Expect the Unexpected. Dealing with Natural Disasters in Your Online Program.

Is it just us, or does it seem like nonprofits are constantly wrestling with how to best communicate with constituents following natural and unnatural disasters? More and more, we are faced with an increasing number of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and oil rig explosions. It’s enough to make a fundraiser check their Mayan calendar for an ‘end of days’ forecast.


This week, much of America was riveted by Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane in diameter on record. After battering the tropics, Sandy slammed into the eastern seaboard of the United States, leaving a trail of destruction, 8.1 million people without power and host of internet memes. How is a nonprofit supposed to compete with that? Should they alter their email schedule? What is the right tone to take when so many of constituents are dealing with hardship?


Let’s face it. Mother Nature happens. And with climate change, she is going to happen a lot more! Having a Communications Disaster Plan approved by senior management ahead of time will allow your organization to respond quickly, providing real value to your constituents – and supporting your long term fundraising and engagement goals.


If you don’t have a plan in place today, get it on your agenda. Otherwise, take following steps today (online giving typically peaks 2-6 days after disaster strikes).

  • If your organization was affected, send out a “We’re okay” message as soon as you can. Detail any personal experiences you had with the storm. Communicate how you are still working on your mission to the best of your ability, highlighting any examples of how you are going ‘above and beyond.’
  • If it’s going to be tough for constituents to get in touch with you, let them know and that you appreciate their patience.
  • If you have sustained damage due to the storm, or if being down is going to impact you financially and ESPECIALLY if you are directly engaged with helping people/animals recover, it is perfectly appropriate to ask for money.
  • If possible, segment your message so that you pass along your best wishes to constituents in impacted areas.
  • Put a note on your homepage if it is going to be difficult for constituents to reach you and link to the email statement you put out.
  • Don’t forget social media, which can be a critical channel for getting your message out. Facebook can be a meaningful way to start a dialogue about the impacts of disasters on constituencies your group serves and Twitter is hands down the most effective way to get out real time updates.

If you are outside the affected area, segment your file and send a “We hope you’re doing okay” message to constituents in affected states. If you are a membership organization or have some kind of time-sensitive campaign going (like an event registration), consider offering a grace period on membership expiration or registration since people may be busy.

Do NOT spend a lot of time suppressing constituents in affected states from current emails. If their internet is out, they are not getting emails anyway and if they are not impacted by the storm, they will have more time to spend on your message if they are home from work/school.

Interested in more like this?

The Strategic Consulting team at Charity Dynamics is dedicated to mulling over current trends, fleshing out recommendations and vetting new opportunities in the digital nonprofit world. Partner with us and gain insight into what’s new, what’s worth pursuing and what your organization can do to change the world.