporarily shut down our campuses. We’ve missed our community partners and volunteers to come every week. We’ve missed having a vibrant, life-giving group of individuals walking around our campuses every day. I think the campaign showed that they missed us. too. That our donors, our partners, our alumni are still with us, too. And that was incredibly encouraging to all of us.
While we’d been concerned that our message didn’t feel relevant or might get lost in the midst of everything else, we learned that our donors were looking for ways to engage and support local community organizations. All we needed to do was ask.
As you look toward the rest of 2020, my encouragement to you and your team is to stay the course. Don’t give up just yet. Strongly consider moving forward with planned giving campaigns. Keep your mission statement as your team’s true north, and use it to guide your communications decisions. Ask yourself: How does this news relate to what we do? How does it change what we do? And where can be bring value to this conversation? I believe you’ll find that when you remain true to yourself, your donors will remain true to you.
Chris Budnick, MSW, LCSW, LCAS, CCS is the executive director at Healing Transitions and has been working in the addiction treatment and recovery field since 1993. Chris became a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor in 1998. He graduated from East Carolina University in 2000 with a Master of Social Work. He has been fully licensed as a Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist since 2001; a Licensed Clinical Social Worker since 2002; and a Clinical Certified Supervisor since 2003. He was an intern from 1999 to 2000 with Healing Transitions and has been employed with them since 2000.
Chris has been an adjunct instructor with the North Carolina State University Department of Social Work since 2002, and has served on their Advisory Board since 2003, serving as chair on two different occasions. He also serves on the Recovery Africa Board.
Chris has conducted training and presentations nationally and internationally. Some of his most rewarding work has been collaborating with Mr. William White and Mr. Boyd Pickard on the history of mutual aid recovery fellowships.