When the novel coronavirus pandemic began to take hold roughly five months ago, nonprofits, like many organizations, were caught off guard.

Some, such as food banks, have found themselves grappling with surges in demand due to rising unemployment. Stay-at-home orders have adversely impacted others; for instance, Make-A-Wish delayed thousands of wishes since they often involve travel to theme parks and similar types of activities.

As a result, many nonprofits have had to quickly shake up their messaging to ensure it accounts for these sudden shifts, relying on agencies’ help to get the job done.

No time to waste

Feeding America, a hunger-relief nonprofit, and its network of food banks across the country have been hard hit. In April, it estimated an additional 17.1 million people could experience hunger due to unemployment and school closures caused by Covid-19.

The Ad Council recently brokered a partnership between Minneapolis-based agency Colle McVoy and Feeding America to encourage much-needed donations. Christine Fruechte, CEO of Colle McVoy, said the agency was supposed to work on a different nonprofit campaign this year, but it was put on hold due to the virus.

Mike Caguin, CCO of Colle McVoy, said the agency was briefed on a Friday and had concepts ready to go by Monday. The winning idea was a spot featuring black-and-white photos of Feeding America volunteers and its families.

Other nonprofits have also had to work with a sense of urgency to get messages out. Gun-control nonprofit Brady teamed up with the Ad Council to create a series of PSAs about the importance of storing guns safely, working with creative agency Wordsworth+Booth and Bustle Digital Group.

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Heidi Arthur, chief campaign development officer at the Ad Council, said the organization has witnessed “more collaboration than we’ve ever seen across partners” in recent months.

“We’ve been working very closely with our nonprofit partners, as well as our agencies, to make sure that we’re really staying in tune with how the needs have changed around specific issues,” she explained.

Shifting priorities

The ever-changing nature of the pandemic has put nonprofits in reactive mode. In many cases, they’re working faster and trying out strategies they may not have before.

For instance, Make-A-Wish postponed plans for an elaborate campaign debuting in March. The campaign was in the works since October.

“We had to pivot because March was just not the time to launch,” Adele Mulford, director of creative services at Make-A-Wish, said. “The concept of celebrating just really felt out of touch with the tone of the world.”

Instead, Make-A-Wish came up with a secondary plan in a matter of days with help from nonprofit-focused agency One & All. To draw attention to kids’ delayed travel-related wishes, Make-A-Wish came up with the campaign “Messages of Hope,” which asked people to share messages of encouragement with the hashtag #WishesAreWaiting.

“It was uncomfortable, but it’s a muscle we’re continuing to develop,” Mulford said. “It’s refreshing and exciting and terrifying all at once.”

Best Friends Animal Society, a rescue organization, recently partnered with longtime agency TBWAChiatDay Los Angeles to create a spot that encourages donations. The campaign is markedly different from past ones, which have taken a more emotional approach, and comes as Best Friends Animal Society saw an increased intake at shelters.

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Sarah Rubinstein, vp, strategy at TBWAChiatDay L.A., said it’s a “great example of how nonprofits and their creative agency partners can succeed by doing a 180 on tonality” to grab attention in this environment.

“In these times, humor, optimism, gratitude, hope—those are what break through,” she said.

For agencies, many of which are already stretched thin from layoffs and other cost-cutting measures, taking on unpaid nonprofit work right now can be tough. Rubinstein said looking for the “hand-raisers” within agencies helps.

“If agency leadership can find people inside their own walls who want to go the extra mile and who are willing to do the nights and weekend work so that they feel like they’re having a productive role in these really difficult times, that can be incredibly rewarding for everybody,” Rubinstein said.


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