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Guidance for Philanthropic Communications in a Pandemic

Publication date: 
March, 2020

Philanthropy can serve as a trusted resource for actionable communications that lead with empathy and support grantees to prevent the spread of disease, preserve well-being, maintain social cohesion, and respond to economic hardship.

Social Cohesion

  • Pandemics are personal and interpersonal: we make each other sick. We must address the financial, social, and psychological conditioning that prompts us work when sick. 
  • Effective pandemic response requires isolation: create virtual connection to form the kind of social cohesion that drives effective response to other types of crisis or disaster.
  • Pandemics hit the most vulnerable hardest: philanthropy can support an effective response that addresses the added complexity of social isolation.

Psycho-social Responses

Two opposing attitudes typify our responses to public health crisis according to emergency management communications expert Dr. Sara McBride. Know your audience.

  • Monitors consume as much information as possible. For a monitor, information is self-soothing and knowledge equals power.
  • Blunters minimize information to just the essentials. Volumes of information cause them to feel overwhelmed and fearful. 

Counter Fear with Actionable Messages

Our brains are wired to misperceive the level of risk. We can outsmart them with a pragmatic, effective response.

  • Fear can drive individualistic behaviors (“I know what’s right”) that lead to panic, stoke racism and xenophobia, and deter effective containment of the disease.
  • Fear can detract from attending to vulnerable people: the elderly, those with pre-existing respiratory and/or immune compromising conditions, and individuals who are unhoused.  

Practical Tips for Communicating Coronavirus Preparedness and Response

Communicate Action

Include simple actionable messages in every communication to help suppress fear and overcome feelings of powerlessness.

  • Wash Your Hands, Cover Your Cough, Stay Home When You’re Sick
  • Include photos and graphics as examples: “Alan is washing his hands. Emily’s covering her cough. Kara is staying home ‘til she’s feeling well.”

Instigate social cohesion

Start a phone tree or text chain to check on co-workers, activate social media platforms with direct, even light-hearted, messages that express care.

Acknowledge fear and anxiety

Affirm that it’s understandable and okay for people to make decisions they feel are right for them (e.g. staying home, avoiding travel).

Provide assurance

Assure people that research-based, scientifically-grounded protocols are in place to prevent the spread of the virus and preserve well-being.

  • We’re sanitizing the surfaces of our meeting spaces.
  • We’ve adopted a cool elbow-bump greeting. What are you trying?
  • We webcasted our staff meeting so that everyone, including those who needed to stay home, could connect.


Amplify messaging from health agencies

  • Post accurate timely information to your website to builds trust. By amplifying good messaging, we aid government agencies handling the pandemic in getting their messages out.

Point people towards reliable information rather than trying to lead the news

Internal communications

  • Communicate preparedness without being alarmist.
  • Instigate meeting protocols.
  • Make explicit that staff should take sick days and/or can be remoted-in to meetings if they aren’t feeling well.

Programs and Conferences

  • Furnish hand sanitizer.
  • Message the protective measures in place and precautions taken.
  • Provide transparency on the decision-making process to decide whether or not the event is going forward and the date by which that decision will be made.
  • Advise that you are using foot shakes and/or elbow bumps as modes of greeting, and are not shaking hands.
  • Advise guests to stay home if they aren’t feeling well.
    • Request input from event registrants and guests:  What are they thinking about their own safety and what precautions are they taking?