While the world waits for a vaccine to combat the coronavirus, partner organizations in our fight to create equity for marginalized people, strengthen families, and improve supports and services for young and adult learners, have considered the weighty threats to their viability in the quiet hours. It’s felt paralyzing at times. The pandemic that has cost over 6,669 lives in 108,000 cases in Michigan has also created fiscal chaos for our economy and the sources of funding that nonprofits rely on to help people. In troubled times like these, the stakes are high and programs that help keep lives from spiraling further south have a choice to make – quietly ride out the storm and hope for the best, or act boldly, speak loudly, and wage a campaign to inform policymakers, funders and communities that what you do and who you are vital for keeping people whole and carrying them through the troubles. We opt for speaking up loudly. Times like these require us to ramp up our advocacy and communicate like lives depend on us because they do.
So what can you do?
Amplify Your Message: Over the past couple of months, Michigan’s Children has waged a campaign to reach out to communities across the state in newspaper commentaries written with partners doing essential work – helping youth who’ve experienced homelessness stabilize their lives, providing academic support and workforce training for individuals seeking self-sufficiency for themselves and their families, and afterschool programs supporting students and their families with academic enrichment, homework help, and even food deliveries. These commentaries have helped amplify in a personal way the value of the work of nonprofit organizations and service providers before residents, civic and government leaders with a vested interest in their community’s welfare. You can too. Ramp up your communications today by amplifying the message of value your service offers. Consider a public commentary if you have an outlet (some local media markets notably the Mlive chain no longer accept commentaries because of limited space and staffing) or make the case in another format to reach the audiences and influence leaders that make sense to your operation: a directed email, a blog posted to your website and strategically distributed to influence leaders, a panel discussion on Zoom featuring service providers and clients with compelling stories to tell; personal testimonials that get to the heart of your agency’s work and most importantly its benefit to real people.
Rally Your Allies and Focus on Relationships: Cuts can hurt the people and programs of your agency, putting you in a hole that could take a long time to climb out of, risking the loss of trained staff and valuable supporters. Focus on the relationships with your staff, clients, and supporters and communicate to them how important they are in the cause you champion. Identify the audiences that matter to your organization and keep your relationships strong. The nonprofit services guru, Network for Good, said organizations that thrive in tough times are those that build donor loyalty to sustain their mission. Communicate with them not just during an annual fundraiser (treating donors like “walking checkbooks”) but keep them up-to-date on your challenges and successes across the year in direct outreach. Build meaningful relationships by engaging them regularly and communicating often.
Link to Larger Goals: Programs that draw a clear picture of how investments can earn a solid return win favor among those who appreciate seeing a concrete measurable gain to an investment. An investment in a workforce program that increases a family’s earning potential; mental health or substance misuse services to restore a parent’s functioning at home; needed wrap-around services to boost a student’s school success. Communicating the ROI of investment easily lends itself to connections to big-picture goals that resonate with funders and policymakers. Improve school recidivism? Invest in wrap-around services that help students stay in school where they learn. Improve family stability? Invest in GED programs that help working parents achieve a career credential. Show how continued investment in the future of our most vulnerable children, youth, and families makes a difference, and your community will rise strong when this pandemic is finally cleared.
There’s no vaccine against budget cuts, but in times of trouble, people-focused nonprofits should speak boldly and focus on building relationships.
Teri Banas, a former journalist with over a dozen years of experience writing about child and family issues, is currently the communications manager for the Michigan After-School Partnership, and Michigan’s Children’s Director of Storytelling and Media Relations.