The Nonprofit Rapid Response Communication Framework: Making Decisions When Bad Things Happen

6 min read

The last ~20 months have been chock full of terrible, tragic events that require a rapid communication response from nonprofit organizations. From the emergence of COVID-19, to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many other Black Americans, to the mass shooting at Atlanta spas that left eight people dead (six of whom were of Asian descent), many organizations have spoken up about the tragedies that have characterized this time, and in some cases, what they’re doing in response. 

At Prosper Strategies, we’ve helped dozens of nonprofits work through rapid response communication in situations like these. We’ve seen firsthand how impactful it can be for an organization to speak out quickly, clearly, and authentically. And we’ve seen the roadblocks that often keep organizations from communicating effectively when a rapid response is necessary. Typically, those roadblocks all center around decision-making and strategy. Organizations that fail to communicate quickly and clearly in times of crisis are typically those that do not have: 

  • Clarity on who should weigh in on and sign off on rapid response communications
  • Clarity on their organization-wide stance on certain issues
  • A sense of how action-oriented vs. empathetic their response to different sorts of situations should be
  • A channel-specific strategy for determining where statements and communications should live

We’re hopeful for a future where tragedies, crises and hate crimes are no longer common occurrences. But until then, to help organizations like yours overcome communication challenges like these, we’ve developed a Rapid Response Communication Framework you can use to guide communications decisions when terrible things happen.

Take a look…

The Nonprofit Rapid Response Communication Framework

Now, allow me to break down the framework and explain how to use it.

Step 1: Establish a Rapid Response Communication Committee

Every nonprofit should have a Rapid Response Communication Committee, and the time to build one is before the next tragedy takes place. Exactly who is involved in this committee will depend on your nonprofit’s structure, but we suggest considering:

  • Your CEO
  • Your senior-most communications staff person (this person should typically be responsible for final approval)
  • Someone who reports to your senior-most communications staff person (this person should typically be responsible for initially drafting communications)
  • Your senior-most HR person

You may also consider including someone from your board of directors if you have a working board (rather than a governing board).

While your Rapid Response Communication Committee will probably be small, aim to make it diverse, and as representative of the communities you serve as possible. You might also consider asking additional individuals from your staff and/or external stakeholder groups if they’re willing to participate on a one-off basis in the crisis you are responding to. For example, if you’re responding to an incident of violence against members of the LGBTQ community, you should absolutely consider including members of your organization’s LGBTQ employee resource group during the process of developing your response.

Step 2: Establish Your Organization’s Position

As soon as an event takes place that your organization may want or need to respond to (see the internal protocol steps for monitoring and escalating), call your Rapid Response Communication Committee together. Have a meeting to discuss where your organization stands on the issue at hand. Your stance should be reflective of your organization’s mission, strategy, values and culture, as well as past precedents set. While every member of your committee may not agree 100 percent of the time, reflecting on these elements should make it fairly easy to come to a consensus on the position your organization should take.

Step 3: Select the Appropriate Type of Response Based on Impact on Communities Served

Once you’ve established your organization’s overall stance on the issue, it’s time to decide what sort of response makes sense. Should you respond in an empathetic manner, expressing your regret for the tragedy that has occurred and calling for change, or an action-oriented manner, describing exactly what your organization will do to drive change? The answer to that question largely depends on whether the event you’re responding to directly impacts the people your organization serves. 

In keeping with the previous example, let’s imagine you’re preparing to respond to an incident of violence against members of the LGBTQ community, which of course all organizations should condemn. If your organization specifically focuses on working with LGBTQ individuals, or if a large portion of your stakeholders identify as members of the LGBTQ community, your response should absolutely be action-oriented. It is your responsibility to be part of the solution, and your communication needs to outline exactly how you plan to do that. 

If your organization does not focus on working with LGBTQ communities or have significant representation from the LGBTQ community amongst its stakeholders, an empathetic response may be more appropriate. In a case like this, in order for your nonprofit to stay focused on its mission, you may not take concrete action as the result of a deplorable act of violence like the one I’m referring to in this example. You shouldn’t necessarily communicate otherwise just because that’s what many other organizations are doing, unless, of course, taking concrete action does make sense for your organization. What you can do is express concern and allyship, while calling for action from others.

Step 4: Draft Communications and Disseminate

After working your way through the prior three steps, it’s time to draft your communications and disseminate them. Together with your Rapid Response Communication Committee, develop a statement that outlines your organization’s position and response. It might be authored by someone on your communication team, but should be reviewed by everyone on the committee, and ultimately be approved by your CEO or someone else who has final approval power. The statement can be attributed to your CEO, board, or your organization as a whole. 

If you’ve determined that your organization will be making an action-oriented response, don’t stop with a single statement. Continue communicating your position and reporting out on the specific, concrete actions you are taking as an organization regularly. The audiences you’ll reach out to with your statement(s) and the channels you’ll select for your communications are likely to vary based on the type of response you’ve decided to make, as follows:

Empathetic responses should be disseminated to:

  • Social media channels
  • Website
  • E-newsletter

Action-oriented responses should be disseminated to:

  • Staff
  • Board
  • Social media channels
  • Website
  • E-newsletter

You’ll notice that in the case of an action-oriented response, we suggest disseminating statement(s) directly to your staff and board. These should be accompanied by additional messaging that details how staff can get involved in seeing through the action items outlined in the statement. Open the door for feedback, input and involvement from staff and board members, while acknowledging that some may be more personally affected by the tragedy you’re responding to than others. Give the opportunity to get involved in a response without making it a job requirement or a demand.

My wish is for a world where there are no more tragedies to respond to. But since we’re far from realizing that ideal, I hope this framework will help your organization find its way through rapid response communication so that the nonprofit sector can continue to lead by example in times of tragedy.

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