How has the world of nonprofits fared during COVID-19? How can your business take strides towards recovery and remain relevant during uncertain times? Allow Wendy Wolff, Director of Strategic Engagement at Maryland Nonprofits, and D3’s Jenni Pastusak guides you through how nonprofits can strive during these uncertain times. 


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Jenni: How are nonprofits that you’re working with and seeing, changing their marketing strategies because of COVID? It hit and now everyone probably has to scramble to figure out a new plan. 

Wendy: I feel like COVID hitting was an opportunity for non-profits to really take stock in what it is they do really well, and where they have been absent. Social media, and really accessing social media and doing it well. Having things lined up, having great content, and having a great reach is something that some, not all, but some nonprofits, tend to leave it to “well, if I have time because we have very small budgets and we have really skeleton staffs, so we can only do what we can do.” 

What we’re realizing now is that organizations that have a really strong presence, great content, and that have been doing really great work for a long time. Those that have that great content are still really doing a lot and people are really taking notice. See, we’re all at home, and we all have extra time because we’re no longer commuting, so we’re active participants. 

Those that have strong programs in place around marketing and being very visible in the community are fairing a little bit better than those that don’t have that. Those who now have to educate themselves on “how do you do that”, and, “what’s Hootsuite”- many are just on Facebook, you know Facebook has lots of limitations. This is a great opportunity for those organizations to build that strength because the folks that have followed them, or could follow them, many of them are home, many of them are working from home, many of them are looking for inspiration right now. This is actually a great time for nonprofits if we can get over our fear which is that “our donors don’t want to fund us right now because they’ve got other things that they’re worried about.” And while that may be true for some, it’s not true for all. 

Jenni: When you talk about donors, you know fundraising is a major part of the world of nonprofits, and we can’t really have large events anymore so then it’s the scramble of- what’s the alternative for an event that used to raise 10k, or 20k, what do we do now? 

Wendy: I would say that there’s no full-proof way. People are looking for “what do we do? We brought in fifty thousand dollars at this event last year, we can’t do it now.” That’s definitely a challenge and will be a challenge. However, the three terms that I’ve been using the most recently are first, every organization needs a mission. When you do strategic planning you do mission, vision, values. Your values right now, your organizational values, are the things that ground you to the work that you do. Those have to be activated, so that’s the first thing. 

The second thing is creativity is innovation. Really taking the time to think strategically and creatively is a nonprofits leader's best friend. Another example are bands right now if we think about all of the artists. Even though they are for-profit businesses, we share some similarities with these creatives who are trying to go- “Okay, we can never be in person again - what do we do?” There is an online virtual format for success for these things to happen. And so as an example, at the beginning of the pandemic, there’s a band called Little Cut Connie who is a piano and a guitar and they play every Saturday night, pay what you can, and then, once they started getting a big following 200, 300 people every Saturday night on Facebook Live getting 1-hour of joy. This guy was all about “let me into your home, we’re in this together.” He then started this private group on Patreon and now people can do Venmo, PayPal, Cash App, $50, and $20 tips, and he now has this new business model. Every Thursday night he's in his private group where people pay monthly to participate, and every Saturday night it’s free and open to the people. He’s making money, so the idea is how can we get creative and use this platform? 

Organizations that have pivoted to take out business for restaurants? In Prince George’s County, the nonprofits who were worried about their communities eating, partnered with the restaurants. This keeps the restaurants moving and in business, and keeps people fed. There’s a lot of stuff that can be done if people are taking the time to think strategically and creatively. As a nonprofit, we are so busy, everything is so urgent, it needed to happen yesterday, and the idea is, you must carve out time to think about, how visible are we being, how are we accessing our supporters, not just donors, what content are we putting out in the world so that people have hope and something to participate in. There’s a lot that can be done and I would recommend, that if it were me, and I was running a nonprofit that needed to increase my visibility and was worried about donors, I would start looking at and get very well versed in: how do you build followers, how do you provide content, how do you build teasers to lead up to a big something. It can be done, it’s being done, there are so many cool things being done  

Jenni: Where it’s important to stay relevant and in front of your audiences, not just your donors, the community that you operate in, the community that you serve, everything virtual now. We’re behind screens, but really thinking outside the box to say- we’re still relevant, we’re still following our mission, we’re still providing services to these communities of people- don’t forget about us. 

Wendy: We’re 10% of the workforce in the nonprofit world. We do a lot of jobs. Look what’s going on in animal shelters, there are no dogs to be had, there are very few because people need comfort. If we can think about how we can be comforting in our content, and to the people we serve. People are still doing a lot of great services, there are people who are wearing masks and full PPE and helping their customers, and clients, and their consumers, so there’s really creative stuff going on.

Jenni: I really like what you said, comforting with our content. That tugs at the heartstrings of people who are sitting there going- I've never even heard of this organization, or I wanna donate. People react that way and when they feel like they have feelings for something, they immediately want to help, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.

Wendy: It’s true, and I’ll never forget this. About 15-20 years ago, I was doing some work in Florida, and I was sitting in a room with a panel of very esteemed Palm Beach philanthropists and funding foundations, and they said - “you know how we fund? Through our heart.” When we make decisions, the relationship and the heart of it is huge. Now we have to create content knowing, instead of being fear-based on “we gotta raise money”, what can we keep producing that will help people at home feel cared for? Especially your supporters. 

The worst thing that we can do is be silent, and there is some silence happening from some nonprofits because they're afraid to burden their supporters. You can't do that, because if you're like me, I get the emails and I’m like okay I can donate $10 here, I'd be happy to. I’m going to a virtual picnic. I've never supported parks and people, but I really love their work. They’re having a virtual picnic, I’ve got nothing to do so I’m gonna go, it’ll be fun, $25 supporting a good organization.  I’m not going to Starbucks every day so I’m going. It’s great, and more people should do that too.

Jenni: We had an Executive Director for our local zoos organization, she was great at raising funds. She said, “you know if I came up to you, Jenni, and I said- could you donate 10k?” I might be thinking- I can't even believe that she thinks that I could donate 10k, but I’m not offended that she asked me. She said it doesn't hurt to ask, either you're gonna get it, or they’re gonna say, “I can't really donate 10k, but I can donate 2k”. The way she phrased it was- you’re not gonna hurt anyone's feelings by asking them to donate. Either they’re gonna say yes, they’re gonna say no, they’re gonna say maybe in this capacity, my time, this amount, but it doesn't hurt anyone's feelings to ask. Ever. 

Wendy: And remember that people are home and they’re wanting connection, so what can you do? The arts organizations and the animal organizations and the zoos, they have a lot that they can do right now. They can provide content online, you can do anything in the world right now. You can visit anywhere, you can participate in anything, how can you not? This is not contained to my Baltimore County. This is, I could get supporters from across the country if I was spending more time strategically, and creatively thinking about that. 

Jenni: So It can broaden your audience definitely. 

Wendy: Yes, absolutely 100%, and it doesn't just happen. It takes work, you've got to nurture it. It’s a whole method I know that it takes time. I know that you can’t just put up a Go Fund Me page and that just makes it work. You need to curate it, and populate it, and get people to look at it, and all of these things, but there is promise and possibility. 

Do you have questions on how to dominate social media, or how your nonprofit can make big changes to their virtual presence? Contact the experts at D3 for more information on how you can strengthen your nonprofit, or for-profit, business strategy.